It seems to happen to me at 30,000 feet.
This time it was a Frontier flight from Chicago to Portland. The middle seat had been assigned to a son whose mother was inexplicably condemned to a seat in the rear of the plane. He traded down and the fateful transplant from row 25 made himself comfortable on my left.
As a rule, when I travel I visually greet whoever's next to me and assess their boundaries, particularly on longer flights. I want to get a sense of how careful I'll need to be with my elbows. The young man buckling the seatbelt next to me was appropriately engaging, polite, happy to have moved closer to the exit.
I don't know exactly what allows the shift. It could be the absence of time as a reference point once the craft escapes the earth's pull and magically transcends the cloud cover. It could be that the loss of physical freedom causes a general sense of immediacy and intimacy. Whatever it is, at 30,000 feet I'm able to forget.
"What were you doing in Chicago?" "A workshop." "A relative's graduation." I don't remember who asked first, but with the initial pleasantries exchanged, and his gentle openness noted, I was free to relax. "Do these seats not recline or is mine stuck?" "Can you see that light in the west?" "I was noticing the city below us."
We were chasing the setting sun and dusk shone neon orange atop the horizon of clouds. Beautiful, shining. I'd never seen it before.
"Do you like music?" My accidental companion handed me one of the ear buds from his headphones. "No. It goes in the left ear."
We listened to his play list for almost four hours; pop songs I knew, some that I didn't, songs from his home in an exotic language. "I'm glad I don't understand the words because then I listen to the music differently."
It wasn't the headphone sharing that touched me. (Is that a thing now?) It wasn't that he let me pick the songs or that he bought me a cranberry apple drink (really, Frontier?) It was that he knew the words to the songs and sang along to every one. With me just a few inches from him, he sang.
We exchanged phone numbers in front of baggage claim. He came to visit the other evening and the man who arrived at my home wasn't the same man I'd met in row nine. He was distracted.
It happens when the plane touches down. Along with greeting the ground, we greet our lives as we know them; remember our schedules, our commitments, our ideas about who we are and who we think others are.
I'm glad for the ground. I live here too. Yet, if I could, I'd tell the man my secret - that the larger part of me is still at 30,000 feet, where time and judgements are suspended, the sunlight glows orange above the clouds, and a soft voice sings gently and fearlessly in my ear.
I'd tell him it's alright to keep your commitments and to hold onto your ideas about life. We all do that, and he doesn't answer to me. But, please, please beautiful, shining man, whatever you do, don't stop singing.