Thursday, December 30, 2010

Fruit and Faith (after a grueling plane ordeal)

Eating fruit in Frankfurt.  Healthier than a wiener.  And more sustainable!  I think.  Not sure.  

I did that the last time (ate a wiener) I had a layover in Frankfurt on the way to India and it came out to be 20 bucks for a skinny tasteless tube of meat on top of some warm potato salad.  The waiter told me in a heavy German accent that is just how it was done in Frankfurt.  My true blue frankfurter dreams were dashed.  Never again, I swore.  So, I'm going with fruit today.

I wonder when the environmentalist activist, anti-agro-industry food, documentarians are going to come out with THE TRUTH ABOUT WURST movie. Someone needs to do it.  The modern pork industry is a nightmare and, yet, these Germans cling to it so fervently.

It is 3 in the morning here and I didn’t sleep at all on the 7 hour flight thanks to screaming Indian babies (many of them) and the worst turbulence, EVER.  Really, it was unreal. And now, I’m so exhausted.  Hence, I’m offering myself solace with something fruity and creamy and rich.  Yes, I know, this isn’t vegan but I’m not at the ashram yet.  Still, I’m feeling a little guilty about my non-vegan choices here at the, charmingly named, Goethe Cafe.  I am rationalizing this, perhaps as the philosopher himself would = I survived hell, I have a 6 and a half hour layover, and hence, I have earned ice cream.

Is it bad that I want to drawn the memories of my most recent near death experience in a concoction being touted on the German menu as PEACH MELBA??   From the photo you can see it is an explosion of peachy creamy goodness lathered in whipping and cookies.  Not knowing how large this peach monstrosity would be, I also ordered a side of fruit,  because I’m craving citrus, as well.  Does death make one hanker for the life-affirming freshness of a  fruit platter?  I think it is a wise ‘breakfast’ choice because my stomach is not quite ready for anything more substantial after that flight through Hell from Boston.  Certainly the tum is not ready for knockwurst or sushi (more surprising menu choices at The Goethe Café)!  So here I am and here is breakfast (at 3 a.m. Boston time):

As I sit here eating this citrus I’m realizing this is probably not the most sustainable/eco-friendly breakfast choice I could have made in snowy Frankfurt, even if it makes me feel less guilty about avoiding the wurst.  The best choice is never the wurst (had to say it, sorry).  Still, citrus fruit can’t be that much better.  From whence were these kiwi and passion fruits and oranges flown?  How many hundreds of gallons of petrol did it take to satisfy my fruit needs?  Perhaps I can convince myself that it is better to eat out-of-season fruits only in airports.  At least I’m saving the thousands of gallons of oil it would take to trans-ship them to distant Euro grocery stores.  Perhaps I’ll make a vow to only eat out-of-season fruits when I am actually dining in airport cafés?  Probably not good enough.  I’m feeling self-conscious about my fruit and, at the same time, so happy.  I am alive.  The fruit is healthy and cool and good.

More about the flight and my spiritual crisis on the plane…

Right after the lovely Lufthansa flight crew served up a light dinner of salmon, rice and veggies, all hell broke loose on our plane.  Smack dab in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, where I always get a little nervous anticipating death in the dark, cold sea, thousands of miles from land (I’m generally not a great flyer), we hit unbelievable  turbulence.  Not just your typical jiggle and wake, I’m talking ROLLER COASTER HELL RIDE.  And it lasted a LONG TIME.  I am blogging about this because it was the closest near-death experience I’ve had in years and I was interested to watch my reaction to it all.  And you, too, fair reader may now join me in reliving this…

It was a long, bad haul.  The whole thing lasted about an hour or more – then it stopped and we had comparable weak after-shocks all the way to Europe.  I’m typically not one for prayer but on this plane ride I did pray, a lot.  Interestingly,  I found myself praying that if I had to die it would happen quickly with little pain.  I did NOT pray to be saved or my life to be spared.  I found myself mumbling (audibly) the Lord’s Prayer (not sure why since I don’t consider myself a Christian anymore). Old Episcopal habits die hard. I was gripping the arm rests and on the verge of sobbing the whole time.  Furtive glances at nearby passengers confirmed that I wasn't the only one panicking.  The plane was dipping and diving and plunging and roaring.  Most of us, even the veteran travelers, must have wondered “is this it?!”  It seemed to go on and on, the wondering, the waiting, the willing it all to end.  For at least an hour I waited for death.  I said goodbye to everyone I knew, I continued the Lord’s Prayer,  and I kept thinking about how cold the water would be if we crashed.  Would I feel the water, could anyone survive a crash, might the fuselage shred open and throw me to safety?   I wondered what it would feel like to be the sole survivor of a plane crash…

Amidst all this, I must confess that it did occur to me that if somehow I DID survive this hairy near-death experience, I COULD blog about it.  How redeeming.  But that should not in any way shape or form diminish the authenticity of my morbid certainty: death was near.

Faith comes in funny ways.  After a semester teaching about spirituality and recently re-confirming my intellectual commitment to a Hindu-Buddhist world view at my Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, I found myself frantically muttering (almost chant singing) the Lord’s Prayer as the plane shuddered and fell, recovered and relapsed.  I could not, for the life of me, usher forth an Om or a mantra.  Terror brought out the Jesus in me.  I was so terrified that I actually broke into a cold sweat... well, more of a lather, really.  This had never happened to me before either.  Even amidst the horror and panic, I was a little embarrassed.  Were others sweating like this? It lasted about 30 minutes.  It was a miracle I didn’t lose my salmon.  I actually pulled out the little white paper bag from the seat pocket early in the turbulence and prepared to use it.  When the captain ordered the stewardesses to strap themselves in (in a voice not so calm) I knew I couldn’t dare to break the “ seat-belts-on" rule and rush to the toilet nearby to await the inevitable.  I was stressed-out  about BOTH the bag issue and about dying.  Strange how you can have two very contradictory worries in your brain at the same time and be okay with it.  The Captain came on again and explained that we were facing 120 mile an hour winds, and he hoped this bad weather patch would pass soon.  So I tried to bite my lip and hold back the tears of terror.  I had to close my eyes and focus on my breathing because I felt a panic attack, which I’ve never had, was probably inches away... 

Somewhere in the front of the plane a woman screamed for help in a weak and overwhelmed whimper.  It came again and again, plaintiff and desperate. The sound of it made us all hold our breath so we could be sure we were hearing it and not imagining it.  All over the plane people were ringing the stewardess buttons for help.  The captain had commanded the crew to strap in so none of them were moving.  The plane felt out of control.  Her cry for help kept coming, louder and more earnest.  I think the flight crew thought this was some passenger’s coping mechanism but it turned out that the woman really did need help -- her husband (an elderly Indian man) was having a panic attack and couldn’t breathe.  A steward leapt up from nowhere and reached over my head to open a cabinet to grab what looked to be a medical kit and a small oxygen tank.  Together, with a stewardess he rushed, stumbling, to the front of the plane even as the cabin pitched and creaked.  Despite my clench teethed, white-knuckled distress I couldn’t help but open my eyes and tilt my head out to see them run down the aisle, tossing and tumbling the whole way.   

The babies wouldn’t stop screaming.  Well who could blame them?  I found myself thinking that if I cried, too, I might feel better.  Why should the babies be the only screamers?  I began wondering if it was better to just panic and accept what I was going through or strive to be more Zen, more accepting, more calm in the moments before death.  I wondered what Norman would do at a moment like this.  Somehow it didn’t help that I seemed to be the only one on the plane sitting in a two seat block all by myself without a neighbor to claw or clench or cling to.  I couldn’t figure if dying alone was better than having someone there who would watch my panic in the seconds before we went down.  The women seated across the aisle from me were no help, they looked as panicked and uncertain as I did.  One lady kept watching, nervously, the stewardess sitting behind us to see if her face might reveal the hopelessness of the situation.  I watched the watcher, afraid her face would convey information I dreaded but unable to look away.  I had no hand to hold and that made me feel sorry for myself. I closed my eyes again.  

About 20 minutes into turbulence, I resolved I was okay with the death part and not the panic part, so, I tried harder to meditate, breathe and empty my mind.  This was impossible and I got angry at myself for not being more spiritual.  My hands hurt so badly.  If I could only release my desperate-grip on the arm rests on either side of me (which tightened every time the plane dropped and shuddered violently), I thought that might help my state-of-mind.  I tried to convince myself to just take this one small action but I couldn’t.  I couldn’t let go.  I couldn’t breathe.  I focused on not crying and inhaling deeper.  It seemed like my knuckles were somehow linked to my lungs… neither could relax.

I remember the 60’s counter culture icon and spiritual guru Ram Dass describing his thought at the moment he had a stroke years ago.  He found himself paralyzed on the floor and he confessed he did not think of God.  He talked about this experience in an excellent documentary (2003?) about his life, but most importantly, about his stroke, entitled FIERCE GRACE.   At the moment of his stroke, Ram Dass said he had absolutely no spiritual thoughts – he panicked.  “Here I was,” says Ram Dass, “Mr. Spiritual” and I didn’t think of God, I didn’t think about the Spirit, I didn’t think about spirituality at all!”  It struck me that he confessed this when he didn't have to confess it.  He expressed his own surprise at the fact that he didn’t think of calm, he didn’t detach – he didn’t follow his BE HERE NOW advice.  He felt the pain and fear and lived fully in it, even if only for a few moments.  He called the experience of having a stroke, which later changed everything he thought he believed in, being ‘stroked’ – He was stroked by God.  

In some ways, every near death experience is a Divine stroking, a caress, a Spirit pet.  I can’t say I’ve had many near death experiences (maybe only 3) – or at least three instances where I remember saying to myself ‘this is it, you are going to be dead in a moment’ – but of the ones I have had, this was the only one where I thought a lot about God while it was happening.  Okay, maybe it doesn’t even count as a near death experience and you will all read this and roll your eyes at my hyperbole.  But for at least 30 minutes tonight I thought I was a goner and that was very REAL for me.  This was the longest experience of sustained fear I’ve had where I couldn’t stop myself believing the end was close. I had more time to formulate my thoughts and my fears and my expectations about the moment and about the realness of my death than ever before.  And in a way, I’m proud of myself – for all the panic and unnecessary suffering I put myself though – because I got through it in once piece (emotionally and philosophically).  

This was surely the most spiritual and most spiritually frustrating moment  I’ve experienced in a long time – and yet, during the experience, I didn’t plea for my life, I didn't ask the Divine to spare me, and  I didn’t try to measure my life’s worth or regrets.  I chanted, I tried to breathe, I prayed, I remembered Ram Dass, I thought of my blog, and I kept my salmon down.

Oh crap.  The bill for my Frankfurt feast (fruit, ice cream and a tea) just arrived.  

18 euros = $29 !!! 

I will never, ever eat Fruit in an Airport ever again...  Unless of course, I am compelled to do so after a plane ride that shakes me to the inner core of my being and makes me look at the Reaper himself eye ball to eye ball.  Then I guess I deserve it.


  1. What can I say? Even I just got nauseous reading this. Wonderful writing. This was not your time to kiss the Atlantic. You have much more to do, places to see, people to meet, salmon to eat. So glad you skipped the swine at KuBu this time. Keep breathing (and pay attention to it!) Alpert would be proud (Norman, too) By the way Norman would have freaked out just like you - probably worse. Keep the words coming. WOW- that was a great read.

  2. What a harrowing experience! I'm truly glad you're through it safely.

  3. The $29 splurge is an absolute necessity to the calming process. Let go of the guilt an enjoy. I have been there before when return from Spain during hurricane Bob (Roberto). Reading your blog reminded me of my own intellectual vs. spiritual debate. The God of my youth cradled me with a calming presence. Why is that? Thank you for sharing. May peace and hope well up inside of you as you continue your journey.

  4. Thanks Bunkie for the breathing reminder and the mindfullness pep talk. Pork is never a good idea before a tran-Atlantic flight. I read Iris the words "this was not your time to kiss the Atlantic" and she laughed, too. You are so poetic.

    Thanks "the4ofus97" for your good wishes. Do we know each other perchance?

    Linda... I agree, a worthy splurge. You survived a hurricane over the ocean in a plane?? Whoa. The God of my youth was a cradler, too. He still is. He is all around and in everything that I love here in India, as well. As my copper bracelet a friend gave me a few months ago reads "Life is a journey, not a destination"... i wear it all the time and it will stay on to remind me. Thanks for your thoughts.

    Thanks to everyone who reads my blog!!

  5. one could say: we are what we eat

    and then you didn't lose your salmon


  6. there is something fishy about that comment I just left

    oh well

    happy new year

    there's something to say for having a wifi hut

  7. I am a salmon in a WiFi hut. Or at least, aspire to be. Ha!

  8. When you find yourself thinking about how you will blog your near-death experience, you have become a Blogger.

  9. God in all forms is calming and cradling. Your "recent(ly) re-confirming [of your] my intellectual commitment to a Hindu-Buddhist world view at [your]my Unitarian Universalist Fellowship" does not contradict your Christian recall, it only confirms what I have believed for a long long time, and that is that God meets us right where we are at and brings Himself to us rather than demanding we bring ourselves to Him. (Forgive the Christian need to refer to God in the masculine, I too am programmed!)

    Your ride must have been unbelievable, as even in reading this post I had a hard time embracing what you where saying. I too HATE turbulence while flying and have become more sensitive to it over the last few years.

    I love you and thank you for sharing this experience!

    Oh, and by the way, STOP FEELING GUILT OVER YOUR HUMAN-NESS, non of us are perfected YET.

    Ice cream and out of season long distance fruits are there because life is preordained to give us what we need when we need it (an I hope gentle reminder to TRUST in the divine being!)

  10. such a pleasure to read whit! i loved what you said about terror bringing the jesus out of you--could it be christian guilt? i have the same thing.. :P
    can't wait to read more of this!