My fear of flying kicked in out of the blue—or rather, out of the smog—above Mexico City in 1994. My boyfriend and I had decided to embark on an English-teaching adventure in a city called Oaxaca, which we’d chosen based on a couple of paragraphs and a few photos in the Lonely Planet Guide. On a hot mid-August day, my parents drove our gigantic knapsacks and us to the airport. It was exciting. The revving of the plane’s engines made me bounce up and down in my seat like a kid. That’s the way I’d felt about planes, as a kid: giddy, breathless, can’t-wait-to-get-there.
In the sky over Mexico City’s sprawl, all that changed.
I’d flown back and forth across the Atlantic several times; I’m pretty sure I must have experienced turbulence before. But for some reason, that 1994 landing was different. We lurched down out of the sky in a series of drops so dramatic that everyone else on the plane threw their hands up into the air and shrieked. It was an enormous, airborne roller coaster—and the only actual roller coaster I’d ever been able to handle was the Scooby Doo Ghoster-Coaster at Canada’s Wonderland, which was intended to mollify the children who were too short for the real rides. The flight attendants clutched their five-point harness seatbelts and stared at each other with what I was certain were wide, terrified eyes. After the plane had banked, bumped and braked its way onto the runway, everyone cheered.
My boyfriend and I were supposed to book another, much shorter flight once we got to the airport. But as we sat there on terra firma, he turned to me and said, “We have to take a train instead.” And we did: an old decrepit one that took 16 hours to wind through open-guttered slums and then high, red mountains whose vast stretches of nothing were sometimes broken by nearly vertical, somehow-green fields tended by farmers who stood and watched us go by. (Mexico still makes me write run-on sentences.) It was a wonderful trip, despite the theft of our Lonely Planet Guide and the throbbing in my left big toe, which, within a few days, would become a full-blown infection. I wouldn’t have missed out on that old, rickety train for the world, and I will always maintain that trains are the only way to see strange new countryside. I will maintain this with a fervour born both of truth and of rationalization.
Because man, do I hate flying. Luckily for those around me, I don’t hate it with a full-throated, Marge Simpson panic. Unluckily for the nice person next to me who made the mistake of saying hello, I hate it with a quiet, chatty kind of panic. When Penguin Canada sent me out west for a book tour I ended up beside a woman who, foolishly, said hello. I said something like, “Hi—apologies in advance if I rake the back of your hand with my nails; I really, really hate flying.” Turned out she was a former flight attendant. She was also even chattier than I was. She talked to me for five hours; I found out all about her home, her husband, her travels. Whenever we hit a bump she’d put her story on pause and reassure me. When we were nearly there, she said, “Now, then: we’re going to come down out of the clouds, which will probably be a little turbulent, and then we’ll be directly over the water—but the runway will be there too.” She was right. And she showed up at my book signing a few days later.
Now, as I stare at an email full of Scandinavian flight information, I’m trying very, very hard to resist pre-emptively sweaty palms and fibrillations. I’ve decided that it’s not about killing the fear—that won’t happen. It’s not even about mastering it: it’s about surrendering to it. I know. Doesn’t sound promising. But here’s my thesis:
When you’re a kid, that spider in the corner of the ceiling, or that centipede that just might ripple out from under the baseboard like it did once before, or that dark and lumpy shape by the closet—these things are scary in a stark, simple, utterly primal way. Then you grow up, and you know that spiders nibble the moths that nibble your cotton shirts, and that the centipedes ripple away as quickly as they arrive, and that dark, lumpy shapes are usually laundry that’s waiting to be folded. Primal fears are replaced by horrifyingly rational ones like losing a job, a home, a child. Some of us replicate childhood adrenalin surges by going on rollercoasters or skydiving. Some of us get ourselves a whole new primal fear.
Maybe it can be healthy to be afraid of something irrational. Maybe giving the lizard brain a chance to do the un-thinking lends a clarity to the processing the other parts of our brain do. Maybe, despite all the advice given via sonnet and 12-step program, we should be a little afraid, now and then.
Sadly, this seemed more persuasive before I wrote it down.
Still. When those engines roar, I intend to be a kid under the covers, staring fixedly at that spider, waiting for it to move. I’ll be an australopithecine* on the savannah, huddled in a cave, listening to something big-toothed and hungry howling at the moon.
And then, when morning comes, there may be this: