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05 June 2006

Choose your seatmates wisely

“You haven't seen a tree until you've seen its shadow from the sky.” — Amelia Earhart

Tree_shadow_greenSome years ago, I was chosen to keynote a very large international conference of about 12,000 people; it would be my largest audience ever. I would share the platform with a colleague I had been working with for a year or two.

We left Washington, DC, on a clear summer day; shortly after takeoff, it became abundantly clear that something was not right. The flight wasn't following a normal pattern after take-off; our flight attendants were visibly shaking and leafing hurriedly through an emergency manual.

This is not behavior that inspires confidence.

The flight just didn’t feel right; we weren’t making progress in the sky. Something was very wrong, and not like that time I insisted the flight attendant call the pilot back for a little look-see at the wing before taxi and takeoff.

Finally, a voice from the cockpit quietly announced that we were having a tiny bit of a problem and would be returning to the airport. “Problem” and “airplane” are not words I like to hear in close proximity; I wasn’t happy. My colleague was shaky.

A few minutes later, the cockpit voice announced that, well, folks, we’ve experienced a failure of the plane’s hydraulic system and would be returning not to Washington, DC, but to Baltimore’s airport.

Hydraulic_systemLet me stop for a moment to clarify something: the hydraulic system of a plane is very, very important. Crucial, even. Without it, there is no way to turn, go up and down, land – well, you might say that without it, you’re fairly well screwed. In the words of my daughter, Emma, when she had to throw up one time in the car as a young child, “this isn’t going to be good.” In fact, my friend, I knew immediately that it could be very, very bad, that kind of irretrievable badness, the last kind you experience, the surprising - that- it- is- ending- this- way, 11 o’clock- news- kind- of- bad I fear every time I fly.

Sitting up front, my colleague and I had a clear, close view of the panic on the faces and in the voices of the flight attendants, professional though they were.

Because of our tiny hydraulic problem, turning the plane was, well, problematic. Our return to Baltimore took a lifetime, with silent yet palpable panic rising. Baltimore was chosen, I would find out later, so we could crash far away from other planes.

To turn, the pilot had to alternately shut off one engine and boost the other, left, then right, left, then right. To descend, we had to glide down. There was talk of dumping fuel so the explosion on impact wouldn’t be as big. Would it really matter? We were in a slow glide to a fireball; the airport was preparing the runway with foam and a phalanx of emergency vehicles such as I had never seen.

Tree_shadow_on_snowOur slow motion descent took place in total silence, punctuated only by the voice of our most senior flight attendant instructing us repeatedly in assuming the brace position, arms crossed on the seat in front of us, head on arms, with an admonition that as we neared impact, we should immediately assume that position when we heard them yell “NOW!”

As the ground came closer, we were instructed to take off and stow any sharp jewelry and all eyeglasses. I could have done without that instruction, truthfully, and it was then—sightless without my red Mrs. Beasley bifocals—that I began my very small, very quiet, very personal and lonely goodbyes.

It was an odd, weightless feeling, that slow spiral into death. The odds were definitely against us, I realized. I had to quietly will myself to give up the outcome; there was literally nothing I could do but think of my daughters, my husband John, my family, all those things undone, that messy house that the Marshall sisters would need to come clean up before the funeral, the letters unanswered, conversations unhad, all that future gone, those people who were supposed to meet me in their lives, but wouldn’t.

Tree_shadow_yellowI had a moment of heart-ripping panic and then talked myself quickly into a calm and reassuring space; I willed myself into spending my last moments not in sheer terror, but in gratitude, a conscious reframing of the story I had suddenly been handed. I was determined not to end in fear, but in peace.

One lasting, overwhelming thought that stayed with me during this whole event was a shallow one, but one that told me volumes—I knew in an instant that I did not want to die sitting next to the person beside me, that this is not the person I want to be with, that I didn’t want him to reach out to me for comfort, that I didn’t want to be comforted by him.

I’m not proud of those thoughts, but I paid attention to them; it was my body and heart and gut talking to me, I’m convinced.

The emergency vehicles and foam should have been a reassuring sight. They were not.

The anxious, loud scream came: “NOW!” and, without a sound, we all braced. (Truly, is that brace position just to give people something to do, a bow to a prayer position? I can’t imagine it saves lives…)

We hit, we lived.

Tree_on_pebbleIt was the talk of the airport. We lived! We survived! Everyone called home!

Rebooked on a later flight—oh, joy!—we went to a coffee shop to regroup. It was a clarifying moment, another chance, a time to assess. It was—as Rilke says—time to change your life. “Well,” I said to my colleague who had been visibly shaken at 37,000 feet, “how does this change your life? What does this mean to you? What will you do differently with this second chance?”

“All I know,” he said without hesitation, “is that if I’ve missed my time at the hotel pool because of this, I’m going to be pissed.”

I blinked several times, very slowly.

My mid-air gut reaction had been right; this is not the person I want to die with, work with, be with.

We show ourselves in moments of system failure and panic and change and difficulty and crash-landings, not calm. Does true self emerge only (or especially?) when tested? Lessons about others come, perhaps, from their response to great fear or significant peril or the opportunity for sacrifice either taken or not. My colleague had failed that test before, but it was this final failing grade that made it clear: I could no longer work with him. He got his pool time; we gave our speech. I walked off that stage and never worked with him again. I knew I needed different seatmates for the rest of my flight.

~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~

Tree_shadowOn this flight we call life, choose your seatmates wisely. Sit with people you would embrace while going down, who won’t hog the armrest or steal your peanuts or take your in-flight magazine. Sit instead with people who will comfort you when you’re scared, who you would take off your sharp jewelry and glasses for, who you would give up your time at the pool for.

Remember, “you haven't seen a tree until you've seen its shadow from the sky.”


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This one spoke volumes to me. As I am preparing to begin a new pahse in my life, I do hope that this time I will pick a good seatmate. Your words are always so eloquent and so, so true. Thank you for your insights!

Wow. I am so impressed that you were able to reach that place in such a stressful moment.

Thanks for another wonderful post.

Oh, this gives my anxious soul some comfort.

I used to be a flight attendant and have probably spent about 3,000 hours sitting or working on planes. I used to love flying.

But these days I fear it. Just reading your description of knowing that something was just wrong after take-off gives me the shivers. Every sound during a flight is so familiar to me and I hate myself for listening out for any oddities rather than just enjoying the freedom of being in the sky.

That place of peace that you managed to find during this ordeal gives me hope.

And as for your 'seatmate' recommendation, I have always kind of lived by that anyway and it is a notion that I wholeheartedly agree with.

Thank you!


My god tears literally sprang from eyes as I sat here at work reading this. Powerful powerful powerful.

Dear Patti,

Your insight and writing, and those tree shadows, are piercingly beautiful. Thank you for the reminder to look at even this ordinary little moment as an opportunity to see if I need to change my life.

a new and very appreciative reader,


I love reading your blog and you never cease to amaze me with your insights that open up new ways to look at life. Thanks for this one.Great advice for everyday living - and, I can't help thinking, I hope someone would be glad to be sitting with me. Hmm. Ellouise

I think I'm not connecting here. The colleague seems sensible and practical to me. Emergency landing puts into place safety procedures but it doesn't mean imminent death, even if fuel were dumped. Even ground crews are a precaution, assurances that everything is covered well in hand.

Your fear was real and the lack of meeting minds with the colleague was real. I can appreciate your realization that this was emblematic/characeristic of the relationship and that that was useful to leverage you to action.

If he were me (which he isn't) I would have mentioned the pool as a way of dry humor, dismissing tension and closing that chapter and moving along. Now that it is closed and momentary composure slip is over, why would I want to reenter that mind space? What would change? My life is as it should be. Each day death may visit. It doesn't change what I do to have a scare. I'm on track. You know what I mean?

thanks to everyone for your comments and insights and kind words! as with everything in life, this story is open to many interpretations - and usually our interpretation of what happens to us in some way supports our own view of the world, doesn't it? So perhaps I looked for confirmation of what I already for my colleague's response - it's possible that it was a humorous defense mechanism - but I believe we show ourselves in our patterns - and his comment fit into a pattern I could no longer deny.

thank you for the quote from amelia earhart-- i never heard that one before. the pictures are gorgeous, the essay is beautiful. i love that you were present enough to try to find peace in yourself. and thanks for the reminder to listen to what your gut is telling you. did you know that in some traditions the gut is seen as the second brain? it makes sense if you think about it.

congratulations on living thru the experience and for your story sharing talent and skill.
As a child, young adult and mother with extreme triad Asthma, i came close to death, fought to stay alive and remain calm so often it is quite possibly the ingredient in my life that makes me so "different" as my family calls it. Truth is even before the time frightened residents announced to me that i needed intibation, CCU, before they announce i was dying, etc. I knew about that seat choice. I also knew i would love, learn and grow with anyone in that seat. We work like instruments in a band...yes, industrial music played out of tune can be interesting at first, but, it is rarely music to ones ears. better to be and surround with finely tuned instruments that resonate a beautiful sound.
Now that modern medicine has me breathing so well, your gentle re-minder is a blessing.
again, thank you for sharing your gift.

Further evidence why Jim Collins (Good to Great) said to get the right people on the bus before you set direction. In our constant corporate game of "red rover, red rover" we sometimes forget to really assess the impacts of the people we select. Some are not fortunate enough to be allowed to select their "seatmates" and are forced to make do with those assigned to them. This is another awesome post, Patti, and applies to so many areas of life, from friends, to marriage partners, to business colleagues. (And I'm SOOOO grateful you survived the ordeal to continue sharing your wit and wisdom with the rest of us.)

WOW! I am amazed by the post. It's a nail-biting thriller till the end. I know it's easy for me to say, because I was not on the flight. Thank you for sharing your experience.

You have a wonderful and fluid writing style. I am glued on to your blog now.

Thanks be to God that you're still alive to continue sharing your wonderful gift of writing with the world, Patti. I'm glad you survived and found peace in a particularly stressful moment. What you've said is so true and the older I get the more I realize how important it is to surround myself with those who will lift me up, not tear me down. Thanks for another great, mind-provoking post!

Great post! I enjoyed? it immensely. Fear of flying is one of my biggest, i think i would've died of shock or at the very least embarrased myself with bodily functions as they say. will be back to read more.

This is something I really needed to read. Right at this moment. A great post!


Your story is so honest, especially with regard to your response to your colleague. In a way, of course, there's a metaphor here about our relationships to one another; how easily we retreat into our defenses, rather than -- in the critical moment -- coming to grips with the truth and perhaps the care that has been absent in our lives. I do not think we can know how difficult the passage might be. Death, and the fear of death, only highlight how unfinished we are.

Hi Patti...

I am never disappointed by your posts, least by this one.

I often have the feeling of panic shoot up through my spine when I know that the way ahead is out of my control, that all the plans I made are moot, and now I am alone with that vast uncertainty again.

When I was younger, I used to try to do back-flips off the diving board at the local pool. I'd get half way through, and my body would reflexively uncoil, seeking to find vertical again without waiting for its arrival at the end of the maneuver.

I never did learn how, and now that I am so much older, I still want to see my landing in my mind before it happens. It's hard to let go of that urge. Sometimes the best I can do is to let it go "for now", knowing with the sorrow of age that it's too late to go back to the diving board.

At home, there's a still picture of Jeff Bridges standing with his toes over the edge of the top of a tall building, his arms outstretched, from the movie "Fearless". It is awesome to recall his transformation and self-realization in that film, something I aspire to but can't quite capture.

So now, I live by the Pacific Ocean; I need no longer need fear heights, just waves. The Big Tsunami may be just over the horizon, though... at least now I'm where I want to be, with people I love. My heart may not be light enough to fly yet, but I think it will float...

Thanks for this little piece of your life.

Lori - what a gorgeous note - i love the image of your back-flips and can identify. imagine what life would be if we truly flew without knowing the outcome? it occurs to me that sometimes seeing the landing is preparation for, like an Olympic athlete envisioning their success, and sometimes--at least for me--it is preparation against. thanks so much for this - i needed it. love, patti

This will sound incredibly silly and petty, but it came to mind reading this. I can't stand the coworker who shares a large office space with me. She's the opposite of what I try to be at work. At the end of each semester, tradition states that the office will host an ice cream sundae bar for our office T.A.'s. Everyone in the office contributes something to it. Afterwards, we all enjoy the leftovers over the course of a week or two until it's all gone. On the last day of classes, the final bell rang at 12:00. By 12:10, my crappy coworker was bagging up her portion of the supplies to take home. It annoyed me no end, because it was so indicative of who she is as a coworker--someone selfish and self-centered who makes a minimal contribution to the team...someone who's stingy with pleasure for herself and therefore stingy with her good moods. Just like the hotel pool comment, sometimes the smallest action can be a big revelation.

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