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Delightful stranger transforms a journey


One of the nice things about having children is the window of opportunity it gives you to revisit the childhood world of willing suspension of disbelief. My time may be limited; two of my children revealed this summer that they know the truth about Santa (though one, I’m sure, would be willing to reclaim The Big Guy at the drop of a sleigh bell). Still, we love to enter together a fantasy world, transported by books and movies to a place where angels, fairies and other magical creatures live.

Lately, for example, we’ve jumped on the crowded Harry Potter bandwagon and we’re loving the ride. These New York Times bestsellers by author J.F. Rowling feature a young orphan whose existence is transformed by the revelation that he is in fact a wizard of renown in a parallel universe that intersects with but unfolds unseen by most of us “muggles,” that is to say, humans. Needless to say, Harry is worthy of his elevated status and thankfully escapes the dreary existence of life with an all-too-conforming, humorless aunt and uncle.

Well, why not? Life is full of mystical close encounters we ignore rather than engage in because we’ve got the blinders on, whether from sheer necessity or from fear of getting too close to something we may not be able to control. I’m not saying every single conversation with a checkout clerk at the grocery store is going to be life-changing, but I think there is a lot more than meets the eye out there.

On a recent flight from Austin, Texas, back home to Minneapolis, I sat down in my seat next to the window, fat magazine in hand, tired from three days of interviews for a project I’m working on. Air travel doesn’t have the same glamour it once did for me. (As I kid I tallied how many plane rides I’d taken and thrilled to the Northwest Orient Airlines jingle on my dad’s favorite AM radio station as I sat watching him shave every morning.) I’ve now adopted the jaded attitude that travel is something to be endured, not enjoyed. I insulate myself as much as possible, rarely talking with my seatmates, preferring the poor-quality “personal sound systems,” known less euphemistically as headphones, or even the trashy celebrity magazines. Yet I still feel an air of excitement about the airport’s boundless people-watching opportunities and occasionally concoct unfinished stories about strangers glimpsed at a fleeting moment in their lives. Maybe it’s just that from the airport, the limitless horizon is everywhere.

Yet halfway through the flight, the young man who sat next to me didn’t read my defenses well, or maybe he spotted the hole that so few of us look for and started up a conversation with something like, “Is that a good magazine?” Well, there’s an existential question for you. Good, as in Kant, Mills or Plato? Good as in well written and edited? Good as in nice pictures? But I responded without irony, offering instead my honest evaluation of the magazine. Our conversation continued easily, and it turned out we had much in common, despite our 20-year age difference. We had each spent part of our growing-up years abroad with dads who job-hopped with their companies. We speak Spanish (he better than I). We love reading, especially kids’ books. We each even have pets named Luna. I learned where he attends college, that he wants to be a teacher and that he has a sister. He learned about my family and my job. We talked about what you can see when you look out the window of a plane at different times of day. If you look way up, he told me, you start to see the blackness of space. I was intrigued by this sweet, slightly precocious young man with clear blue eyes and a ready smile.

After about a half-hour’s conversation, all of a sudden, he said, “I realize I’ve forgotten to tell you the most important thing about me. Just recently I found God again.” Well, I thought, here goes. I’m in for a proselytizing session. But instead, he continued, “I realized that I’d lost touch with something that has always been in me, and that there’s this great joy that comes from living in the present. The present is all we really have.” Whoa, that’s what I believe, too, I thought, and I can’t be reminded of it enough. I started to wonder who this delightful stranger really was and why he was seated next to me. Coincidence, I know, but coincidence is what we make of it.

As our plane descended in the clear, late afternoon sky, I pointed out my kids’ school and my house on the Monopoly board of south Minneapolis streets. We jotted down for each other the names of favorite short stories and novels, and our e-mail addresses. I was looking forward to my destination home, but also grateful that the ability of my extraordinary companion to win my trust had somehow transformed my journey.

Kris Berggren writes from Minneapolis.

National Catholic Reporter, October 8, 1999