Seatmates

Seatmates

Can a transcontinental flight create space for dialogue?

On a walk the other day my 8-year-old asked me about the colour of the sky, how outer space could possibly go on forever.  I suggested maybe things could get infinitely smaller as well as infinitely bigger, and she opened her eyes wide in amazement. We discussed the finite nature of matter—that it can’t be created or destroyed—as another way of saying that all things are infinite, that the tree although it falls and decomposes, somehow remains. It was the right kind of conversation before a work trip to Paris. Traveling adjusts my perspective, helping me to remember to see things in their smallest detail and in their broadest context.

On the flight from Pearson Airport in Toronto to Paris’ Charles De Gaulle, I sat next to a friendly couple in their late 60s. The man, balding and tanned with an N-95 that dug into the sides of his smooth, leathery jaw hoisted my carry-on into the overhead compartment. The two of them got up to allow me into my window seat, assured me I could ask them anytime to move if I needed anything. They hoped their snoring wouldn’t keep me awake, they said, giggling behind their masks. At altitude, the clouds outside my window floated by in small bright white clumps like cotton algae as if the fields and villages below were subsumed in a clear gel.

This couple loved traveling—and talking. They were from a town south of Chicago (if you put your finger right in the middle of Illinois, that’s us). Although the whole plane carefully wore their masks the whole overnight flight, when the wrapped and heated dinners arrived, every passenger joined in a choreographed unmasking, a communion of food and filtered airplane air. We saw each other’s faces, I heard about their grandchildren. You should tell me I don’t look old enough for grandchildren! the woman quipped.  I shared pictures of my kids, learned that my seatmate was a retired elementary school teacher. 

We talked about the importance of children having time and space to simply read stories. I fussed about media consumption getting in the way. The woman disagreed—she felt children weren’t learning their reading, writing, and arithmetic anymore because they were spending too much time learning about gender identity and sexuality. This teaching should be in the hands of the parent, she said; there is no place for it in schools.  At this point, I think both of us began to suspect that there was a chasm between us politically.  When the flight attendant rolled their cart by, I ordered wine; they ordered tea. We continued, cautiously, wading into the conversation.

I explained my children’s alternative school curriculum around gender, sex, and consent, and about how I’d like to see more of it. We both agreed that children should be taught to recognize inappropriate touch in order to keep them safe. 

I’d like to think it was an authentic exchange between people from vastly different political positionings—positionings from which subscribers are so uncommunicative and intolerant of each other that we continue in parallel realities, never able to make sense of each other, burying our heads in the sand. 

She shared with me that her husband was a retired minister, who had led a mega-church that congregated inside an old warehouse.  When I asked, she admitted the demographic of the church was not very diverse but chalked this up to cultural differences with non-white Americans, something about people being angry and feeling they deserve handouts. Maybe I shouldn’t have been, but I was stunned.  Inwardly, I cringed, aware of the diversity on the plane and the way my skin made me look like someone she could commiserate with. We are not supporters of our President, she confided. 

I asked about the recent tragedies in the US, shootings of African American shoppers at a grocery store in Buffalo and the murder of nineteen children and two teachers in Ulvade, Texas, and of gun control. I wondered aloud why they couldn’t just tighten regulations around gun ownership—and she discussed mental health among gun-toting murderers as the real culprit.  

Of course, she was beginning to paint me a picture of herself as someone from a typical white conservative Christian family, so steeped in white supremacy so as for it to be invisible. The kind my siloed community of artists and activists for the most part villainizes across social media platforms. And I may have signaled to her a certain type of person as well, reading Simon(e) van Saarloos’ Take ‘Em Down: Scattered Monuments and Queer Forgetting on the plane, whose book tour brought me to Paris in the first place. 

With another bag full of books at my feet I handed her Curved Against the Hull of a Peterhead, a collection of poetry by Taqralik Partridge. Prompted by her reading of Partridge’s “untitled (for Colten Boushie),” dedicated to a 22-year-old Cree man who was fatally shot in 2016, we discussed racism in Canada: residential schools and the unmarked graves of children the country is admitting to, as well as the unconscionable reality of “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.” I think she heard the expression the way I had heard it for the first time, in disbelief that this could be a phenomenon so common as to be named.

In the liminal space of the airplane, suspended between destinations, we are divorced from our affiliate contexts. A flight unites passengers in a confined space of physical trust: we share the risks and choose to travel together anyway. 

I’d like to think it was an authentic exchange between people from vastly different political positionings—positionings from which subscribers are so uncommunicative and intolerant of each other that we continue in parallel realities, never able to make sense of each other, burying our heads in the sand.  Our communities avoid each other so much that when the trucker’s convoy hit Ottawa, Ontario, it was a shock for mine to see a whole segment of society with such right-wing politics emerge, powerfully, seemingly out of nowhere.

To be fair, though we had different political positionings, there were filaments of sameness that made our conversation possible: I have Christian parents, I’m a woman and a mother, I read books, I have white skin. Plus, we were seatmates on a transcontinental flight, a privileged middle-class experience in itself.


Another young white Republican sat next to me on the plane on the way home, and his French seatmate confided to him, regarding the Uvalde school shooting, that the French are dumbfounded that Americans can let this happen again and again. The young white Republican agreed, it is a tragedy, and shared that in his neighbourhood shootings happen all the time and are never reported. His parents taught him at a young age never to go beyond a certain street. He sounded desensitized; shootings were part of his upbringing. The Republican college student heard genuine concern from the French man beside him; the French seatmate heard the perspective of an average white Republican American college student. It’s quite likely that neither would have encountered the other’s perspective in such an unarmed way outside of the confined social space of the plane.

In the liminal space of the airplane, suspended between destinations, we are divorced from our affiliate contexts. A flight unites passengers in a confined space of physical trust: we share the risks and choose to travel together anyway.  Mid-air, or held up on the runway for longer than we would like, we wear or do not wear our masks cognizant of what threat we are to each other, we accidentally brush against each other’s shoulders and knees, we pass each other drinks, and present ourselves anew to other humans we could easily never otherwise enter into conversation with.  The conversations had, shoulder to shoulder, sharing air, sharing food together, strike me as more valuable than all the Instagram pull quotes by scholars I admire stacked together in row. Curated just for me, my social media feed—where my seatmates wouldn’t last a second—lulls me into the comfort of thinking I am surrounded by people who agree on everything and are outraged together, instead of pushing me to stay present in conversations, relationships, communion, and accountability.

We exchanged contact information at the end of the flight, and the couple left as politely as they came, our energy—for a brief journey, so close—dissipating into the transitory space of the airport. 

Back home, I flip to Partridge’s poem honouring Colten Boushie. She writes about how everyone, no matter how small their strand of connection, could respond in some way to his murder, how everyone’s common humanity was triggered by this tragedy because it goes beyond “believing or not believing.”  Considering the recent July 4th shooting in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, not far from my seatmates’ home, I think perhaps there is a hint of possibility for meaningful connections across these ever widening political chasms—some relationality that stems from our embodiedness, our common mortality, and rooted in our mutual vulnerability.

Even the ones whose only connection to any of this is their partner
or their child, or neighbour, or co-worker, or simple recognition of
common humanity
even the ones who can only shake their heads
even the ones who can only wring their hands
even the ones who just can’t
all of them, all of them
everyone 
drew back their heads, wide-eyed,
in pain,
and in fear,
and in dismay
and in anger
but not
no, not
in disbelief
because what is known
does not require believing or not believing

—From Curved Against the Hull of a Peterhead by Taqralik Partridge

Filed Under: Articles & Essays

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Anna Bowen is a Guelph-based writer, poet, and editor. She works at Arts Everywhere, Musagetes, and Publication Studio Guelph. She is former news editor at This Magazine and has an MA in Sociology and Equity Studies (now Social Justice Education) from OISE/University of Toronto.

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Abby Nowakowski (she/her) is a queer interdisciplinary artist whose work includes storytelling and collaborative workshops, performances and events that center around creating safe-brave spaces and exploring shame and confidence while advocating for consent.

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