July 4, 2020

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Connecting amid the chaos

The wordless warmth of a stranger's hand is, sometimes, all there is to grasp onto when the bottom falls out

Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 4/1/2019 (546 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Our seatbelts are secured. Tray tables stowed in their upright and locked position. The plane’s engines roar to life, preparing to make their assault on gravity. A long strip of asphalt serves as a battlefield. The wheels begin turning.

I do not know it yet, but we are racing towards my favourite memory of 2018 — or at least, the story I keep telling.

The wings bite the air and the heavy Boeing 767 heaves itself free of the runway, climbing towards cloud. Outside, and far below, the verdant coast of Japan falls away, quilted field replaced by white spray dancing on a blue stage.

Over the plane’s speakers, the pilot is speaking, welcoming us aboard in a voice muffled by crackling static.

"We’re expecting a smooth flight," he says. "Maybe a little bit of turbulence over the ocean."

Sounds good, I think, temporarily forgetting that "over the ocean" will account for more than eight of the 11 hours we’ll be in the air. I wedge the papery complimentary pillow between my head and the window, settling in to let my mind drift.


By then, just five months into 2018, the year already felt heavy. Each month battered by news of a world in which — for better or worse — every tragedy can now find you wherever you are. Each jolt striking so close you can feel it.

There was Trump, of course. Always Trump, always more Trump, an inescapable torrent of bluster and drama. Resignations, investigations and presidential news cycles that spin so fast, morning news is forgotten by dinner.

Around the globe, there was a never-ending news cycle of Trump, Trump and more Trump. (Jesco Denzel / German Federal Government)

Around the globe, there was a never-ending news cycle of Trump, Trump and more Trump. (Jesco Denzel / German Federal Government)

Canada had aches of its own. No justice in Colten Boushie’s death. No justice in Tina Fontaine’s, either. Then there were sticks out for Humboldt, and a lot of money raised, but it couldn’t sweep away the pain from those 16 lost souls.

There were shocks of violence. A man rammed into a crowd of people in Toronto, killing 10 and injuring 16 others. For a brief time, provocateurs on social media spread the unverified rumour that it was an act of Islamic terrorism.

When it came out that he was merely a man who, just before committing the attack, announced allegiance to the toxic "incel" ideology and praised 2014 misogynist spree-killer Elliot Rodger, the provocateurs soon lost interest.

The problem with the internet is that hatred is more virulent than love. Love takes time to nurture and to protect. Anger, on the other hand, thrives wherever it can find dark corners to fester. The internet provides plenty of that.

The year 2018 was full of turbulence. In Winnipeg, there was the search for justice in Tina Fontaine’s death. (Ruth Bonneville / Free Press files)

The year 2018 was full of turbulence. In Winnipeg, there was the search for justice in Tina Fontaine’s death. (Ruth Bonneville / Free Press files)


I am jolted awake somewhere over the Pacific. The plane starts shaking, rattled by aerial potholes that grow deeper with each passing moment. The flight attendants, taking care to look calm, wheel their beverage carts out of service.

Caught in the grasp of the atmosphere’s casual violence, the word "turbulence" feels too clean, too euphemistic. What I want to say is: I have never felt so small, so powerless, so eminently naked and terrified in my entire life.

The plane is groaning now, lurching — sickeningly — in all four directions. My stomach finds a new home somewhere in my lungs, and then in my feet. Suddenly we plummet like a rock, and I scream: "Oh my God!"

My best friend is sitting behind me. I twist my neck, until I can catch his eyes over the back of the seat. He looks up, face drawn tight by fear. His seatmate, a small woman with long dark hair, is hunched with her head over her knees.

They are gripping each other’s hands so tight, their knuckles are bone–white

They are gripping each other’s hands so tight, their knuckles are bone-white.

Seconds stretch into minutes, then an hour. The air grows smoother, and now the flight attendants are resuming a long-interrupted cabin service. Their bright smiles beam in stark contrast to our haunted eyes and clenched jaws.

Behind me, my friend and his seatmate silently unclasp their hands. They return their gaze to their seat-back entertainment systems. When the plane lands in Calgary, we rush outside to plant our feet on the solid earth.

I ask my friend about that woman, whose hand he held as we were being tossed around the sky. He smiles and shakes his head as he recalls how his hand found hers on the armrest, and clutched for dear life.

"Thing is," he says, "we never acknowledged each other again."

I blink at him, bemused: really? Nothing? My friend shakes his head. They never spoke a word, or traded a smile. Only that, when it felt like we were all going to die, they gripped each other so tight their fingers left marks behind.

For the next seven months, I will laugh a little every time I think about this.

Imagine sitting inches from another person for nearly 12 hours. Sharing the same pressurized air, the same few cubic feet of space. Reaching for each other when desperate for comfort but never acknowledging you’d done it.

Then again, what would you even say? What if all you needed from that moment had already been given?


In the U.S., children of asylum seekers were forced into detention camps. (Andres Leighton / The Associated Press files)

In the U.S., children of asylum seekers were forced into detention camps. (Andres Leighton / The Associated Press files)

Back home, the year rolled on, chaotic and feeling far too long. More jolts. More Trump. A tornado screams toward Lake Manitoba, chewing up homes and pastures. It spares a family huddled in a basement, but claims a life nearby.

Twelve boys are trapped in a cave in Thailand. For most of the next 18 days, I am glued to news of their rescue, captivated by the effort, and by the way that — in this one thing, at least — the world seems to act with one heart.

Children of asylum seekers are wrenched from their parents and housed in cages. A tsunami and earthquake batter Indonesia, killing at least 2,256, an unfathomable number. Because the news is packed with politics, we hear little about it.

A Washington Post columnist walks into the Saudi Consulate in Turkey, and never walks out. Cannabis legalization sweeps across Canada, a 24-hour ruckus that gives way to wondering what the fuss was all about.

In Brazil, a far-right authoritarian is elected. The United Kingdom continues to flail over Brexit. Fascists march in Poland, and now it seems the entire world is a tinderbox, extreme risk of fire, don’t anyone drop a cigarette butt.

A fire rages through California, turning a picturesque forest town called Paradise into a living hell. (Noah Berger / Associated Press files)

A fire rages through California, turning a picturesque forest town called Paradise into a living hell. (Noah Berger / Associated Press files)

A fire rages through California, turning a picturesque forest town called Paradise into a living hell. It is the most destructive wildfire ever recorded in the state. At least 86 people die, and climate change whispers: stay tuned.

A mass shooting (school). A mass shooting (synagogue). A mass shooting (country bar). List incomplete.

In October, a Lion Air flight out of Jakarta struggles to stabilize its altitude, before making a steep dive at full speed into the Java Sea. The crash, the deadliest ever for a Boeing 737, obliterates the plane and all 189 people on board.

I wonder how many of them, in those final seconds, held a stranger’s hand. I’d never thought about that before, but now I imagine hands fumbling over armrests and fingers lacing together, weaving an intimacy words cannot muster.

Maybe that’s all we can ever do. Maybe there are no words to make it all better. Maybe, we just have to hang on.

So here’s a wish, at the dawn of this new year. Whatever happens in 2019, whatever turbulence the world encounters, I hope that you, too, will find a fellow traveller who will hold your hand when the going gets rough.

Whenever that moment comes, I hope that it is exactly as much — and as little — as you need.

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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