I look out the airplane window to my right at the green crazy quilt that is County Clare, Ireland. Counting the two hour delay we had before getting off the ground in Newark the previous night, as well as the first jump that flew me from my San Francisco starting point, I am already contained inside of an airplane for approximately a million hours. I am ready to immerse myself in the wet and the green and the butter and the peat smoke and the homeland spirit land that even after 35 years of repeated visits always manages to show me something magical and new about what it means to be alive.
I look out that airplane window and feel the feelings one has when one is used to careening impossibly through space at five hundred miles an hour, alongside other humans sitting passively, dropping casually in velocity and altitude, scientifically and majestically soaring inside sheets of aluminum alloy: feelings of weariness mixed with relief, equal parts anticipation and thirst, impatience swirled up with nostalgia.
But then my inner ear tells me that we are leveling out, hang on, nope, we are headed upwards back in the clouds.
Now the PA system comes on.
Now the pilot is telling us that he wants us to remain calm.
I look out the window for my green crazy quilt but all I see is white.
"We are not getting the readings we want to see from the landing gear. We are circling again as we talk to mechanics on the ground about our situation. We believe that most of the landing gear has properly deployed. However, we're getting a repeated mechanical error in the cockpit. We are preparing for an emergency landing.
"All of us in the cockpit and your entire crew has been thoroughly trained in emergency landings. Please listen closely to the instructions we are about to give you."
I have been sitting with a family of five for the past seven hours. The dad reaches forward between the seats to hold the mom's hand. He places his other hand on mine. The kids, all under age ten, go silent, searching their parents' faces for clues.
"Cross your arms and hold the seat in front of you. Lean forward placing your head on your arms or on the seat between your arms. This is the "brace position". When instructed, assume the brace position to prepare for the emergency landing. Remain in this position until your crew directs you to an emergency exit. Locate the exit closest to you now."
Crew members are assisting passengers with the correct positioning to brace themselves in case we crash. The mom in front of me is crying. Her son next to her is crying. The daughter in between me and her dad tries to curl into his lap. He is gently explaining to her how to hold her frail body in the brace position, so that she can be safe. I look out the window. We have descended back out of the white. The crazy quilt is the greenest green I have ever seen.
"Folks, this is your pilot again. We are making our approach. Look at the people sitting next to you. Look at them now. In an event like this, we are all going to do our best to help each other."
The green is so green. My life, this life I've lived - how have I lived it? Have I done enough? In this moment I realize that the 'things' don't matter at all; the 'getting stuff done' and the 'doing' and the 'work' and the 'jobs' and the 'money' and the 'business'. In this moment that stuff is so clearly not how I measure how well I've lived my life.
In this moment, as I'm bracing myself for something out of my control - utterly not at all in any way anything that I can foresee or change or choose or control at all - in this moment the question I'm asking myself is:
Did I love enough?
Did I love the people in my life enough - did I open my heart and make sure that the people I love deeply got my love - did I give freely of my love - did I forgive - did I do the absolute best loving that I was capable of, while I had time to do that loving?
Can I love them all right now in this moment while I have no ability to promise any of them that I'll be able to keep on loving them after this moment is gone?
And can I find a way to hold onto this new, basic understanding of this selfless way of loving, this striving for loving better, which I now hereby make my True North - can I find a way to hold onto this loving True North knowledge in case I am given the opportunity to walk off this plane in one piece?
"BRACE! BRACE! BRACE!"
I posted this blog post, so you know that I lived. We lived. We didn't crash. The landing gear deployed correctly; the dang indicator lighting in the cockpit didn't work. The landing was actually one of the smoothest I've ever experienced, we just coasted for several minutes instead of quickly coming to a stop. Once we did stop, everyone applauded. Many people embraced. Eyes were wiped.
And I walked off the plane with my New True North into the greenest, wettest, most alive and delicious crazy quilt.
Sarah Elovich is a writer, performer and humorist based in Oakland, CA.