I wrote this piece last year on Thanksgiving, but it is newly relevant for me today.
Two years ago I thought I was going to die. It was January 2, 2010. I was on a plane from Paris to Bastia on the northern coast of Corsica. Honey had spent New Years with some pals in Sofia, Bulgaria, so I decided to take a long overdue trip to visit one of my dearest friends, Elsa.
The flight was supposed to last just over two hours. A non-event. At an hour forty-five, the captain (a Brit) came on the intercom to inform us that the descent into Bastia would be very windy. Not at all newsworthy, as the landing strip in Bastia is surrounded by mountains near the coast of the Mediterranean. I continued flipping through the in-flight magazine.
A few minutes later, it seemed like the plane down-shifted. Perhaps ironic that I can imagine a pilot downshifting when I don’t know the first thing about driving, certainly less about shifting gears, and nothing about the mechanics of planes or aeronautics. Still, I’ve spent a lot of time on planes.
My first flight was at two-weeks-old from Geneva to Nice. Since then, and I’m being conservative… Twenty-plus long-haul flights to Asia. Long-haul is defined differently by each airline, anywhere from 7-12+ hours. For me, long-haul indicates a minimum of 14 hours. Straight. With layovers and connections, most trips to Asia mean 24 hours of travel. Twenty-plus trips to Asia means twenty-plus trips from Asia. At least half of those trips flying solo. In coach. Unsedated. If you haven’t freaked out by your tenth long-haul flight alone, you’re probably not ever going to freak on a plane. Ten years of flights from LAX to Nice and back. Ten years of flights from Boston to Paris and back. And just for fun, 19-years of round-trips between Boston and LAX, hardly worth mentioning if only to illustrate that I’ve put in the airtime.
I am superstitious and ritualistic about flying but not fearful. I have a lucky charm (actually a packet of lucky charms) that I have flown with since I was six-years-old, the first time I took the LAX-Nice (connection at Heathrow) trip by myself. I won’t fly without it. A couple of years ago, I realized that the packet was not in my suitcase an hour before leaving for the airport. I became hysterical, screaming in a panic. Would I have to test my faith today? I finally found it after ripping apart all the luggage in our dimly-lit basement storage space. Once I had it packed in my suitcase, I was 100% cool, the seasoned traveler.
I don’t drink on the plane and I never eat the salad. I think, subconsciously, I want to have my wits about me. In 1999, I became violently ill on my return from Thailand to the States. On the flight from Narita to LAX I spiked a crazy fever and the JAL Hello Kitty flight attendants had to hover over me with ice packs while I tried not to vomit. I was likely sick from some raw veggies I ate in Bangkok before boarding, but I have not trusted in-flight lettuce since.
I always have chocolate in my carry-on. Chocolate is calming and comforting, but more than that, you don’t want to find yourself at Taoyuan Airport (Taipei) with a six-hour layover in the middle of the night with no Toblerone on hand. Trust me.
So here I was 15 minutes from landing, perusing the duty-free catalog, when it started. A dipping, then a jarring bump of the plane. Nervous twitters from the other passengers. I was…unperturbed. The captain’s voice crackled out again reminding us to fasten our seatbelts for landing and asking flight attendants to take their seats. His announcement was cut short as the plane jolted to one side. Now there were gasps as fear took its seat next to each of us. The plane felt buoyant as on the crest of a wave and just as quickly seemed to be plummeting. Now there was screaming. Shouting. Wailing. From my seat, 6C, I could see the flight attendants’ strained faces. The plane heaved and trembled as we continued the descent.
For the first time in 38-years of airplane travel, I wasn’t sure we would make it. All those long-haul, lettuce-free flights, and this might be the last one. The seat next to me was empty and the man at the window had his hand over his eyes. Crying? Praying? I looked across the aisle. A family of three holding hands, the daughter in tears. We continued bouncing through the air like a toy in a giant’s hand. And then those with window seats could see the runway coming towards us too quickly. The plane was filled with shrieking and sobbing.
I’ve never considered myself philosophical but in that moment, I felt a strange relief. Relief that I had left the house in order. Relief that I had spoken with my family. I had heard the voices of my mother, father, and all of my siblings within hours of the flight. Somewhat unusual to talk to all of those loved ones, spread over three continents, just before this moment. Perhaps not an accident.
I didn’t see my life flash before my eyes, but more importantly, I didn’t feel regret of things undone. Yes, there is much more I can accomplish – my tv show on the Oprah network, the book(s) I’m supposed to write – but in some way, I felt peaceful. In those few seconds as we hurtled toward earth, I was able to take stock. You have had a wonderful life, Ondine. You have more blessings than you can count. You have had incredible, amazing experiences. You have had mundane experiences with incredible, amazing people. Your life is filled with love.
I had been gripping the in-flight magazine and now I relaxed my hands. I told myself: God is good. God is great. Maybe this is how it happens?
Friends, I am glad to still be here. I am also glad that I had a chance to look at my life and own it. My wish for you (on this Thanksgiving) is for clarity to recognize the abundance in your lives, for courage to change the things that you would like to be different, for strength to achieve that which you dream of, for compassion and mindfulness of those in need. No one knows when “that moment” will come…let’s face it without regret.
A few months ago, I learned that a woman I have known since Junior High was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was shaken by the news. Concerned for her and her family, but also, as must always be the case with this horrible illness, I was overwhelmed by the “Why? How? But she’s so young!” We are, of course, the same age, which brought my own mortality back into focus. Even though we haven’t seen each other for many years, I know that she is still the dynamic, positive person I met as a tween. A wife and mother, a successful, accomplished businesswoman, someone I imagine to have a healthy, balanced lifestyle. It didn’t make sense to me…not that cancer ever does.
This friend, Elissa, is facing a long road to recovery. 33 straight days of radiation. I know she will get through it with grace and humor. She has a tremendous support group – I love that her close friends back when we were youngsters are still by her side. And, in what I consider a fantastic FU to cancer, she has created a wonderful project, 33 Dresses.
One of my dear gal pals, Roonie, had an extensive and fabulous jewelry collection, including several heirloom gems and some “important pieces” . Her home was broken into and nearly all the jewelry was stolen. By the grace of Lourdes, she happened to be wearing her best pieces on that day: her grandmother’s ring, a bracelet with great sentimental value, a necklace with a large stone. Of course she was devastated by the loss of the other pieces, but the most important ones were on her. I have never shied away from wearing my good things be it jewelry or evening clothes or fancy shoes. And for the record, good does not necessarily equal expensive. After the theft at Roonie’s, I resolved to wear my special pieces ALL THE TIME. Because what the frack are we waiting for?
Do I sometimes lament the loss of a favorite bracelet in 2006? (get over it already, right?) Sure, but it gave me many happy years being worn and enjoyed, rather than languishing in a box. I am always exasperated as a designer when potential clients tell me my pieces are “too special occasion” or that they don’t have anywhere to wear them. I call bullshit. Wear your beautiful clothes to work. But my colleagues would think it’s “too much.” Frack your colleagues! Do you feel good in it? That’s all that matters. Wear your nice things to the market. Don’t wait for a special occasion. Make your own! You are alive and well, isn’t that a special occasion?
This isn’t just about clothes and jewelry, use your good dishes for frack’s sake. Often. Yes, you risk breaking something, but I promise your meal will taste better. And if broken china is the worst of your worries, congratulations, Friend, you’re doing alright. Men, do you have beautiful shirts and suits suffocating in dry cleaning bags waiting for an invitation? Wear them NOW. Sure, you might have to take something to be pressed, so what. Enjoy today. Carpe Fabulous.
I believe this is the spirit behind 33 Dresses I invite you to join Elissa (and Miss O) in 33 days of “good stuff”.
When “that moment” comes for me, whether I’m on a plane or lounging on the couch, I hope I’m wearing a giant frackin’ tiara and my favorite dress!