The flight from Bangkok to Frankfurt was half-full, and I had three seats to myself, room to stretch out, in theory. Yet even when the seats are empty, they are so rigid that it’s hard to relax and succumb to sleep.
In the row ahead of me was an older German couple. They both had white hair, and though I couldn’t hear most of their words, I could hear them each say “Bitte?” frequently. They sat with an open seat between them, her by the window, him in the aisle seat, and with the loud noise of the engine they could barely hear each other and had to keep repeating their words. I love the word bitte for its many uses—“please,” “you’re welcome,” and the way they were using it, more like “Pardon me?” or “Come again?” They sounded kind and respectful when they said it; they never devolved into an annoyed “Was?!”
I managed to sleep about two hours stretched out across the three seats, but I knew I would sleep little more that night. I pulled out the airline’s headphones and found the onboard entertainment. When I was confident no one around me was looking I selected a compilation of 2013 pop songs called “Now That’s What I Call Music!”
I was grateful in that moment that my husband the musicologist was not sitting beside me to see me make such a lowbrow choice. He might have said something like, “Sorry, I would not call that music…”
I don’t know when it was that I started to let myself listen to pop music. Being a Humphrey graduate, I felt compelled to keep up with local Minnesota politics and news, but on some drive or another I rebelled and found The Current and have had a hard time going back. And sometimes when my alt radio station fails me with something altogether alienating, I turn to the pop stations. And blast it.
There was one drive home from work when I was crawling up Ramsey Hill with the music turned up far too loud when I suddenly noticed red flashing lights behind me and realized there was a fire truck bearing down on me, blaring its siren to get me to move over. I turned the volume way down and pulled over. My heart was pounding. I’d had no idea it was there.
Sometimes in my aerobics class for rowers in the Charlottenburg school gym, a song will come on the teacher’s playlist that sends me to another time and place. One week “I’m Too Sexy” came on, and the sights and sounds of a dance club somewhere in small-town PA sprang before me. The music was insanely loud and conversation was impossible, and my friends had disappeared on the dance floor and I was alone and free to just get lost in the music. I’ve lost all track of those folks, but sometimes I feel like I’m trying to get back to that moment, that sensation of utter freedom, a time when anything was possible and life was unfurling like a ribbon and all you had to do was follow it, wherever it might lead. Now when I blast bad pop music, I think there’s a part of me that’s trying to touch my youth and recapture that feeling.
I recall the first time I got into an 8+ after ten years off the water, by then married with two kids. It was as if my younger self had been sitting there all along, such a sensation of déjà vu, the feel of the smooth wooden oar in my hands, starboard side. I could feel the water moving under the boat even before we pushed off the dock, and the anticipation of the first stroke was the sensation of bending time, touching my youth, catching a glimpse of the person I was the first time I ever stepped into a boat, when I was not much more than a kid.
In the final hours of the flight I watched All is Lost with Robert Redford, and God that was dark, not what I needed when I was coasting on two hours of sleep and about to meet a friend at the airport for a full day in her city. The film finished in the final moments we were in the air, and as we touched the ground I again turned on the same CD of pop music to lift my spirits and wake me up. I listened to what our family calls “Mexican Love Kiss”—better known to the world as Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.” And then someone cut off the onboard entertainment and I had no choice but to listen to the piped-in Muzak flooding the plane.
We taxied to the gate and soon people were getting out of their seats to pull their bags out of the overhead compartments. The older couple ahead of me was standing in the aisle now, waiting for the doors to open.
The Muzak coming from the speakers was Rod Stewart’s “You’re In My Heart,” no lyrics, just some soaring violins. And in spite of the cheesy version, I was transported to my next-door neighbors’ kitchen circa 1979, when that song was on the radio. The words were so over the top, “You’ll be my breath should I grow old, you are my lover and you’re my best friend, you’re in my soul”—and I recall how my cheeks were burning as I listened to the song and tried to imagine someone actually saying and meaning such words, praying that no one in the kitchen would look over at me and exclaim, “Jill! You’re beet red!”
I saw the white-haired German man lean over and rest his hand on his wife’s lower back, and it was such an intimate act it almost took my breath away. There was so much expressed in that touch, years of closeness, utter love. She’s in his heart, she’s in his soul; they have grown old together, it’s obvious. I had to turn away and make myself look through the oval window at the rain-streaked tarmac to keep from crying. In their own way this couple was touching their youth too, returning to their favorite spots, his hand on her back, her eyes looking up at him. It was a beautiful thing. And I was grateful in that moment to witness it, to not flush red, to think instead, Might I be touched that way when my hair is as white as snow, loved beyond words?