Flying Economy Class

I, like every expatriate who flies thousands of miles a year both domestically and internationally, read the article Paying a Price for 8 Days of Flying in America, in the New York Times on June 9, by Sarah Lyall, about the gross indignities of air travel. 8 days, 12 flights, 1 journalist. All domestic flights.

It was a well written, funny article and I enjoyed reading it.

She seemed a bit whiny. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb here, a lot of people seem a bit whiny about air travel.

Yes, there are indignities involved when traveling and I do think it is ridiculous to see people, myself included, shuffling over filthy airport tiles in bare feet because our flimsy sandals are on a conveyer belt just in case we tucked a weapon between those Old Navy plastic pieces of junk. It is truly awkward to have a stranger give me a groin pat and quick feel under the wire of my bra, in public.

Yes, I wish I could fly while lying on a bed of rose petals, sipping champagne, while a private masseuse rubs violet essential oils into my now germ-ridden feet.

Sure, it would be awesome to have a steak dinner and handmade hot fudge sundae while zooming above the clouds.

We all want to walk on fairy dust and ride unicorns.

We all want to be treated like kings and queens and be first in line and get overhead space for our over-packed roller bags.

We can’t always get what we want.

I get it, air travel is no longer the realm of the exotic and the regal, sometimes it is barely the realm of the dignified. I get it, planes aren’t on time and luggage gets lost.

I have been in a seat with the person behind me wedging their knees into my back so I couldn’t recline. I’ve sat beneath overhead panels that dripped water on me incessantly throughout the flight. I have been in seats with broken entertainment systems on flights lasting more than thirteen hours. I have been delayed so that I missed my connecting international flight which meant a 2-day journey through three continents turned into a 5-day journey, including lost luggage. I have been thirsty and my stomach, dear God, my stomach has growled.

I would not call any of these things suffering.

I didn’t recline. Okay, it made a little crabby but no one died. No one even got cramps. I asked the flight attendant, who was empathetic about the dripping but unable to move me on the full flight, for a napkin and draped it over my lap and shoved another into the crack above me. I read a book and listened to music instead of watching a movie. I, and my two children, turned our epic 5-day trek into a memorable adventure that we now laugh about. I ignored my thirst and didn’t cry because I couldn’t meet my stomach’s needs in this exact instant with organic free-range gluten free paleo something. In other words, I put patience and perspective to work.

Traveling by plane is now for the masses, at least for more of the masses than it used to be. We aren’t treated like kings and queens while traveling and despite what our parents may have told us, we are not all kings and queens.

We pay to get across the country or the globe in a matter of hours and those of us in economy class paid less. So we get less but we still get to our destination. There are many people who have never flown in an airplane. Many people who can’t afford to soar above the earth, duck through clouds, watch lightening from above it, stare down at golden wheat fields and glittering cloverleaf freeway exits, and disembark in a totally new location. Many people never get to feel the surge of power forcing them back into their seat upon takeoff or the drop of their stomach during turbulence.

This is a privilege. Air travel is a privilege.

And, dare I say it, it is a privilege to sit in economy. To know that I have saved hundreds, thousands of dollars, and that I and the person in business class will both get off at the same place but I saved money and, if it is money I actually have, I can donate it to a friend in need, to my child’s college fund, or to a just cause – I find that satisfying. If it is money I don’t have, what have I lost, compared to the person in first class? I have lost ten minutes of time while boarding. I have lost a fancy meal. No problem. I packed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and, again, I’m satisfied.

It is hard for me to justify paying for a seat that reclines to a bed or a monogrammed pillow on a three-hour flight when Syrian refugee families live in less space (more or less). It isn’t so bad, back here in economy. I’m flying. I’m seeing the world. I’m typing this while I sit here in my seat at the back of the plane. Here, where I have electricity, a movie, running water in the toilet, temperature controls, smiling flight attendants who ask if I want Coke, juice, water, coffee, milk? Almonds? Pretzels? Cookies? They only get crabby when we treat them poorly (don’t be an ass to flight attendants, flying tip #1). In other words, this seat has more amenities than the homes of some people I know in Djibouti.

In saying this, I’m not judging the person in Business Class. I have no idea what they do with their money or how they make their choices and I can feel legitimately happy for their comfort, or I can just ignore them and not let envy or judgment ruin the incredible experience of flight and of my own life. I’m simply saying I can find fulfillment in the lifestyle I can afford.

I realize this makes it all sound hopelessly dramatic, to make these kinds of comparison. But by looking up, toward people who have more and who will always have more, only stirs discontent and Americans, myself included, have become far too good at this. Don’t look ahead, don’t look behind. Look at your own self, your own seat, your own life.

Your brown-haired daughter snuggled on your lap, her head so heavy your legs fell asleep sometime over Chicago. Be glad you are sitting so close together, there aren’t many more years before she won’t want to lean on you anymore. Look at your husband, on the other side, his elbow poking into your ribs as he crosses waaay over his share of the arm rest. He keeps choosing you and your life together, over and over, even when you are mean or selfish or try to shove his elbow back over to his own side of the arm rest. Look across the aisle at those teenagers. They are going to college in a year and they are the best thing you have ever made, the best thing you have ever given to the world. Swallow the lump in your throat. That isn’t from turbulence, that is from contentment.

Yup, that can happen. Even back here, in economy class, boarding zone 3, last row of seats. It is enough.

Actually? We are kings and queens.

Pondering Privilege, a Book Review

Jody Fernando has written a beautiful, practical, and challenging book: Pondering Privilege: Toward a deeper understanding of whiteness, race, and faith.

Jody blogs at Between Worlds and if any Djibouti Jones readers have read When Rich Westerners Don’t Know They’re Being Rich Westerners, know that that blog post was inspired by Jody’s superb post When White People Don’t Know They’re Being White. That’s how I first met Jody, three years ago now and I continue to be challenged and inspired by her writing.

Pondering Privilege takes what Jody started with that viral post and deepens it. As a white woman in a brown family, her perspective is uniquely helpful to someone like me – a white woman in a white family, living in a brown country.

The book could be a quick read but Jody raises such important issues and asks such challenging questions that it is a book one could sit with for weeks. It will make readers uncomfortable and this is a good thing – anyone who wants to grow in their ability to communicate about race, to understand, to seek forgiveness, and to deepen community and move toward healing, should read this book.

Jody takes concepts like ‘cultural competency’ and replaces them with ‘cultural humility,’ examines privilege, and calls out white people for our ignorant ways of thinking and acting as well as addressing the issue of entire systems of privilege. She will not let us sit in complacency.

Each chapter ends with questions to ponder, which makes this an excellent book club choice for people who are ready and willing to wrestle, to be brutally honest with themselves and others, and who want to grow.

For me, the best part of Jody’s book is the utterly practical but radically transformative 21-Day Race Challenge. This alone makes buying the book well worth it because, if you take her up on the challenge, you will be changed. This isn’t a book to read and put away on the shelf, it is a book that can, if you let it, seep into your life and actually change things for the better.

*I received an ARC (advanced reader copy) of this book for review.

The Whole30 in Africa and Privilege

I could say that doing the Whole30 reeks of privilege. Because it does. Kale, avocado, salmon, organic, local, free-range, coconut oil…this stuff is expensive and inaccessible not just to me in Djibouti but to people who live in ‘food deserts’ in the US or who don’t have margins in their budgets. People who can only get to the corner store where everything is overpriced and over-processed.

But you know what? Almost every meal I ate before the Whole30 reeked of privilege when I compare it to what many in Djibouti eat. This is something I wrestle with a lot.

My running clothes, ancient iPod, armband, headphones, and my shoes cost more than many of the people I run past will earn in months. I eat three meals a day. I live inside a house and it has walls and a roof and locks on the doors and screens on the windows. I have running water and electricity and a car and a computer.

This is abundance. Nothing, not one single thing about the Whole30 forced me to acknowledge my wealth any more than I am forced to acknowledge it every day. I could eat avocados or rice and beans until camels fly and it wouldn’t change one thing about the reality that the gap between me and someone living on the street is nearly infinite.

I’m not going to pretend that a month of eating this way changed how I think about food, community, or wealth and poverty and privilege. It simply gave me yet another opportunity to reflect on something I reflect on a lot.

Getting all high and mighty and condemning people who whine about how hard it is to drink coffee black while there is a homeless man on my street who has worn the same cast on his leg for months and months and months and who cries when I give him bananas would be manipulative and, ultimately, dishonest.

The Whole30 and Privilege1

I could say I felt so guilty eating my swiss chard nutrient dense salads or that I struggled with the reality that while some people have to fight to lose weight, other people in the world are dying from not having enough to eat. That would be the whole ‘eat your carrots because there are kids starving in Africa’ argument.

But the truth? I didn’t feel guilty eating swiss chard. I just ate it and felt thankful. And dropped bananas by the homeless man’s head while he slept in the shade. And felt thankful.

Another, contradictory truth? I feel guilty all the time, at least when I let myself wander down that path. Too many calories consumed – guilt. A non-generous response to a beggar – guilt. A new (used) iPod – guilt. A friend who can’t pay her daughter’s school fees – guilt.

My guilt or not guilt had nothing to do with the Whole30. It has everything to do with my plenty. No – my abundance, and what I do with it.

But I can’t live in that place all the time. I want to be aware and sensitive and generous and wise. But I also want to feel gratitude and joy.

Here is something I already knew but doing the Whole30 helped me think about how to apply it to food:

Intention is key. Living, and eating, with intention is something I increasingly value. Instead of running willy-nilly through my days and decisions, I want to be more reflective, more purposeful, more filled with intention with what I do and what I eat. For me, that might mean buying an extra kilo of bananas or keeping a package of dates in the car to hand to hungry people. It might mean biking more instead of driving or taking the time to help a friend move. It might mean speaking up about injustice – not on Twitter but in real life, when I see it in front of me. And it might mean choosing, intentionally, to eat certain foods with gratitude.

My point is that the Whole30 shouldn’t make anyone feel guilty. Going on this food cleanse does nothing to change your status or position in society.

But if it makes you more aware, if it makes you more grateful, if it makes you more generous, excellent.


My other Whole30 posts:

A Runner’s Journey

Learning (again) to Cook

A Reluctant Food Post

What is the Whole30?

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