I was in San Francisco on the final leg of my journey back from Chicago, where I had spent the weekend assisting in the preparations for, and then attending the final showing of, our son-in-law’s MFA thesis exhibit at the University of Illinois at Chicago – which, I must say, was a resounding success. The flight from San Francisco to Santa Barbara had been delayed; first, because it arrived late, and then a required maintenance check prolonged the agony. It was not a good hour and a half.
As I sat in the lounge area, I noticed an odd-looking woman sitting opposite me several seats down, intensely absorbed in a book. No, that doesn’t quite do it justice; she was more or less carrying on a passionate conversation with the author; in fact, exclaiming from time to time, “Oh no, that’s not possible!” or “He was there all the time! You just didn’t see him!”
She had on a big, black floppy hat – one of those affairs that an older woman might hide beneath while working in the garden – firmly fastened to her head by a thin strap tied under her chin. Didn’t think much of it at the time, though; people like this pop up all over California, and I was a seasoned observer of The People Who Live On the Edge. Odd was somehow normal here.
Finally, our moment arrived and we were all herded onto the plane, a restive group, to be sure; hot, grouchy and tired. It was a small twin-engine prop with two rows of seats down one side and one row on the other. I knew I had a window seat somewhere near the middle and, last time I checked online, the seat next to me was still empty. I was all set to relax, read, sleep; whatever it took to recover from the annoyance of the delay.
Everything was looking pretty good until the very last moment, when two women boarded and, after reaching the back of the plane, announced with some dismay that they were holding tickets to seats 11C and 11b. Their dismay was caused entirely by the fact that there were only 10 rows of seats. Some joker yelled out: Must be the bathroom! They weren’t amused.
The stewardess, after surveying the situation, said,”Ma’am, would you mind moving to that seat over there?” The next thing I knew, the woman in the floppy black hat plopped herself down next to me and loudly proclaimed: “I’ve been praying for the last hour and a half that Jesus would use me in some special way during this flight, so it’s no accident He moved me over here to sit next to you.” Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners. Trapped by the hand of God. I had nowhere to go but up.
The engines – one mounted on the wing just outside our window – suddenly roared to life, and the floor beneath my feet began to throb. “I was saved eleven years ago when the Lord healed me. I had three fused discs in my back and He replaced them with new ones. Haven’t had a bit of pain ever since. Do you dream at night?”, she shouted out to me over the sound of the engines. “Good for you,” I shouted back. “You won the spiritual lottery. My dreams? They’re secret, even I don’t get to know what they’re about. Don’t remember a thing.”
“My brother’s mission is to save all the Muslims in the world; he’s been in the Middle East for over 40 years. He’s been thrown in jail twice.” “He’s still alive?” I asked, incredulously. “The Lord watches over those He loves,” she said. “He told me recently that I wouldn’t die in a plane crash, which was one of my worst fears. Do you know Jesus?” “Thank God for that,” I said, with some conviction. “I know Him fairly well, actually; in fact we’re on pretty good terms, but we don’t feel the need to talk every day.”
She rattled on and on as loudly as the engines required; in fact, the engines never had a chance. She reminded me of nothing so much as a child trying to explain how wonderful her imaginary friend was. From time to time someone’s head would turn and direct a knowing glance my way, communicating their sympathy for my plight.
I didn’t dare tell her that I had once been a born-again Christian myself after I had gotten out of rehab, kind of like the follow-up after surgery, for fear that it would unleash an even greater wave of evangelical fervor – as though that were even possible. I never let on that I knew a great deal about what she was telling me; far more, in fact, than she herself apparently knew. There were stories of miracles and healings, of numerological studies of the Bible (which I knew had already been discredited), of the many visions and dreams she had, that she and her husband were interpreters of dreams, and on and on. I merely nodded my head, which only made the pain worse.
Though I was rapidly descending into a migraine, I let it all wash over me as though listening to a child reciting nursery rhymes. In truth, I respected her beliefs; or perhaps I should say: I understood her need to believe them. I was once in the very same place; I was in no position to judge, and had no idea what lay buried deep in her past which may have led to her leap of faith. In fact, I appreciated her childlike qualities and her deep, unwavering passion. But man, the price I was paying for my kindness. My head was killing me.
As we approached the end of the flight, she probably began to realize that there would be little time left for me to be saved, and that she would probably never see me again. At last, she confronted me directly: “Would you like to have a personal relationship with the Lord and be born again in His Spirit?”
Then a strange thing happened. I don’t know exactly what came over me, or why my mind turned in this direction – perhaps it was the migraine – but I told her that I already had been born again and had even been filled with the Holy Spirit. I said that I had discovered a place called Second Life, that I had entered into that world and was given a new body, clean and untarnished; a body that would never die. That I had wandered the length and breadth of that land and had met many of my brethren who had come before me, and, lo, they taught me many things. Once I had reached a place of some maturity, I said, I began to help those who had come after me, those who were newly born, those who could barely walk or talk.
I told her of my experience one day as I sat on a stone wall in that world talking to a group of initiates, when a sudden surge of electricity and joy went through the crowd around me. “A Linden is here!” someone shouted. “A Linden is here!” I explained to her that Cory Linden was the creator of this world I now inhabited, and that a group of higher beings now known as The Lindens were his helpers.
Suddenly someone flew up from the grass below and settled on the wall behind me. In this new world, I explained, my being was more spiritual than physical, and that it was not unusual for objects to pass through me, or I through them. I looked behind me and saw that Cory Linden himself was seated behind me, and that our bodies had merged – that we had become one. I had become one with the creator of my universe! That meant that my being had been infused with the spirit of his being, and his with mine.
At this point, just as the plane landed, I noticed she had a rather strange look in her eye. She had grown quiet, and I could tell she did not want to hear another word. Judging by the expression on her face, she seemed shocked and dismayed; in fact, she never said another word and began to quickly gather her things together, and once the plane taxied to a stop, she bolted into the aisle.
Before she got away, though, I called after her, “But wait, wouldn’t you like to have a personal relationship with Cory Linden?” She never looked back. As the rest of us shuffled toward the exit door, the guy who had been sitting in front of me turned to me and said, “I have to hand it to you for tolerating her for the entire flight without telling her to shut the hell up. I certainly couldn’t have done it.”
“I didn’t dare insult her until the plane had landed safely; God, after all, is her co-pilot,” I said, smiling weakly. He looked at me for a brief moment, then turned and merged into the shuffling crowd. I would soon be safe on solid ground.