October 6, 2011

Mile-high Enlightenment Club. ~ Julie Balter

Prelude to Self-Transformation

It’s true that I have too much baggage. In fact, my first published essay was about my penchant to over-pack whenever I travel. Although my luggage is now noticeably lighter since letting go of a marriage, a stressful career, and several false identities, I find that as I pack for my next trip to a yoga retreat, I’ve still overstuffed my suitcases with electronic devices of frequent distraction, lotions and potions of perfectionism, and extra layers of self-protection.

I’m traveling to a place we’ll call “The Center” for a program focused on self-transformation. My baggage overload does not go unnoticed by the sole flight attendant on my connection from Atlanta to Scranton, PA. Now, we all know the rule: two pieces of carry-on per passenger. Yet, here I am, lugging a backpack, pocketbook, and a cylinder cloth bag containing my yoga mat. This, after already checking a suitcase sizable enough to hide small children.

If you’re from Miami, like I am, where people show up at MIA to check washing machines, pianos, and other major appliances, then you know that most flight attendants consider a women’s purse as nothing more than a bodily appendage.

But not so at ATL, on a 48-seat plane to Scranton where my flight attendant stops me cold. She’s the very likeness of CNN host Nancy Grace, only larger, like an animated villain.

“Excuse me, Miss. You caaan only have two caaarry on bags,” she drawls.

“Ah’m soo sorry,” she adds. But you can tell that she’s not because she observes my baggage as if she just caught a fish at the end of a dry day.

“That’s okay” I say with extra chipper, although I’m privately peeved. Too many rules—even the small ones—sometimes set me off. I’m also slightly crabby since the weight of my backpack is carving into my shoulders—not that I’m willing to let go of it.

“I’ll just put my pocketbook inside my bag.”

“Which one?” she asks.

“Excuse me?”

“Which of your bags are you going to put your pocketbook in?” Nancy Grace draws in closer. “I need to know,” she says, in a voice that sounds like she’s reporting every detail of the Casey Anthony trial.

I pause and my eyes go wide because: 1) were Nancy Grace a worldly flight attendant of international travel, rather than running a puddle-jumper to Scranton, she might have realized that trying to fit a pocketbook into a yoga-mat bag is like trying to squeeze a basketball into a tube sock, and 2) I know that Nancy Grace is fucking with me.

With a smile, I lie and tell her I will put it in my backpack. In truth, it’s is too stuffed to squeeze in a package of airline peanuts.

I take to my seat and give a New York nod to the older woman sitting next to me. Throughout the flight, Nancy Grace takes to her intercom like a one-woman vaudeville act. She has a running shtick complete with one-liners, anecdotes, and fun facts to supplement her safety and food service announcements. My seatmate chuckles. I simply roll my eyes, and bury myself inside my yoga magazine for the flight’s duration, oblivious to the irony.

Nancy Grace prepares the cabin for landing, marching up and down the aisles, pointing out baggage that may be sticking out an inch from under the seat. She’s like your strictest Iyengar instructor, quick to call out the slightest misalignment.


She’s got me.

“Ah’m soo sah-ry, but I’m going to have to aaahsk you to put your pocketbook underneath the seat in front of you.”

“Okay,” I say, my pocketbook still in my lap.

But Nancy Grace is still standing over my seat, maybe even a little closer.

“Miss, Ah need to watch you do it,” she says, which goes through my ears sounding a lot like, “bend over, bitch.”

In my most serene yoga-teacher voice, as if I am suggesting that Nancy Grace lie down for savasana, I say, “Ma’am, you don’t need to babysit me. I will move my bag.” And I do.

But Nancy Grace, as you may know, is not the kind of lady to lie down in savasana, corpse pose, the equivalent of rolling over to play dead. No, ma’am, not she.

Nancy Grace goes on a tear, coming after me like Casey Anthony, and proceeds to rail against my numerous transgressions.

“Ma’am, have you not noticed I’ve already complied with your request?”

“But ah had to ask you three times.”

I only counted one, but by now there is stone silence throughout the plane, and somehow I get the feeling that everyone around me is siding with Nancy Grace, Staunch Advocate of Passenger Safety.

“Ma’am, I am not going to engage in an argument with you,” I say all yogi-like.

“Well, Ah am very glad to hear that, because if you don’t want to argue with me, Ah can call the authorities right now. You aaare welcome to ah-gue with them about your threat to the security of this ayeh-plane. Ah am more thah-an hah-py to call in the authorities and refer this entire matter to them, if you like.” I believe she mentions “authorities” and my status as a “potential security threat” several more times.

Although I didn’t see him board the plane, I’m now convinced that the Spiritual Director of The Center is sitting directly in the seat behind me. Or at least, I imagine his personal assistant, or maybe half the attendees of my program.

I am also now imagining that I will have to call The Center, and my yoga studio back home, and explain that I wasn’t able to attend the program because I was detained and arrested as a security threat on my flight.

So, now that Nancy Grace has beaten down another criminal into submission, I simply tell her I have nothing further to say on the matter.

I bury my head inside A Seeker’s Guide to Samadhi, trying to restore my breathing and sort through what just happened.

But Nancy Grace, as you may know, has never been one to let things alone.

“Lah-dies and geh-ntlemen,” says a voice that comes over the intercom system. It is, of course, Nancy Grace.

“Ah am so sah-ry if any of our pah-ssengers were offended by our request to ask you to place your baggage under your seats –”

My nose presses up against the page of my magazine. I can smell the soy ink as Nancy Grace soliloquizes for a long spell about her concern for the safety of her passengers and her personal mission to protect us.

Nobody says a word. The plane hums along while I wonder whether to formally report her, recalling media stories of overzealous and aggressive airline employees. The last thing I want is to start my yoga retreat carrying the weight of conflict and grievance. And, of course, there’s that part of me that wonders whether I attracted this, either through “issues” with authority, or what I know is the truth—I still have more baggage than what I’d like or need. And then again, I wonder whether I’m being entirely too hard on myself, assuming—as I sometimes do—blame for other people’s misbehavior.

And all this, of course, leads me back to Warrior One, the asana I’ve been writing about and staring down my mat for months. The asana in which we are asked to stand up to our inner and outer demons.

I don’t have any answers as I deplane. Nancy Grace doesn’t say “buh-bye,” but the pilot does. So, I say “bye” back in my most cheery voice, as if I am telepathing to him, “See? I really am a nice, pleasant person.”

There are no policemen awaiting me at the gate, so I gather all my belongings, strap them to my shoulders, proceed to baggage claim, and set off for a retreat on Self-Transformation.

Julie Balter is a film industry veteran, a yoga teacher rookie, and a writer at heart. She blends these three passions and personas in Yogi After Forty: a blog about bending, stretching & growing up.” “After Forty” explores the poetics of yoga practice and the metaphors we take from the mat, often drawing from her slight obsession with cinema and 1970s pop culture. Julie just completed her yoga teacher training at Prana Yoga in Miami, Florida where she now works as an instructor. Her teaching style interweaves storytelling and symbolism with a challenging practice which inspires students to explore their potential, while embracing a sense of humor.

Julie is also a former student of Goddard College’s MFA Creative Writing Program, and hopes to complete her degree in this lifetime. Her writing has been featured in several periodicals and the anthology, “The Thong Also Rises: Further Adventures of Funny Women on the Road” (Travelers Tales). Articles and writing samples are available upon request through [email protected]. In her free time, Julie is learning to draw yoga stick figures from the great masters, and dedicates too much time to creating musical playlists for class, even though she knows she’s not supposed to play the music too loud.

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