I wrote the freewrite below while attending a class during my recent season of ‘Quarter-life Crisis.’ It was weird, reading back over it, how even in June it perfectly described so much of the tension that has bubbled over this year, and the passion that has welled up within me. So I post this to reminisce on my personal thoughts of 2016 and my ‘New Years Resolution’ of sorts as we all look forward into the unknown – 2017. Enjoy.
iMessage (June 11, 1:28pm): Boarding! Miss you guys already!
I was at 40,000 feet at 2:02 am EST, somewhere above the Persian Gulf when it happened. Approximately 7,000 miles of air was between me and the chaos engulfing a nightclub I had never been to nor had ever heard of. I think I was watching Zootopia while over 100 people were being mercilessly wounded or slaughtered. I wasn’t thinking about it when I helped a Muslim couple with their crying child in the row next to me. I didn’t know the identity of the presumably gay couple in front of me was being attacked as I handed them a blanket from behind. I didn’t know. We were just people trying to get somewhere together. Reading books. Snuggling with children. Watching TV. Sleeping. Airplanes are oddly sleepy places; still, like a secluded pond shaded by giant oaks trees to set your back against with a good book and a blanket. Your mind lulls, suspended above the world that spins beneath you. We were suspended 40,000 feet above it – the world. My mind was 7,000 miles away from Orlando, but before my sleeping friends on the east coast were even awake, that 7,000 miles turned into 6 inches.
ALERT: MASS SHOOTING IN FLORIDA, U.S.A – OVER 50 PEOPLE INJURED OR DEAD
I blinked, trying to clear my eyes to read the screen in front of me Then, I blinked again. What time was it? I looked at my phone. It was 6:00 am EST on Sunday, June 12, and I was somewhere over the Mediterranean Sea, still several thousand miles from home. But news had reached our Boeing-737 at 40,000 feet before most of my friends were even out of bed. I knew. I was closer to it then they were.
iMessage: Failed to Send. No Service
I couldn’t tell them. I couldn’t ask anyone I knew if the people I loved were dead or alive. I couldn’t reach my sister, who frequently goes to Orlando, to see how she was doing. I was still in our Boeing-747, with eight hours before I saw American soil or wifi. Technology could bring me news, but it couldn’t bring me comfort. In that moment, I wasn’t entirely thankful to know; I felt rather helpless, trapped, and useless at 40,000 feet.
I finished Zootopia, and then tried to sleep. Not shockingly, sleep would have nothing to do with me, and so I gave up to watch the diverse group of people around me. It’s truly amazing how many nationalities can be contained on a single aircraft. Our flight attendants spoke a total of 17 languages and were from 16 different countries. The Arab men beside me wore thobes and kufis, their wives in black abayas. There were Indian women in bohemian-looking saurees and Buddhist monks wearing vibrant orange robes The European women behind me wore khakis and whispered to each other in what I believe was Danish or Dutch. A large Chinese family all wore matching traditional tunics; another Chinese couple wore One Direction t-shirts. So much diversity – dress, language, diet, beliefs, and traditions – yet we were all flying to one place together: New York City, U.S.A.
I still didn’t know, at 40,000 feet, that the man who walked into a gay bar was Muslim, or that he was targeting the LGBT community. I didn’t know. I was suspended somewhere over the Mediterranean Sea flying on one plane to one place with one line to play over and over in my head like a ticker at a ball game: “ALERT: mass shooting in Florida, U.S.A – over 50 people injured or dead.” But even then, A Muslim family sat to my right, and two gay men one row ahead. We are so different, yet so similar. Victims of hate; perpetrators of hate. It is an ugly cycle, but at 40,000 feet we seem so far away from it. We’re all just trying to get somewhere, somewhere safe.
In Zootopia, the main character, a bunny called Judy Hopps, is trying to break the mold to become the first police bunny (I know…but it’s a kid’s movie, hang with me). Her parents warn her of the evil foxes, whom they are at odds with. Her conversation with her parents seemed prophetic in the shadow of the tragedies to come:
Bonnie: Actually, your father does have a point there. It’s in their biology. Remember what happened with Gideon Grey?
Judy: When I was nine. Gideon Grey was a jerk who happened to be a fox. I know plenty of bunnies who are jerks.
It’s in their biology. Who are the foxes? Is it the Muslims? Is it the LGBTQ community? To someone, YOU are the fox; I am the fox. But Omar Mateen was a jerk who happened to be a fox. I know plenty of people who are not Omar Mateen who are jerks. What is in our biology? If anything, perhaps the lesson is that all of us – fox, bunny, hippo, lion, sheep – we are all capable of being jerks, or worse. But just because someone who looks like me is a jerk, doesn’t mean I am. I don’t want to be misunderstood, and neither do they. We’re all just trying to get somewhere like New York City or Zootopia– a place of opportunity. That, too, is in our biology – to survive, to do something, to be someone. To my right – the Muslim family rocking their toddler. A row ahead of me– the two men asleep on each other’s shoulders. I can’t help but wonder what each of them are thinking now. Who do they blame? Who are they afraid of? Who’s their fox?
I didn’t stay at 40,000 feet. At 2:02 pm EST on Sunday, June 12 I landed in New York City. I texted my sister the moment I landed, and the rest of the news came in:
iMessage (June 12, 2:10pm): “Where are you? Are you okay? I am so sorry. What can I do?”
Then, I texted one of my Muslim friends.
iMessage (June 12, 2:12pm): Are you okay? How are you? I am so sorry this happened. I know this is going to affect you.
There are jerks everywhere, but I don’t want to be one of them. I want to be like Judy from Zootopia; she’s not naïve to the fact that the world is full of evil people, but she doesn’t let one idiot fox named Gideon Gray stop her from trying to change the way people look at foxes. Sure, there a jerk in every bunch, and you better believe that I’m going to take Judy’s attitude that jerks will not be tolerated, of any kind. But I also want to change the way people look at foxes, and the way they look at me.
“I thought this city would be a perfect place where everyone got along and anyone could be anything. Turns out life’s a bit more complicated than a slogan on a bumper sticker. Real life is messy. We all have limitations. We all make mistakes. Which means, hey glass half full, we all have a lot in common. And the more we try to understand one another, the more exceptional each of us will be. But we have to try. So no matter what kind of person you are, I implore you: Try. Try to make the world a better place. Look inside yourself and recognize that change starts with you.”
~ Judy Hopps, Zootopia