I was performing a skit I wrote for a summer camp crowd of nearly three hundred students, ages twelve to eighteen, on a stage in a large room that resembled a log cabin nestled in the mountains of Colorado. Suddenly someone handed me an urgent message on a Post-it note asking me to call my sister. It simply read:
Call home. 9-1-1.
I ran down rocky steps and through tall pine trees until I saw a light shining from the one giant pole that also held the electrical wires that supplied the dorms and camp cafeteria with modern comforts and electricity. At its base was a pay phone. I picked up the receiver and prayed that I could withstand whatever news would come my way. Just weeks earlier, I had buried my sweet Grandpa Sharp (the first grandparent I had lost). I couldn’t bear much more news of death in my family, but I was trying to prepare my heart for what might come. I dialed and waited for what seemed like a year with each ring. My sister finally answered, and I rushed to cut her off with, “I’m here. Got your message. What’s up?”
My sister hesitated to start her sentence but was direct once she did: “Okay. Well, I just saw on the news that your choir was in a plane crash. It’s your friends. David. Bonnie. Allison. You need to find a TV to see what’s going on and then try to come home.”
June 1, 1999, was the date.
I had just finished my sophomore year of college and was in an elect choir called the Ouachita Singers. Most of this choir had gone on an overseas trip that summer to perform in Europe at different churches and venues. It was an elective trip, since you would have to raise funds to go and pay your own way. When given the option, I didn’t want to go, but instead chose to work at the summer camp where I had worked the year before. A handful of others didn’t go either, but most did. I was in shock. I had no clue who had survived, if any, of my core group of friends. I was gripped with fear and grief that I had lost them all. It wasn’t until about an hour later that I got more facts about what had happened.
American Airlines, flight 1420. It was the last leg of the trip home from their choir concert adventures, and the plane crashed as it flew from Dallas-Fort Worth to Little Rock, Arkansas. Eleven of the 145 people aboard, the captain and ten passengers, were killed in the crash. One of those passengers was a twenty-one-year-old friend who lost his life when he refused to stop entering the flames to drag people to safety after the plane had crashed. He was a hero and a quiet young man who spent his life, quite literally, serving others. And our beloved choir director and his strong and sassy wife (who was also our accompanist and my personal voice teacher) would have to bury one of their young daughters just days later due to injuries sustained during the crash. I came home. I met with my friends who had survived. I hugged necks. I cried. I stayed quiet and let them talk. And we all tried to pick up the pieces of our lives the following semester as classes resumed.
Because of this event in my life at the age of twenty, I do not love to fly. I have seen the effects, firsthand, that come with the grief, loss, and devastation a crash leaves behind.
Call me sensitive, if you like, but I wouldn’t even watch a movie if I knew it had a plane crash scene in it. I was in avoidance mode. I didn’t want to remember that year following the crash and the effects it had on my friends, our community, and our joy.
Now fast-forward nearly twenty years. It was May 19, 2016, when I posted the “Chewbacca Mom” video that went viral. If you’re reading this, you may already have seen it and know about the video. But for those who don’t know, it’s a four-minute video with three minutes of pure laughter and joy I experienced while wearing a toy mask that made funny sounds as I opened and closed my mouth. Sounds fun, right? Well, it was. I laughed and laughed like I hadn’t laughed in years. And as the world began to share that video, that laugh became viral overnight and infected nearly a hundred million viewers within days. I started getting invitations to appear on different television shows. Now, these shows were not a hop, skip, and jump away from my home. Nope. I had to fly in an airplane to get there. By June 1 (the anniversary date of Flight 1420’s fatal crash), I had flown six times since I posted the video less than two weeks previously. This was more than I had flown in the preceding eighteen years. Though I tried to enjoy every moment this fun and funny little viral video granted me, I was also gripped with fear and insecurity during every takeoff and landing.
I kept on flying to media events and speaking engagements the following year. I did it so much, I learned how to navigate through security and not be “that lady” who holds up the line because she doesn’t know all the rules. You know. The one who brings a giant bottle of aerosol hairspray and a large coffee through the line while wearing lace-up boots that take about ten minutes each to take off. These days I have it down. I wear easy-off shoes to the airport and never wear a belt. I always have a ziplock baggie full of appropriately ounced liquid toiletries. I don’t mean to brag, but I’ve got this. I even came up with my own go-to routines to calm and course-correct my nerves during takeoff and landing. When I fly, I am never without the thought of that season from the crash, but I have learned a way not only to cope but to do fairly well as a frequent flier.
One thing I always love to do while flying is look outside the plane window and see the clouds. On bright, sunny days I find myself in awe of where I am, if only for a few minutes. I mean, that is an underrated simple joy I see passengers ignore every flight. Some get it, though. They are the ones you see lift the shade at the risk of waking their fellow row rider, push up their seat, lean forward, and stare.
I get a feeling of wonder every time I look out a window to see that my head is literally in the clouds.
All the fear I feel in getting up there and then coming back down to earth is washed away when I peer at the vast expanse of sky, clouds, and sunshine. It’s a hidden place where I find a secret habitat not many get to see. Within the year following that viral video, I flew more than forty thousand miles. That has helped me retrain my mind to know that crashes aren’t the norm. I have slowly and surely found enjoyment in traveling in the clouds. I have even, a few times, found takeoff and landing to be an afterthought. My hands no longer clutch the armrest but, instead, are folded in my lap or engaged in expression as I talk with a new friend I’ve made in the seat next to mine. It has taken a year in the clouds to find the peace that has afforded me the simple joys of all the things flying can be: fun, exhilarating, and wonder-full. Now, if you’d told me a year ago that I would ever describe flying in those terms, I would have looked at you as if you were crazy. But one flight with my children, in particular, gave me new cause to see it just like that.
It was a last-minute request to come and speak for a friend at her church. I would need to fly myself (and my kiddos with me) from Fort Smith, Arkansas, to Sacramento, California, the following morning. I didn’t have time to prepare my thoughts for flying. Preparation had become a huge advantage in calming my nerves… but this time I couldn’t. Nevertheless, I was with my children, and my “momma bear” instincts overtook anything else I would feel. We made it in plenty of time to the airport with moments to spare for last-minute restroom breaks and a coffee run for myself. My son was seven years old; my daughter was eight. It was right in the middle of their summer break, and we were all excited about the spontaneous weekend adventure awaiting us in Cali. We settled into our seats and pulled out our handheld devices to entertain and distract us. The flight took off smoothly, and we were served snacks and drinks without a hiccup in the air. But during the last twenty minutes of the flight, we began to experience mild turbulence that would quickly turn into severe turbulence. And, y’all, I don’t say that lightly. This was crazy. I had felt turbulence that was choppy, but this was more than that. We began to jolt furiously. It felt as though we were in the hands of an irresponsible, giant toddler in the sky playing with a toy airplane being swooshed and wooshed from side to side. I was not the only one who became genuinely concerned for our safety. A woman behind me began to yell in fear with grunts of “ooooh” and “please, God, no” mixed in. At times the crowd let out a unified gasp of fear. Except this was no thrill ride at an amusement park; our lives depended on a metal tube in the air fighting desperately to defy gravity. Everyone knew it. Well, everyone except my seven-year-old son.
Duncan also began to make a ruckus as we flip-flopped in the air. But it was a ruckus of pure joy! I looked over to see him with his hands raised high in the air, laughing and screaming in exhilaration. My initial thought was, What is wrong with him?! Doesn’t he know we are all going to die?! Then, after what seemed like an eternity the plane leveled out, and we all recovered our throats from the pit of our stomachs. But not my Duncan. Nope. He was yelling to me (as though I weren’t sitting directly next to him), “Mom! That was awesome! Can we do it again? Please?” I looked at his innocent face and the naivety hidden behind his sweet question and learned something about simple joys in that moment.
Duncan didn’t just see the danger as an adventure (and that alone is a lesson worth more than gold). No, my son taught me that joy was more accessible when we feel safe.
Being safe and feeling safe are often not synonymous with each other.
All Duncan knew was that his momma was with him and would keep him safe no matter what. I find this beautiful truth also has a place in my faith. As a person who not only claims to believe in God but places her trust in God, I have experienced joy so many times solely because I believe I am safe in His hands.
I don’t know what your gauge for safety and security is. But I do know that when you feel safe, you allow space for joy. You find adventure no matter the outside danger.
You can laugh and let go with hands raised high when life gets turbulent instead of clutching the armrests of insecurities and fear.
And that is a simple joy I long to know each and every day — especially when I am in the thick of fear.
Is there anything in your life right now that gives you a feeling of wonder? If not, is there an adventure that’s been on your heart you’d like to pursue that could lead you to wonder?
Excerpted with permission from Simple Joys by Candace Payne, copyright Candace Payne.
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Do you struggle with fear? Maybe you have every good reason to fear. Maybe the hardships of life have taught you that fear is a reasonable response. Trusting in God can make us feel safe… which leads to joy! Do you trust Him? Come share your thoughts on joy through fear on our blog. We want to hear from you! ~ Laurie McClure, Faith.Full