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Companions in Flight


Paris to Chicago

A mother and her young daughter sit in the seats in front of me. The mother sends clear signals to the girl: Don’t bother me. Leave me alone.



The carpet of green and gold covering la belle France.

The sheen on the sheet of sea below.

The girl migrates to an unoccupied center seat to my right to watch the in-flight movie. She is blonde with deep brown eyes, solemn and anxious, perhaps eight years old. When the film is over, the girl turns to her journal, writes a few words, then draws for a few pages. She keeps glancing up to see if her mother might be looking back at her. Throughout the flight, she moves back and forth between her mother’s side and her solitary seat. The mother seems to be awake, but unwilling to give her daughter any sign of warmth or reassurance.



Street Art by Fred le Chevalier

Each time the girl returns to the seat across the aisle from me, she looks dejected. I lean over and say, “I think you’re going to be a writer when you grow up.”

She looks startled. Am I talking to her? Someone has noticed her? She’s really visible? I see by the swift changes of expression on her face that she is shy, is not sure what to say—have I observed her secret, that she fears that she is unloved and unlovable? After a full minute, she says, “An artist. I want to be an artist.”

She shows me photos of her dog, Athena.

Strange synchronicity. I had just been thinking about Athena, the goddess of temperate measure. In the flurry of getting ready to fly out of town, I was reminded once again that my tendency towards expansiveness needs tempering with Athena measure.



Zeus is loose, but Athena is meanuh.

Keeping a home in order? Easy. But keeping papers organized? That’s my challenge. I decide that on returning to Paris, I’ll spend one day a week putting files, papers, writing in order.

Right after this, I walked to the back of the plane where a flight attendant was reading “Stealing Athena.” Now, within the space of fifteen minutes, here is a third reference to Athena. What do you call that? It seems to me more than coincidence, like some sort of indication that something’s trying to get through to you from the realm of the invisible.

The young girl and I talk about her dog and her two cats and her mouse and her chicken.

Before we disembark, I say to her mother, “Your daughter is enchanting.”

She looks surprised. This little pest? her expression seems to say.



Denver to Phoenix

Beside me, two young sisters discuss the play they’ve just seen, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

The 15-year-old: “Shakespeare was a playwright who lived in the 1600s.”

The 8-year-old: “I may not know who Shakespeare is, but I’m not dumb!”

The 15-year-old: “I know, you liked Puck best.”

I confirm that the two are sisters, and their ages. I’ve guessed the older’s, but the younger is actually nine years old. They both seem French somehow, the understated style of their clothes. And yes, their family lived in Bordeaux for four years, and now they live in Phoenix.



Phoenix to Denver

The man coming up the aisle is young and muscular, with an open face, and a T-shirt featuring a skull. He sees me lifting my suitcase overhead, and offers to help—gladly accepted—then indicates the middle seat beside me.

We talk about the Colorado fires. He’s hoping to get home in time to get a few hours sleep before a job that begins at dawn.

I ask him about the skull tattoos up and down his arms.

“Oh,” he says, looking embarrassed. “I got those when I was 14. Ran wild for a while. Not much supervision from my family. But I guess I turned out all right. Wife and kids and a house, and I just turned 30.”

As we land in Denver, he turns on his cell phone. His phone plays a recording of demented children’s laughter, echo of his earlier days as a wild child.



Denver to Chicago

He is big-bellied, stocky, with the ruddy face of someone who works outdoors. He looks like a shorter Ernest Hemingway.

I write two letters, to my mother and brother, before asking him what the current U.S. postage is.

44 cents, he says.

I’m glad that I finished the letters first, because this man needs to talk.

“I been cowboyin’ all my life,” he says, and tells me a story about the widow on whose ranch he works. “She’s rich and mean. She pays everyone who works for her minimum wage.”

She questioned his wages once. He told her, “‘I charge you what I charge everyone. Go ahead and hire someone else.’ That shut her up.”

He tells me today has been the worst day of his life. His flight was cancelled and changed four times. “I got up at 6 to get ready for the flight and found my favorite mule, Miss Cassie, dead. We got animals buried all over the property, but I didn’t have time to dig her a grave. By the time I get back, the coyotes and vultures will have picked her clean.”

His eyes brim. “Guy I know said she was the best mule he ever met. She was.”

He doesn’t try to hide his tears. I say, “I think the spirits of everything we’ve ever loved remain.”

He tells me that when they moved into their house, his daughter saw a cowboy sitting on her bed, chewing a wad of tobacco. “We found out he’d died in the house. She’s seen him a bunch of times. Talks with him. He doesn’t cause no trouble, but he used to live there. My daughter’s the only one who can see him.”

I tell him about the ghost of Ronald Colman in our former Playa del Rey house. We felt him on the stairs. He was a benevolent spirit. He and his wife loved each other, and they entertained a lot in the house.

But once when my niece and her boyfriend, Eric, were housesitting, he felt Ronald sit down on the bed in our bedroom. “He was cold, so cold,” he said, “and he tried to drag me West into the sea.”



Chicago to Paris

She has thick brown hair past her waist, large blue eyes, a beautiful face. She’s a wholesome American girl about 16.

She tells me she’s on her way to Kenya on a mission.

“You’re Christian?”

“Baptist,” she says. She’s with a group of young people from her church in Kentucky. They are returning to Nairobi, where they’ll travel to Kenyan villages, bringing wheelchairs and medical and food supplies, as well as the word of Christ.

“When I go into someone’s hut, the families are so full of joy, grateful for what they have. They show us their chairs. They love what they have, they’re proud of their huts and chairs.

“You come back to the U.S., and you feel like a spoiled brat. The only reason I think I need an iPhone is because I see them advertised, and I see my friends with them. If I never saw ads, I would be perfectly happy with what I have.

“We travel with a backpack and six blouses and one skirt for three weeks. My mom had to help me pack. At home, I have closets full of clothes. In Kenya, we have to dress modestly, and wear long skirts.”

We talk about my high school, the uniforms we wore.

“I wish I went to a school where you wear uniforms. Then I wouldn’t spend so much time every morning trying to decide what to wear.

“Do you believe in Christ?” she asks, eyes huge, pupils dilated.



“I believe Christ lived. And so did the Buddha. And many other prophets and sages and divinities.”

She looks uneasy with this response.

“I think Christ had a transformative effect on Western culture,” I add.

She nods. “Do you believe in Heaven and Hell?”

“I believe—no, I’ve experienced—that life doesn’t end with death, that something in the spirits of people we’ve loved survives.”

“And everyone is saved. People confuse the Baptists with the Southern Baptists. We believe that everyone is saved.”

She tells me that she’s trying to get on Kenya time, and that she’ll sleep with her head on a pillow on her food tray.

Minutes after our take off, she is asleep. I decide that I, too, will try to get in synch with Paris time. And for the first time ever, I fall asleep on a plane.

But my flight companion is as jumpy as water on a hot skillet. She flails in her sleep, with elbows, knees and feet knocking me in the knees and arms, until I finally give up on getting any sleep myself.

I watch the soundless drama overhead. It's an American film about the search for a mysterious island, and features a teenager who clearly knows more about everything on earth than his clueless parents.

I open my French novel, “The Elegance of the Hedgehog.” In the same building in Paris live a lonely concierge named Renée who devours literature and chocolate, and a young girl named Paloma who is trying to save her own life by keeping a journal of words and images. And then a Japanese man named Kakuro moves into their building...



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Reader Comments (12)

To find stories everywhere is a wonderful gift. Thanks for sharing some of yours, Kaaren.

Sunday, July 22, 2012 at 7:41 | Unregistered CommenterVarya


Thank you! I guess that's the advantage of not being able to sleep on planes.

Much love,

Kaaren (& Richard)

Sunday, July 22, 2012 at 13:47 | Unregistered CommenterKaaren Kitchell & Richard Beban

I love these pastel chalk sketches.

There is a lovely piece in this week's New Yorker about a journalist without a pad. This reminds me of her piece.

Thanks for your sketches.

Thanks for including me.

Love ya,


Sunday, July 22, 2012 at 13:51 | Unregistered CommenterBruce Moody

Thank you, Bruce. I love to hear any comparison with writing in The New Yorker. I'll look that up.

Much love,

Kaaren (& Richard)

Sunday, July 22, 2012 at 13:54 | Unregistered CommenterKaaren Kitchell & Richard Beban

This may be my favorite Paris Play, yet -- suddenly, I'm looking forward to my own "Paris to Los Angeles" coming up this week.
I hear your brother visited my parents a few weeks back -- they so enjoyed their time with him.
See you and Richard in September.

Sunday, July 22, 2012 at 14:37 | Unregistered CommenterAW


Thank you! That might be related to our shared passion for story.

I saw Jon and Leatrice the weekend after the 4th of July. They'd just been up to see your parents, and loved their visit. There's much love between them.

Let us know when you're back in Paris and we'll have that long walk we planned.

Bon voyage!

Kaaren (& Richard)

Sunday, July 22, 2012 at 16:16 | Unregistered CommenterKaaren Kitchell & Richard Beban

Kaaren - how lovely, these little travel observations. Goddesses, ghosts and budding artists. I'm beginning to think that string theory might be the answer vibrating energies that we are. Wishing you and Richard, as always, love and adventure.

Sunday, July 22, 2012 at 17:34 | Unregistered CommenterJackson Wheeler

Dear Jackson,

What a treasured compliment, coming from a true poet. I believe in string theory in both science and the arts. Yes, we are full of vibrating strings, and all of them, and all of us, are connected.

We miss you, but hope to see you when we get back to California one of these days.

Wishing you love and joy (but you have so much of it already),

Kaaren (& Richard)

Sunday, July 22, 2012 at 19:04 | Unregistered CommenterKaaren Kitchell & Richard Beban

K & R....LOVE this post so much! Your observations of and interactions with others are enchanting! Thank you!!

I am printing it out now for Betty to enjoy!! Hope the letters you mailed made it safely as our postage is now 45 cents!

Perhaps the ghosts interrupted his updated USPS knowledge? And Richard---the photos are wonderful too!

Hugs, Suki

Wednesday, July 25, 2012 at 18:07 | Unregistered CommenterSuki

Dear Suki,

We're so happy to hear you enjoyed the post. Again, thank you for printing these out for Betty.

That's funny about the postage amount. This cowboy told me he wasn't absolutely sure, since his wife mails all their letters. (And he was in a very emotional state, in grief over his mule.)

Richard thanks you, too, and we send you kisses and hugs,

K & R

Wednesday, July 25, 2012 at 23:32 | Unregistered CommenterKaaren Kitchell & Richard Beban

If anyone can attract synchronicity towards them, it would be you, Kaaren. You are so open and powerful spiritually, on top of being immersed in myth. And I loved hearing about your trip. This entry made airline travel seem almost pleasant! .

Saturday, July 28, 2012 at 20:07 | Unregistered CommenterDiane Sherry

Dear Diane,

Thank you! I'd say that if you're open, the power of all life is pretty evident, you can't help but see it. And we're all living immersed in myth and story, it's woven into our DNA.

What fascinates me about airline travel is how you are given a roll of the dice every time you sit down on a plane. You sit right next to a stranger for a few or many hours and that stranger has a story.

Speaking of which, how is your writing going this summer?

Much love,

Kaaren (& Richard)

Saturday, July 28, 2012 at 23:05 | Unregistered CommenterKaaren Kitchell & Richard Beban

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