Cabin Service

The wailing three rows ahead of me began a few minutes after my flight to JFK from LAX had reached cruising altitude. Seats emptied out around a woman whose incoherent litany grew louder by the minute. Her alarm escalated when flight attendants started to surround her. Distress was spreading through the cabin, and I wondered whether we would make an emergency landing in the Mojave Desert.

Something lifted me up out of my seat, and I found myself reaching inside my carry-on for a book I had initially hesitated to bring onboard. Hour By Hour didn’t take up much space, but this Episcopal devotional wasn’t my usual airplane fare. My knees were knocking as I made my way up the aisle. What impact would a week’s worth of daily lessons have on a terrified passenger whose frenzy was spiraling out of control?

I didn’t have to speculate for long. When I approached, the distraught woman stuck a pillow and blanket in front of her face. A crown of lacquered black curls in an elaborate upsweep bobbed frantically. A scarf draped around her neck was printed with hundreds of printed words, and they all spelled Jesus.

“Don’t touch me,” she screamed in a thick island accent.

A kid behind us emitted shrieks of his own. I leaned over the empty seat next to her and asked if she wanted to read my book.

“Get these evil people away from me!” she implored the lovely woman who now stood next to me, a gold cross hanging over the front of her black sweater. I felt instantly at peace, as if it were perfectly normal that Maria Bello should magically appear at 30,000 feet. I wordlessly handed Maria Hour By Hour, hoping she would have better luck than I did calming down the hysterical passenger.

* * *

We all feel we know movie stars from the time we’ve spent watching them on big screens in dark rooms. And it can be a surprise to see them in the flesh. They need to work on their posture or they raise a ruckus over the minor aggravations that we the people tolerate every day.

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But the real-life Maria Bello was even more of a star than the screen persona I knew from A History of Violence and dozens of other movies, TV shows, and stage plays. By the time I returned to my seat, the screaming had abated. I could see Bello’s delicate features in profile, her tousled ponytail moving up and down in sync with the glistening curls she faced. Perched on the armrest next to the aisle, careful not to come too close to the agitated woman, she continued talking as long minutes passed. Eventually she slid all the way into the seat as the cabin pressure gradually returned to normal. People slipped on headsets and opened their laptops, the first service cart came rolling down the aisle.

One hour passed and another began. Maria appeared to be an endless well of comfort. How did she know what to say? She was still speaking when I got up to go to the restroom, less softly now that she had begun to read aloud from Hour By Hour.

The familiar words sounded both collective and deeply personal. I remembered why I loved litany and ritual, the power of common prayer when my own clumsy entreaties were exhausted. I thought about Marble Collegiate, my home church in New York City, and the mundane miracles I’d been hearing about for years. I’d read somewhere that Maria had been raised Catholic and wondered whether she still attended Mass. The troubled woman waved at me gaily, her panic behind her now. I told her she could keep the book. “Thank you. Thank you so much.”

The reading continued on a flight that lasted five hours and twenty minutes. Maria was occasionally spelled by Stephanie Segal, a coordinator for a stop-smoking program in Burbank, but Bello played the lead role in restoring calm to a troubled spirit. The once-distraught woman looked regal as she was wheeled to the baggage area at JFK and why wouldn’t she? The airline personnel were relaxed, now that we had landed. Her brother was there to meet her, and since she was coming to live with him, she would probably never have to face another airline flight in her lifetime. Maria Bello stayed by her side all the way.

There are plenty of reasons to see Prisoners, a thriller opening September 20, but I’ve circled the date in red because Maria is one of the stars. Since that plane ride, I’ve learned that her personal life is no less stellar than her screen roles. Along with raising her son solo, she’s raising consciousness for women’s issues abroad. When the earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, Bello co-launched We Advance, an NGO promoting women’s health and safety in the devastated country. Her Tweets are full of updates on fundraisers and shout-outs for “news and media doing cool sh*t in the world for social change.” In the September issue of Oprah magazine, Maria states she’s begun repeating the rosary after a recent health crisis. “It’s become my meditation — turns out I’m not an om girl. I’m a Hail Mary girl.” Do I believe she takes those prayer beads seriously? You bet I do.