“It’s easy to focus on the sky on days when you are flying through the air from your home to a distant place.”

That’s how I started my journal the day I left for Ireland a few weeks ago. I left Flagstaff on a Saturday, flying through clear blue skies, the airplane wing angled in contrast against a line of haze at the horizon.

I bought a brand new Moleskine journal a few days before, wanting to collect on paper the fresh impressions born out of a heightened awareness, knowing that those words will bring the experiences flooding back, even years later.

In the Flagstaff airport I met a man who was traveling home after a visit with his daughter, a ranger at Grand Canyon. We came around to the story of the grandfather who force-marched his grandsons to Phantom Ranch and back without adequate water or food. His daughter had been called to testify at the grandfather’s trial, having witnessed his alleged mistreatment of the boys.

An Italian grandfather in a wheelchair talked into a cell phone in Italian in the Phoenix airport. He refused help getting onto the plane, sending the attendant away as we began to board. As I walked past him up the aisle to my seat, he gave me a gentlemanly nod of greeting. Sitting down a few rows back, I saw the back of his balding head, his hair like fleece from a dark brown sheep, miraculously (or deliberately) absent of grey.

Behind me, before we taxied down the runway, a woman talked loudly into her cell phone, instructing her son to “make sure the dog is home when I get there.” The call ended abruptly: he is obviously giving her trouble, staying out late or not coming home at all. She does not approve of his friends, and minutes later, she called him back, telling him to move his things out of the house. When the drink cart came around 30 minutes later, she ordered a bloody Mary, not coffee.

A nap was irresistible on the flight from Phoenix to Chicago. Two 20-somethings from Grand Rapids were my seatmates, eating sandwiches, and playing games on his fancy cell phone, until they fell asleep with their faces flat against their tray tables, their young spines flexible and resilient.

There are a million stories when that many humans gather. The air is practically humming with them, even the tense silence of takeoffs and landing.

The airline employees call me Miss Falk, which makes me feel like a movie star. I imagined wearing my dark glasses onto the plane, pretending to be incognito. And in fact, that’s about right. I’m just another face in a sea of faces. No one knows us when we leave home; we become characters in another world, where we don’t quite know our role or our lines.

Out the window as we flew over the Midwest, there were clouds that, from below, would be described as a “mackerel sky.” From above, they looked like a washboard road—what my mother calls a corduroy road—promising a bone-shaking ride into infinity.

Our Aer Lingus flight to Dublin is nearly over the North Atlantic when an accented attendant inquired, “Is there a doctor aboard?” A man in my compartment pushed his call button. A flight attendant shepherded him forward. Another announcement. We doubled back to Montreal to get care for a gravely ill passenger. A palpable sense of sympathy from the other passengers hung in the air. The pilot apologized, and said, “It’s the right thing to do.”

In Montreal, grounded by flight regulations and the complexity of the aircraft’s computer systems, we sat on the tarmac for more than four hours. People got up to use the restroom, and were told by the flight attendants to take their seats. There’s no food service, since we could be cleared for takeoff any minute. No water, either. I felt cranky and dehydrated, and wished for sleep, but the lights were all on in the cabin.

Instead of landing first thing in the morning, we arrived mid-afternoon. I passed through customs, and stepped into the grey daylight of Dublin, relieved to see my husband, Mike, waiting. I savored the sense of homecoming. No need for my sunglasses here, either to shield my eyes from too much sun, or to protect myself from the flashbulbs of the paparazzi.