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Once again I had one of those rare experiences that you just can't make up. And out of that experience came this story.
So there I was, waiting for my flight from Sedona to Chicago after a long - but wonderful - four-day workshop. I was exhausted and very eager to get home. I was also facing another four-day workshop the following weekend, which meant I only had a few days at home. And the previous weekend, I had recorded another CD series for Sounds True with Andrew Harvey. In other words, I was seriously hitting burnout.
Like so many of us Americans who are space neurotic, I like empty seats around me in a waiting area. Since most of the seats were already taken, I then had to decide which place seemed the least loud - aka childproof. There it was - my seat. A mother, her teenaged daughter (definitely not a screaming toddler), an empty seat and some guy popping grapes into his mouth. That will do. I sat down and opened my latest history book - my home away from home, as they say.
Checking my watch, I saw that we had about 45 minutes until boarding. No big deal. Now, I'm not an eavesdropper as a rule. But every now and again, I hear something that I just have to listen to - I mean, it has my name written all over it. You know what that's like, right? So, I hear the mother of this teenaged girl say, "No, that's not accurate. They only put numbers on the prisoners at Auschwitz."
I glanced at the daughter who had her laptop computer open. She was obviously working on a paper or doing research on the Holocaust. Wow. Okay then. Interruption from the Boarding Gate: Your flight has been delayed by fifteen minutes. I don't know how many of you know the tricks of the trade that airlines use to tranquilize travelers, but for well-seasoned airport folks like me, I know that the old "fifteen minute" delay message is the beginning of bad news. And sure enough, fifteen minutes later, the second message came across the airwaves, only this one sounded like someone doing a karaoke audition at a frat party.
"Mom, did that woman say that the flight is delayed because there are bananas on the runway?"
Enter the man popping grapes into his mouth. "That's what I heard." "Well, that would be a first," I said.
I decided to get something to eat at that point, as I knew this was going to be a long night. I asked the eating-the-grapes guy if he would watch my luggage and I made a dash for a food kiosk, returning with a turkey sandwich. As I struggled to unwrap it, I asked Mr. Grape if he wanted half of it.
He said, "Well, no. I mean, I just ate these grapes."
So I helped him out and said, "Eat this," handing him half plus a napkin. We started to laugh and small talk began, naming our home ports and the usual sort of banal chit chat.
Meanwhile, to my right, the curious but irritated mom remained baffled by the announcement that bananas on the runway could possibly be the reason we were now stuck in the Phoenix airport.
"That's ridiculous. I mean, did we hear that right? I'm going to find out what's going on here." Exit mother to the ticket counter.
I took advantage of the mom's little trip up to the ticket counter to ask her daughter about her school project, as it had more than piqued my curiosity. "What are you working on?"
She told me she was writing a fiction piece about a young girl who escaped from Auschwitz. It was an English class assignment.
Now mom returns with the facts: No, there are no bananas on the runway. There's a problem with the plane and it's anyone's guess how long we will be here.
"How in the world did we think we heard something so ridiculous?"
We all started to laugh - Mr. Grape included - and a rather pleasant, easy social atmosphere opened up. We introduced ourselves on a first name basis. (Note: these are not their actual names.) Carrie told me that she and her daughter, Leah, along with a number of other parents and their kids, had come to town for a sports competition. I figured as much, given the number of parents and teenagers wearing sneakers roaming the area.
And now we get to the "you can't make this up" part. As our little get-to-know-you conversation began to wane, Carrie said to her daughter, "Come on, you have to get this paper done for school tomorrow."
Her daughter, obviously exhausted, gave her one of those "Don't you think I know that?" looks and reshuffled her body parts on her seat. Who of us can't recall that Sunday evening school pressure feeling? Then, for some unknown reason, Carrie asked me, "You don't know anything about writing, do you?"
When we first introduced ourselves, I told her that I was a teacher. I never mentioned my writing career. I said, "What do you need?"
Leah angled her laptop in my direction. She said she just needed help to make sure the story made sense and the sentences were "really sentences". I told her to talk to me about the story she wanted to tell and then we would figure out how to say this and that part better.
"Ever hear of Auschwitz?"
I told her that I had visited that camp a few years ago when I took my mom to Poland to see where her mom and dad were born.
She asked me what it was like to go into that camp today. I asked her what motivated her to write this story. She told me that she wanted to tell the story of a girl who managed to escape Auschwitz, to live to tell others about the horror of that place. We talked about the gas chambers, the killings - the nightmare that was the Holocaust. She had read Night, by Elie Wiesel and The Diary of Anne Frank. I told her I had read those books as well at her age.
Leah's story was impressive. It was the Heroines Journey, the story of an Anne Frank who lived to tell the world of her experience. This was a girl who would not be defeated by life, I thought. It was a version of Leah, imagining the victories she wished could have been Anne Frank's or so many other young Jewish women's. The flame had been lit in her soul. She was most certainly a physical athlete and she was training her spirit to run the marathon of life armed with icons of the soul like Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel. I decided I wanted to kidnap her, adopt her, hold on to her as a surrogate daughter or niece or something. She sparkled. Leah was a jewel of a young woman who I thought would no doubt become an extraordinary fireball of a woman.
Meanwhile, the gentleman to my left (formerly Mr. Grape, now Sam) had been listening to everything Leah and I were talking about. All he said was, "Interesting conversation."
Competition is a funny thing. I mentioned that Leah and mom, along with all these other parents and their teenagers, were in town for a high school sports competition - emphasis on the word competition. Somehow, one of the other mothers noticed that Leah, her mother and I were having a lot of fun helping her daughter with her paper. I, of course, come alive whenever I have the opportunity to talk history and Leah wanted to actually learn! Now if that isn't the perfect chemistry, what is?
Well, this other mother wanders over and says, "What's going on here?"
No kidding. I was expecting her next question to be, "And are we having a little too much fun here?"
She reminded me of my high school days when a small group of us would hide in the bathroom to read a private note or escape gym class only to await the moment the bathroom door popped open. And we all know that door didn't open by itself. Inevitably, the swishing sound of the nun's habit ... and then we would hear that question to which we always gave the same answer: "Girls, what's going on here?"
"Nothing, Sister." Scamper, scamper, and out the bathroom or any door we would go. I started laughing to myself. Here I was in the Phoenix airport, decades later, and I am looking at this woman picturing her as a nun who used to comb the halls of Guerin High School making sure we were all in class.
Carrie said, "This nice lady is helping my daughter with her paper."
That's all she said. That's it. Nothing else. But it was enough to get those competitive juices going. Acting as if I had no choice in the matter at all, she said to Carrie, "I want her to help my son with his paper."
"Well, there she is. Ask her," Carrie said.
"I want you to help my son with his paper," she said.
"Was there a request hidden in that sentence that I missed?" I said.
"I'm sorry," she said as she reeled in her entitlement. "Would you mind helping my son?"
I was about to say, "Are you kidding me? Leah and I are still in the middle of her paper," but she vanished and reappeared within one minute not only with her son but with a handful of other mothers and their teenagers, all of them armed with their laptops.
I said, "Take a seat, kids. It's English 101."
I honestly did not know where to begin. I started with the boy sitting next to me and his sticky, dirty laptop. Ugh. He was writing a book report on a book he had not finished. Okay then.
"You didn't read the whole book?"
"Well, no. But sort of."
I said, "A book report on a book you sort of read might be a challenge. Ever thought about that?"
I glanced over at Sam who had this "Oh, did this guy remind me of me" grin on his face. He stretched out of his seat and said, "I think this situation calls for a large bag of junk food. I'll be right back."
Ten minutes later he returned, armed with candy bars, pretzels, bagged popcorn, and bottles of water. Wow.
I could not help myself. The writer in me, the lover of literature, the publisher, that part of me that adores words and poetry and phrases that live on forever kicked into gear.
"How is it that you do not love to read? How is that possible? You, who have an extraordinary creative mind, who dreams about creating unusual structures and buildings? I can see that in you. I can just feel it in you. Reading is everything."
Well, I carried on - and on. Some of the kids had put more effort into their papers and one, not unlike Leah, had put soul into it. Sometimes what they wrote sparked an opportunity to chat about the time in history that the author was writing about or a fun fact that makes learning a blast, or it did for me. I know this much - I didn't lose their attention, late as it was that night. Nor did their parents wander. It wasn't so much that they were captivated by my carrying on. It was witnessing enthusiasm and interest in their kids, even in this small way. Parents don't sit in classrooms with their kids and they don't get a chance to listen to them discuss how the writings of an author affect them. When young people share their interpretation, albeit ever so briefly, of a piece of work that I once read, I get overcome by a sense of awe. I adore the awakening mind. I adore it. It is magnificent to witness someone standing on the threshold of their intellectual and emotional fields of power. Maybe that's the teacher in me, that part of me that just weeps inside at the thought of a mind or soul gone unchallenged. Anyway ...
The time flew by and we had a great time. Finally, "school was out" but still, no plane in sight. All the parents wandered back to a different area with their kids, high on chocolate but low on any real energy, leaving Leah, Carrie, Sam and me back at ground zero. Then Sam said, "Feel like a walk?"
Phoenix airport is very walkable, which is useful when your flight is delayed. Sam and I headed down a long corridor and immediately into a deeply revealing conversation. Sam told me he was a Palestinian, born and raised in Palestine until his early teens. He said, "I was listening to your conversation about the Holocaust, by the way."
His family came over to the U.S. about twenty-years-ago. Sam told me that in his youth, he tried to follow the traditions of Islam.
"I even had an arranged marriage, the whole bit. It was awful. We were committed strangers to each other. Then after ten years, I met the love of my life who happened to be a Mexican Catholic."
Sam shared the tumultuous break up and breaking out of his life, his bond to his Catholic wife and now his commitment to the world peace process as a successful businessman. He was a global soul with a global vision.
By the time we got back to our seats, we learned that a plane had been assigned to us - at last. Time for a wrap up conversation. Sam told Carrie he was a businessman and that he, too, had children. He mentioned how much he liked Chicago and then he dropped this into the conversation, "And I'm Palestinian."
Carrie recoiled back. Her very warm and ebullient personality began to shut down as her Jewish aura became a wall of steel. Leah looked at her, almost waiting for the signals as to how to proceed, as she had spoken openly to Sam for hours now.
"Wait just a moment here," I said, "What's this buzz I sense?"
Sam began to defend himself, saying that he is for all religions and has an open heart. He mentioned the peace work he was now planning to do, as his success had now given him the means to devote himself to humanitarian projects. He was suddenly speaking like a man before a jury, pleading to prove his goodness. But Carrie would have none of it. He was guilty by nationality and that was that.
"Hmmm," I said.
I turned to Leah, who was becoming more and more stressed in that sort of subtle way, uncertain of what just went wrong and not at all sure what needed to be said.
"Isn't this quite something, Leah? We've just spent hours working on your paper on the Holocaust - a nightmare that happened because some people could not be with others just because of their ethnic background. All those good people died for nothing, just because someone found out they were Jewish or maybe Palestinian or maybe Catholic, like Sam's wife. I'm a Catholic. Sam's a Palestinian. And you and your mom are Jewish. We could all walk away from each other, now that we know that one detail. Or we could learn from the Holocaust. What do you think we should do, Leah?"
"Mom? No more Holocaust."
Carrie looked at her daughter, stroked her hair. Pure love. Big love.
"So, Sam," she said, "Tell me about the peace work you want to do."
We boarded the plane and after the flight, I met up with Leah and Carrie at baggage claim. We hugged a warm farewell. It was 3:30 a.m. Who cared?
My dear and forever friend, Ellen, had managed to drag herself out of bed to pick me up in the middle of this cold, February night - along with my dog. Standing on the curb outside baggage, I heard my name being called and then I saw Sam running toward me with his arms wide open.
"I may never see you again, but I will never forget this evening. Never." Neither will I.
We are living in wildly changing times and madness is everywhere. It takes so little to activate the fears in a person. And those fears are dangerous, poisonous and irrational.
But it also takes so little to break through them. A couple of candy bars, a walk through the airport, a conversation with a wonderful young girl, and a direct hit to the heart daughter-to-mother - and the world is a different place.
Be bold with your heart.