Behind the headlines, we live our lives; we flesh out the stories no one hears about. Behind the headlines and media streams, screams and body-shaking laughter shape the lines we call the daily grind, routines, dances and chores. And on a plane heading for the continental equivalent of “another country” by comparison to the deep south, I sat in the same row with three beautiful young men, a window seat providing views of everything from the loblolly pines of my stomping grounds to the Grand Canyon, Death Valley and finally, L.A. These fellows were, from what their conversation amongst each other revealed, heading to Cali for a musical debut, maybe their own. One looked familiar, his voice reminiscent of a rap song I couldn’t quite place. My cultural lens suggested hip hop haunts, at least. They had presence, however low-key but not easily missed. In any case, they were the story behind my headline “Ruth’s Plane Trip to Cali” but they had no idea, minding their own business, alternately napping, checking out Youtube videos and discussing plans while I dottilized and pondered the work and fun awaiting me. We were cordial, considerate and appropriately distant as some travelers can be on long flights. Besides the passing smiles, considerate shared space and taking turns to get to the loo, nothing eventful or significant occurred.
But then the plane landed and the long line trailed down the center, people disembarking as quickly as they could. The three guys disappeared and I stood, somewhat hunched, in no hurry to trample my way past people. It seemed the typical “every man for himself” and I didn’t want to participate. I waited for a lull. And finally this pause as a young man, my former row-mate, comes back up the center, moving against the flow. He’s maybe 3 rows up from me as I’m inching my way closer to moving into the flow of bodies exiting and our eyes lock. I smile, wondering what’s he doing back here, looking around to see if he’s left something behind, seeing nothing but assuming he did. I inch forward and look up to see if there’s anything I can do to get myself moving and assist if he’s left something and in those short increments of time he’s moved up to an arm’s length closer, stopping exiting passengers and looks at me: “Do you need help?” I’m puzzled. He’s not grabbing any lost gear. He’s standing there, blocking the flow and making it possible for me to get out of my row easily. I do so and respond “I’m good but thank you.” He won’t relent, opens the overhead, sees the lone carry on (mine) and asks “Is that yours? Can I get that for you?” I’ve been accused of not knowing when I’m being flirted with but the truth is, I typically do know and by the time I’ve fought my initial shyness it’s over. (Youngest of 4 daughters typically expects to be unseen except for the red hair. Old imprints die hard.) I can say this was no flirtation or con or, or even the effort of a man to get his gear and be helpful to assuage the reality of blocking traffic. He wasn’t looking me up and down, a strictly eye-contact encounter. Nothing unusual except an enormously unusual concern. He didn’t get anything for himself, hadn’t left anything. I don’t know what initially prompted him to work his way back up the row, against the flow of people exiting but he wound up right there, looking at me and insisting on helping, like a kid brother who realizes he’s left his sis behind. In spite of my previous “I’m good!” he reached up, noting my nod when asking if the bag was mine, grabbed the carry on and hefted it down, pausing a split second to find the handle, pulling it out for me and then turning around to exit the plane in front of me. Nothing solicitous. No interactions with others. I was dumbfounded and thankful, expressing my appreciation as I grabbed the handle, moving forward. “Sure, no problem.” he said, disappearing again ahead of me. I melted into the long line, appreciating the time to let it sink in as I smiled to myself: “Gee whiz…welcome to L.A., Ruth.”
j. ruth kelly, 2014, all rights reserved
I passed him in the tunnel and paused “Thanks again. I really appreciate it.” He didn’t miss a beat, standing with his friend, looking up briefly from a cell phone: “You’re welcome. Have a great time in L.A.!” I don’t believe in karma. Not mostly. Not usually. So many people do loads of beautiful and generous things out of a desire to make the world a happier place and get precious little in return for it (except the not insignificant reward of knowing they have made a quiet difference). Karma? Ha. But I had been helpful on a connecting flight, it was knee-jerk, a seemingly small endeavor, no big deal. It certainly wasn’t in proportion to what came at me, up that aisle, a generous regard against the tide of exiting passengers but I thought about karma as I left that plane and I wondered why it sometimes appears to exist and other times, not so much. It didn’t matter. It doesn’t matter.
I know people are kind. This is no newsflash and it’s seldom in the headlines. I get it. But this? It was more than the typical consideration, hitting home, reinforcing something somewhat frayed by life’s less gracious rides. We have any number of headline events to contend with, blurring what’s happening in aisles and homes, towns and countrysides all over the world, all at once. The 2013 headlines for me were such a surreal mix of tragedy, betrayal, renewal and grace I may well have looked wary as I boarded that plane ‘though I was excited and glad to be there. All those headlines make an impact, if we’re not careful, on our ideas of what is “out there” in the big world and in our futures. The truth is, when we make it past the headlines and manage to nurture some level of faith in love, we discover the beauty of what it means to be human in the mean streets and tunnels taking us to places where we can discover a deeper richness of living.
Behind the headlines, we’re thriving, growing a history that defies the worst of our mistakes, flying love in the face of every contradiction of value…as we dare to risk yet another round of adventure.