Not long ago, while fighting my way through a mass of people trying to reach my Southwest Airlines gate at Baltimore International Airport, I was a minute late and almost $150 poorer in the pocketbook. My “A 23” boarding spot ended-up-being a “C 44” due to my late arrival at the airport. As I hastily made my way down the ramp and onto my flight, I found myself in the most dreaded place for a frequent flyer…the middle seat!
It was summer, hot as hades outside, which meant by the time I found a seat, I was disheveled, sweating and a nervous wreck (but thankful I made the flight)! Clumsily I fumbled my way past the woman sitting comfortably in the aisle seat, shoved my leather brief case with wheels under the seat in front of me and then proceeded to try and pull out my five pound computer and notes from the previous day’s meetings.
My years of flying have allowed me to meet all sorts of interesting people. I usually arrive early enough at the airport that I’m able to scan my gate and view the vast quantity of people like a bibliophile does the public library. So many different stories and chapters of each person’s book of life are represented and if I’m in the right mood, I’m anxious to see what "book" I land next to on my flight.
I hate to admit it but I judge every book by its cover. It’s human nature I suppose but something I'm trying hard not to do as I would hate for someone to look at me and assume because I’m without make-up and perfectly coiffed hair, that I may be a bad Mom, undependable friend, lazy employee…the list goes on and on.
Alas, this day in question leads me to one of my biggest downfalls…judging the “book” next to me by the cover. This book looked to be about 70 years old. The cover had deep wrinkles but hints of perfection in between the chapters of the life it surely held together. I assumed this book was well taken care of by a man as her pages were neatly manicured. She was reading the “Economist” magazine so I assumed her story was one of wealth and advantage. As I tried unsuccessfully to not bother either passenger seated next to me while shoving my huge case beneath the seat in front of me, she said, “I don’t think your brief case is going to fit.” For some reason, probably because I had already sized her up in about the first minute I was in the seat, her comment infuriated me. I snapped back, “I fly all the time and never have had problems with my brief case under the seat.” Admittedly, the brief case is large and the wheels inevitably cause problems with a proper fit underneath the seat on some older Southwest Airlines planes. Though she was probably right, in that moment all I could think is how dare she saying something like that to me after the week I’d had away from my family, traveling non-stop! “Why, a person of her age, her arrogance, and her privilege knows nothing about working,” I concluded to myself.
For the next hour she sat thumbing through her magazine and I sat like a sardine in the damn middle seat stewing about the old-timer sitting next to me. In my mind I called her every name I could think of, had concocted an Oscar winning story about who this woman was and where she came from and could hardly wait to get off of the plane to remove myself from the situation. Usually I don’t do this, even in the midst of the madness going on in my head I kept saying to myself, “You don’t know her and these accusations are so unfair.” Even typing it on this post makes me sick to my stomach. It truly was a moment in time I'm ashamed of.
Half way through the flight, she turned my way and I to her. Our eyes met and we both looked away. In that moment, I was completely taken aback. She was breathtakingly beautiful. In an instance of insanity, before I could catch myself, out of my mouth came, “Oh my gosh you are beautiful”. She turned to look at me and said, “Are you talking to me?” “Yes ma’am,” I said, “You are gorgeous.” And I meant every word!
Those words started a friendship between an old book and one that has lots to learn about judging covers that encompass us all. In two hours remaining on our flight, I learned about a lifetime that made-up her book of life. This was the first time she had flown since her husband of over fifty years had died of cancer. Her daughter lives in Texas and her grandson attends college in Colorado so she was flying to meet them both to get his door room set-up for another year of schooling. She was convinced her daughter was worrying about her being at home alone and therefore invited her to Denver for a long weekend. As we continued to discuss our lives, my new friend told me she has two masters’ degrees and worked in academia her entire career. You see, she was not a kept woman at all but a woman that broke through barriers in order to give some smart-ass younger person, like me, a fighting chance at success in the world as a woman. She has a brilliant mind but one that, in that moment, was incredibly fragile as she had to learn how to navigate in this world alone for the first time in her adult life. I learned her neighborhood is full of people that love her and the church she attends has been rock solid as she continued to find her footing. She told me she was “blessed” but somehow I could not help but feel the true blessings were to those that came into contact with her. This is the kind of book I love to read.
The flight ended entirely too soon and I found myself overcome with guilt about the horrible things I thought of such a lovely person. Mary Ann and I have stayed in touch since then. I imagine this holiday will be incredibly difficult for her and her family. As I plan for great things in 2015, my biggest hope is I’m able to view all of the “books” around me knowing they each tell a story that has impacted how their cover looks at the moment my eyes see them. Regardless of what the outside looks like; worn, polished, pulled together perfectly or a complete disaster, when my book is completed, I hope others can read it before they make snap judgments about me based on how my cover looks. Of all the learnings I've gathered this year, perhaps this is the greatest one of all.
“Judge tenderly, if you must. There is usually a side you have not heard, a story you know nothing about, and a battle waged that you are not having to fight.” – Traci Lea LaRussa