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25 June 2006

Say hi to Yaron

Update: The rockets from Lebanon into Israel are hitting less than 7 miles from my friend, Yaron. Please keep him in your thoughts, won't you?

“Judging is a lonely job in which a man is, as near as may be, an island entire.” -Abe Fortas

Wheat_field_smA few years ago, I boarded a flight that changed my life. As I boarded that plane, I know now that I was walking away from one life and into another, but at the time it felt like I was just going to Parsippany.

I was in no mood for idle chitchat on this flight; my seatmate had better shut up and act engrossed in the in-flight magazine, all those lovely trinkets in the SkyMall catalog, or some inane movie about the father of the bride or a wedding planner starring Steve Martin or Jennifer Lopez. I just wanted some peace and quiet. It had been a hell of a trip so far and I was in no mood to go to New Jersey; I just wanted to go home.

Of course, I had been saved from hydraulic doom only to be punished on this flight. In fact, this was my return flight home from that trip to Florida, the one where the plane’s hydraulic system failed. [Turns out, we get just what we need when we need it, sometimes.] My seatmate was a very large man, a broad-faced wonder, a man whose belly was not to be contained in a too-small t-shirt from the Grand Canyon, but poured over into my space instead, over the arm rest and into my air, my real estate, my 12B.

Great. That’s just great. I put on my Power Suit Mask and opened my book, an erudite book of poems in their original German by Rainer Maria Rilke; I keep it in my carry-on bag for just such emergencies—it stops people cold in their tracks, usually.

Not this time.

Plastic_bagGrand Canyon Man rifled incessantly through a loud plastic grocery bag that he kept between his feet on the floor, then up in his lap, then down again. The sound was overwhelming, as if the universe had focused its sound boom on that one piece of plastic, amplifying it beyond all measure: I could hear nothing else. Every movement he made moved me too. I was irritated.

Suddenly, without any warning, there was a loud explosion from his lap. The large, family-sized bag of pretzels he had burst open was thrust before me; I was shocked into silence, only nodding a fierce no and returning to my Rilke.

Wie soll ich meine Seele halten, daß
sie nicht an deine rührt? Wie soll ich sie
hinheben über dich zu andern Dingen?

Yeah, yeah, your soul is mine, just keep your extraordinarily large hands and pretzels in 12A.

Ach gerne möchte ich sie bei irgendetwas
Verlorenem im Dunkel unterbringen
an einer fremden stillen Stelle, die
nicht weiterschwingt, wenn diene Tiefen schwingen.

How shall I hold on to my soul, so that it does not touch yours, indeed? Maybe when he wrote those words, Rilke hadn’t been in a plane seat where everything touches. How shall I lift it gently up over you on to other things? I would so very much like to tuck it away among long lost objects in the dark, in some quiet, unknown place, somewhere which remains motionless when your depths resound.

Yeah, all that Rainer, and a little space for breathing and leaning back in my very own 12B would be nice, too.

It grew dark as we passed through clouds; suddenly, Large Plastic Bag Grand Canyon Pretzel Man reached up and turned on my light for me, still not speaking. Perhaps he is mute. He looks Aleutian. An Aleutian mute, that’s just great. After the day I’ve had. Near death, bad speech, egomaniac co-author, and now this. I’m not proud of my attitude at that moment, but there it is for all the world to see. Don’t we all do this sometimes, creating histories for people based on nothing more than what we see?

I just really, really needed to be left alone. I didn’t want to engage. What was so hard to understand about this? Could Large Plastic Bag Grand Canyon Mute Aleutian Pretzel Man not understand that?

I nodded with a forced grin to acknowledge his gentlemanly intrusion. A hydraulic failure would be preferable, I remember thinking to myself. Then it hit me. I’ve just given a speech to 12,000 people about, among other things, not judging people by how they look.

DisposablecameraI determined, between sips of Diet Coke, to be nicer, to reclaim my humanity, to try—dear sweet god—to restore what little karma I had left. When I saw Large Plastic Bag Grand Canyon Mute Aleutian Pretzel Man taking photos out of the plane window with a disposable Kodak, I made my move.

“What are you taking photographs of?” I asked in that slow, loud, excruciatingly enunciated and ineffectual voice sometimes used with non-English speakers. “We don’t have rivers this big in Israel,” he answered slowly in halting English, in a beautiful Israeli accent. One of my dearest and wisest friends in the Whole Wide World is a man from Israel. I turned to face this fabulous voice. “Where are you from in Israel?” I asked. And with that, we began a friendship that endures even now, years later.

Israel_police_breast_and_hat_badgeYaron was a policeman in Netanya, an Israeli resort town. He and his police partner saved their money for five years to come to the U.S.; when her grandmother died the week before the trip, it was clear he would have to come alone. Unsure of his English and here for the first time, he toured the U.S. by himself, no doubt the constant beneficiary of the kind of cold reaction I had given him. He brought police insignia badges from Israel to trade with policemen in the U.S.; I’m still constantly bartering with policemen I meet to get badges to send him for his collection.

“I have traveled all over the United States in these three weeks,” he said in his slow voice. “I rented a tiny car in Los Angeles and drove to the Grand Canyon,” he said, holding his large hands very close together, mimicking how small a steering wheel his budget, compact car had. “When you stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon,” he continued, “you want to turn to the person next to you, don’t you, just to say ‘look, look at that!’”

“I didn’t have anybody to turn to,” he said quietly. 

Wheatfield_with_dark_sky"I went to Disneyworld in Florida and while I was there, my video camera broke. I couldn’t help myself; I started crying in the middle of the street. One of the workers saw me and gave me this little paper camera so I could take pictures while I was there. But you know,” he said, looking straight at me, “it’s not the same. When you see a field of wheat blowing in the breeze, it’s so much different than just seeing a still picture of the wheat, isn’t it?”

It occurred to me at that moment that I was in the presence of someone who had a poet’s soul all wrapped up in a policeman’s body.

“Yes,” I answered. “it’s very different.”

We talked the whole way to Newark. It turns out that I had sat beside Yaron on his very last night in the United States; he was taking a city bus from the airport to a distant relative’s house somewhere in New Jersey before flying out the next day to go home.

When we landed, the car and driver my client had arranged to meet me at the airport was nowhere to be found. It was yet another gift. Yaron and I went to a coffee shop in the airport to talk; we emerged three hours later. He told me about his life, about his fiancée going to the market three days before their wedding and being killed by a truck on the way home, his large sausage fingers slowly moving to just under his eyes where he held them for a moment to serve as log jams for the tears that had collected. He talked about his part-time design business: “You have to see what I got!” he said, digging deeply in one of the bags that surrounded his feet. “It is so beautiful!” His broad face lit up at the very thought of it.

He rooted around for a good while. “I asked the manager if I could please have one because I had never seen anything like it!” he said excitedly. And finally, he sat up again, his large hands dwarfing a Shoney’s menu. “Isn’t this beautiful?!” he said. “Just look at the color!”

Yaron was planning to find a city bus to take him to his final destination; I just couldn’t have his experience in the U.S. end that way. “Come with me,” I said. “We’ll get a cab together and I’ll take you to your cousin’s house.”

TaxiWhen  we approached the tiny 110-year-old man in the first cab with my efficient, crisp, practiced, I’m- a- business- traveler- leave- me- the- hell- alone rollaboard and Yaron’s big suitcases and plastic bags, he balked. “Oh, no, m’am. You need two cabs. You’re going in two opposite directions.”

“Well,” I answered. “We’ll go to where he’s going first and then we’ll turn around and go where I’m going,” I said. “No, m’am, that’ll cost you over $150; you really need two cabs.”

“I appreciate that you’re trying to save me money, but we need to go together,” I said, insistent on delivering Yaron safely with all his bags and Shoney's menus. I couldn’t bear the image of him lugging those bags onto a city bus, unsure of where he was going, perhaps not being met on the other end by his cousin. It just wouldn’t do. It wasn’t the image of the U.S. I wanted to leave him with. The man deserved far better.

New_jersey_signs_1We got lost many times on that journey to his cousin’s house; the drive gave us more time to talk. And after I dropped Yaron off, his cousin waving quizzically from her front door, my cab started backtracking to Parsippany. My driver was not only 110-years-old, but directionally challenged as well, it turns out. Hours into this hour-and-a-half trip, I called John on my cell phone, quietly whispering from the back seat so as not to embarrass the driver: “John? John? Listen, I’m in a car on the New Jersey Turnpike. Can you pull up Mapquest on the computer? I see a highway sign for Maui. I think we’re lost.” By this time, it was many hours after I should have been in my hotel room, getting my beauty sleep for another big speech the next day; John was alarmed by the whispering. “Patti, Patti,” I heard the urgency in his voice. “Have you been kidnapped? If you have, just use the word ‘umbrella’ in your next sentence and read me the next highway sign you see. I’ll call the Highway Patrol.” He wasn’t kidding.

I convinced him that I was okay, just lost; John and Mapquest got me to my hotel in Parsippany, finally.

FantaYaron called the next morning to wish me well in my speech. He calls from Israel every Christmas eve and names all of Santa’s reindeer even though Santa isn’t part of his cultural tradition. He stays up late to call us on New Year’s Eve. When he found out that John’s grandmother, Nana, was a devout Catholic, he sent Holy Water from the River Jordan for us to give her. “And just so you know it isn’t water from my bathroom, I made a video of me getting it from the River Jordan,” he said. Sure enough, the water arrived with a videotape of him driving (and filming at the same time) to the River Jordan. He videotaped the River Jordan sign followed by shaky camera motion while the video camera was set on a rock and Yaron ran in front of the lens, bending down with a Fanta bottle, scooping Holy Water into it.

What would I have missed in my life if I hadn’t said hello?

~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~

WheatfieldSay hi to Yaron. You never know when you might be the highlight in a trip, a needed word, a special kindness. You never know when you might find the friend you’ve needed or the learning that changes everything for you.

And move from "what" to "who"; see life in video. This wasn’t Large Plastic Bag Grand Canyon Mute Aleutian Pretzel Man; he was a real person with a name and a history and stories that make him laugh and cry; he was a “who” not a “what,” just like me.

It turns out, just like the field of wheat Yaron described, we need to see people moving in real time video, not just as static snapshots of one moment in time taken with a disposable camera. People aren’t, it turns out, disposable—in the widest sense of that word, in any language.

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Comments

You had me cracking up with this one...and bawling my eyes out by the end. Do I have a bullseye on my chest, or what? You always aim right for the heart, Patti...and deliver every damn time.

Ditto what Marilyn said...thanks Patti!

I will keep thoughts of this story in my head as I board my plane in July, on my first business trip in over a year. It will help me keep my fellow travelers in perspective and give me a new way to look at whoever shows up in the seat next to me.

Patti:

It makes me think how I will answer the question I sometimes get: "Do you mind if I sit beside you?"

"No, absolutely not," I would say now.

David

thanks, patti. once again, stunningly beautiful post.

Thanks, Patti. I am recovering from laughs and tears, and definitely speechless.

Dayum...

Thanks, Patti!

What a nice bunch of comments to come home to - thanks so much for brightening a very rainy day!

I wonder how many more friends we would make by simply saying "Hi, who are you?"

Since moving to the US I have observed a certain lack of interest in the other person in the people I have been meeting. They are quite self-absorbed, rarely return questions and conversations float along a shallow edge. I have to admit that this is making it more difficult for me to make new friends. I am used to more open and curious communications, where there is a genuine interest in one another.

It could very well be just these particular people, like my husband's work colleagues, and I know better than to generalise. Just take the blogging community, I know that there are lots of likeminded people out here who are anything but shallow.

The kind of friendship that you describe with Yaron warms my heart, I am glad that you decided to take your own advice and got rewarded so beautifully.

The world needs more friendships like these, they are what will save us.

Kerstin - thanks for your thought-provoking comment. I shook my head in wild agreement at your assessment of (the lack of) conversational skills and disinterestedness (or protection?).

What I see so often is that people don't returning questions - something I've been teaching my daughter, Emma -- that if someone asks you a question, you answer and ask one in return, expressing interest in the other person. It was one of the rules that Ron Clark taught his students in Harlem (see his book, The Essential 55) and so powerful, yet seldom done - all you have to do is pay attention to the patterns in conversations to see that questions are usually one-way in a conversation...don't get me started!

It's like a ping-pong match with only one paddle, the ball simply continues on its trajectory to the wall, with no return. Can you tell you touched a nerve? ;-) Thanks!

Another beautiful post that moved me to tears. We all have the power to be a light in the sea of darkness and chaos. Thanks for being one of the willing few to light a flame...

Oh that was such an amazing post. One that had me both laughing and crying! I will try rember to always say hi to Yaron, especially when i'm not in the mood. Thank you for this reminder!

It is so not fair for your words to make me cry so early in the morning. Your writing is lovely and you are beautiful.

There were, as usual, about 300 things I shoulda been doing when I saw the little red flag beside this post. Whether it was approach avoidance to one or all of that holy 300, I clicked on 37 days and got about 37 tears and one very wide smile. The daintyness of some of his gestures (as described so observantly) contrasted with his bulk seemed so incongruous. His choice to travel alone was a promise loyally kept to his fiancee. And the paper camera an invitation for you to unwittingly, resistantly,foot draggingly, get in touch with your 37 days self. And for me to get in touch with the possibility that I could make a teensy click that would make attacking my tasks so much more, well, fun isnt exactly the right word, but with a lighter hand, well, no, ahh with a lighter heart. Yaron's lack of self pity when he described not having someone to say, Look at that! comes to mind.
How much to admire and learn from a man who can have the grief but not be the grief. Like his bag of pretzels, his childlike sense of wonder and his braveness at forging on, exploded over me. I wonder exactly how many times I will need to learn that lesson of not judging a book by its cover.

What a fabulous outcome of stepping past irritation and connecting. :-)

Oh, so beautiful. I am one of those, say hello to everyone super friendly types, being a barmaid in a former life, and I think a lot of folks hold back because of fear.
I love love love this post. I am envious of your friendship with Yaron.

And on a totally different note, the flight could have been worse: http://wilwheatondotflock.blogspot.com/2006/06/dear-parents-of-children-on-airplanes.html

Wonderful, wonderful story. Thank you!

Thanks again to everyone for taking the time to post a comment - it really means a lot to me to hear from you and learn from your insights - thank you!

Beautiful, Patti, thank you.

Patti-

I love this story about not judging by appearances.

One of my best friends in the entire world has cerebral palsy, and walks on crutches. Back when I met him, in college, he looked liked he was all of 12 years old.

I learned a long time ago to judge the people I meet based on their actions towards me, rather than what they look like, or what others say about them.

A few years ago, he got married, and I was honored to be the best man at his wedding, as he was at mine back in 2000.

Thanks,

Dan

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