Saved Twice

JFK pissed me off. The lack of important signage would have been embarrassing in any international airport, and I was flabbergasted that you have to enter the US in order to change flights. Then, I was prepared for expensive food but not the severity (or humanlessness) of the transaction. After nine months falling in love with a variety of places overseas, my return to the US was not going well.

Admittedly, I was cranky. Two people behind me had yammered for the entire overnight flight, and you don’t get breakfast anymore, just a greasy snack. I chose the world’s blandest burrito to stifle my grumbles, but some curmudgeonry must have leaked out as I took a bolted-down stool. The guy next to me heard some imprecation and answered with jovial commiseration. We started talking. And it happened.

Within minutes we were discussing current events, world cultures, and the role of artificial intelligence in art, journalism, and academia. He was born in India, but married a Finnish woman and lived in that very different country. He liked it but missed spices, and yes, the saunas were as common and magnificent as I had heard. We laughed about small things, shared tips on a world city or two, and after a passerby asked if the food was good, we mused on what “good” meant in this context. We both thought the guy was Spanish, and together we pined for Granada.

Half an hour later we parted ways. No names or emails were asked. Just strangers sharing the spontaneous connections that happen, especially when we’re out of our habitual zones. Every one of us has our own experiences and perspectives, and life is richest when we share them. The human connection soothed my biology, and I sauntered to my gate with a smile.

That flight eventually landed in Oakland, and when I started my 40 minute walk home, I peered at America. Hostility in our headlines, intolerance in the voting booth, and anger behind the wheel, I wondered if I wanted to be in the US anymore. I realized I was looking around for a reason to leave for good. But home did not cooperate.

My walk home along Lake Merritt, the US’s first official wildlife refuge, 1870

A wealth of diverse people shared space in the sun, with picnic blankets, rollerskates, and street art that had something to say. A grandfather lifted his tiny grandson to ride on his broad shoulders, and I felt like an uncle when he winked at me and said “He be tired.” I could smell my favorite taco truck as I walked past the former home of an Oakland man of historical importance, and I heard a beautiful array of languages around me, the melodic accents disappearing in the global harmony of laughter. And under the Lake Merritt pergola, the drum circle was going strong.

That’s the pergola, on a day in November 2016 when thousands of us ringed the 3 mile circumference to stand for peace, tolerance, and hope.

Last year I had a tour member tell me he had participated in that drum circle…in the ‘70s. I didn’t know people had been coming together for that long to synchronize rhythms, heartbeats, and smiles. But as I watched the variety of ages, skin colors, and skill levels sharing the experience, mothers swaying with newborns and gray beards nodding along, it didn’t surprise me one bit.

When I had landed in New York, I was cranky and everything confirmed my righteous irritation. Until I connected with people again. It was the same when I got home. Plenty of negatives I could have focused on, but that would have hidden the widespread human goodness that I was yearning for, and was all around me if I had eyes to see it. That doesn’t mean we deny our failures, but the opposite of hate is connection and community. So I spent the last three months doing some of that.

I leave again next week, and my plan is to apply for residency overseas. But these months have reminded me of the beauty here in the land that made me, and confirmed my desire to come back. Roads ahead may lack useful signage, and crappy meals undoubtedly lurk in my future, but I’ll take the loving reminder from my home that redemption and delight live alongside frustration in all of us. You find them after you say hello.