When you go to a national humanities conferences, you hear a lot of stories. Stories of the past (especially in Birmingham, 50 years later…), stories of what-if, stories of maybe and possibly and even stories about stories.
And when you’re a writer — aka someone who collects stories — you may well hear stories from complete strangers. On the plane. Say, from Tulsa to Chicago. More on that in a moment.
What I have learned — over & over & throughout the duration of this conference, beginning on the plane from Tulsa — is that our stories shape us. What we tell ourselves becomes our reality. I know, I know… What a DUH comment!
But as I watched the woman sitting beside the window, one seat over from my aisle seat, I knew her stories were based at least in part on fear. Because she recoiled visibly as the young woman in the pink hijab asked, in totally native-speaker English, if she might sit between us.
Ms. Fearful cast a disgusted look at the down parka over Ms. Hijab’s arm, then flicked another disgusted look at the student backpack and the large Coach tote. You know you have to put EVERY-THING under your seat, she said disdainfully, in loudly enunciated single syllables. Almost like a cranky robot: you-know-you-have-to-put-ev-er-y-thing….Did I mention that Ms. Hijab spoke perfect, unaccented, English?
Ms. Hijab flushed a deep shade of red, and stood in the aisle. We had the only seat around. You could tell poor Ms. Hijab just wanted to evaporate. I stepped from my seat and gave her the warmest smile I could muster, and said “Of course! Do you want me to put your bag up?” She shook her head, and said in a very small voice, “I don’t want to be a bother. I can hold it in my lap.”
Ms. Fearful repeated that everything has to go under the aisle. Despite having put her own things in the seat Ms. Hijab was now going to occupy, to deter folks from joining us. (I know this because she told me so.) Whereupon I repeated that I didn’t mind putting Ms. Hijab’s things overhead. Ms. Hijab handed me her big tote, and placed her backpack at her feet, then sat down.
She sat for a bit, and I wrote in my journal (surprised?). After a while she began to visit quietly, thanking me effusively for basic good manners. I demurred, pointing out she would have done the same for me. We exchanged the desultory conversations most folks do on airplanes, while Ms. Fearful hugged her window.
One thing led to another, and Ms. Hijab told me she was very recently divorced. After we discussed her ex’s anger issues, and how she might go forward, she shared that he had told her he was divorcing her BY TEXT MESSAGE!!! Can we say class-A JERK?
There is a point to this: most of us have had relationships fail — many have even lost marriages. And our mothers have needed us when ill, and we have worried and mourned. This kind of grief is universal, whether it wears a pink hijab or goes bare-headed. Perhaps, if Ms. Fearful had not closed herself into the tightly wound ball of fear huddled against the window, she might have made a friend, as I did (I gave Ms. Hijab my card; she asked).
THAT’S what the Humanities are about: sharing our humanity. Through stories. And it was the best possible warm-up to the conference I’ve been bedazzled by all weekend. Well, except for Ms. Fearful (and clueless…).