I started a conversation not long ago with a woman in the airport
in Newburgh, New York, by saying, "Are you going somewhere to
visit or are you going home?" I was waiting for my
flight to Chicago. She had come from Chicago and was waiting
for her connecting flight back to West Virginia. I had
noticed that when the young man with her had settled her into the
seat next to mine saying, "Stay here, Grandma. I'll go
get you a Pepsi," she had just sat. Not reading.
Not looking around. Not rummaging in her purse. Not
doing any of the things people do in airport boarding lounges.
"I'm going home," she responded. "And this is
only the second time I've flown anywhere. Flying here the
day before yesterday was the first time." She half
turned her face to me and spoke quietly but seemed glad to
talk--more shy than nervous.
"Why did you come?" I asked.
"My granddaughter was getting married, so I really needed to
come." We talked for a while about the wedding. I
asked about the church, the service, the minister, the bride's
dress, and the wedding cake, and each time she smiled, her face
still turned only partly toward me, and told me something
particular enough to let me know that she was enjoying our
Then I said, "Is this granddaughter the child of your son or
"She is the
child of my daughter," she answered, still quietly, still
half looking, but not smiling. "But my daughter died
ten years ago. Of stomach cancer."
I waited a moment, took a breath, and said, "Was that the
worst thing that ever happened to you?"
She thought for a little bit and then said, "No. I
think it was my first husband's death that was the worst thing
that ever happened to me."
I waited again, wondering what to say next, caught up short not so
much by the pain in her life as by her capacity to reflect about
degrees of worse. Then the conversation seemed to pick up by
itself. Her second husband had also died. Her first
child, a son, had been stillborn. A second son had died
after Vietnam, "something to do with Agent Orange," she
thought. One daughter was still living. She had three
great-grandchildren in West Virginia. Her voice was
modulated, her story straightforward. The remembering aloud
of the major grief of a lifetime--in five minutes, to a
stranger--seemed remarkable in its ordinariness.
I said, "Are you a religious woman?"
She looked up, turned straight to me for the first time, and
smiled. "I do the best I can," she said.
"Does your church hold you up?" I asked.
"It does. But you know what? I have very good
neighbors. I talk to my neighbors."
Her grandson returned with apologies about the line being too long
at the concession stand to get a Pepsi and the news that their
flight was boarding. As I watched them leave, I looked
around the boarding lounge at everyone else coming and going and
thought about how heroic people are, everyone walking around in
the middle of their whole personal life of suffering and
happiness, doing the best they can. I thought about how good
people are, about how kind it was to have a stranger, a momentary
neighbor, make the story of her life a teaching story for me and
then, just by getting up and keeping going, reminding me that we
have Energy enough, and heart enough, for the whole trip.
Boorstein has written
the definitive guide for
Westerners to the Buddhist
practice of the Perfections of
the Heart. Pay Attention, for
Goodness’ Sake is delightfully
clear, accessible, and immediate,
as wise teachings should be,
and it is surely destined
to be a classic.