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The Role Model Whose Name I Don't Know

shoes with tomatoes Several years ago, my husband and I went on vacation to Israel. It was one of the best vacations I’ve ever had, one of those trips where everything just falls into place: the food was delicious, the sights were fascinating, and we felt neither rushed nor bored at any point. I’ll admit I was a little nervous the first day driving our rental car when I saw that the road signs were in Hebrew, but I got used to it and trusted that the really important signs would include English (which they did).
One thing did go wrong, though. Our return flight to Toronto was scheduled to leave the Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv at 10:00 pm. We got to the airport in plenty of time and checked in, then went through security. But once we reached our gate, it soon became apparent that there was a problem. There was no information about what time we were to board, and the gate agents seemed confused.
We didn’t become too concerned until 10:00 pm had come and gone with no further information, and it became obvious that we wouldn’t be boarding the plane anytime soon. Other passengers began to swarm the gate, asking questions and becoming irate when no clear answers were forthcoming. My husband and I caught the general spirit of unease and impatience, and we joined the swarm of people who were no longer standing in an orderly queue but instead demanding to be heard by the gate agents. The passengers wanted answers. They wanted an explanation. Some even wanted compensation. The agents, who were becoming agitated too, said only, “I’m sorry for the delay, but we’re not ready to board yet.”
The lateness of the hour didn’t help matters. 11:00 pm came and went. Then midnight. The fatigue and strain I felt were mirrored in the faces around me. We were all heartily sick of standing around and waiting.
By 1:00 am a few people began to curse and yell at the gate agents. The rest of us just kept pacing and muttering unhappily.
Then I saw her. I should have spotted her earlier, since everyone else was crowding the gate and she was staying back, apart from the others, but I was so upset I wasn’t paying attention.
She was just another passenger waiting for our ridiculously tardy plane, a young woman in her mid-twenties, a little overweight, with a girl-next-door-pretty face. She was wearing a longish skirt (one of those summer skirts made of crinkly fabric) and simple flat shoes a little like the ones in the photo. (No, there were no tomatoes in her shoes—I’ll explain that part later!) I remember her skirt and shoes because she had fashioned a sort of lounge chair out of her suitcases and baggage cart and was sitting back with her legs stretched out. But what I noticed most of all was the expression on her face, which was peaceful and mildly happy.
How could she possibly look so serene in the middle of such mayhem? I had no idea, but from then on my attention was divided between the other anxious, irate passengers and this peaceful young woman. The contrast was startling. She never moved from her position in the makeshift chair, not even to ask questions. She looked as relaxed as if she were sitting on a beach sipping a Piña Colada instead of being trapped in a stuffy, hot airport with hundreds of angry people.
Sometime between 2:00 and 3:00 am, the airline took action. It wasn’t the action we wanted, but it was action. Our plane never did show up and we never found out why, but the airline loaded us onto buses that took us to a hotel, where we slept for a pathetic few hours before being bussed back to the airport and onto a new jet. The rest of the trip was uneventful.
But I need to back up a bit. I was still watching this remarkable young woman as we were all leaving the airport and queuing up to get on the buses that would take us to the hotel. She caught the attention of one of the female gate agents, who by this time was looking completely haggard, gave her a hug, and said, “You’re doing a great job!”
It was nearly dawn and I didn’t think the agents were doing a great job—in fact, they seemed completely incompetent. Maybe they were, but what mattered more was that this one passenger was able to set aside her own discomfort and tiredness long enough to encourage another exhausted human being who had been the target of everyone else’s anger.
I can act, or at least look, like that young woman sometimes. If my day is going well and I’ve had plenty of the time alone, including time to sit with one or two cats on my lap and think in silence, I’m sure I’m the very picture of zen calm. But throw one wrench, however small, into my day—a student upset about her grade, my husband leaving sticky crumbs on the kitchen counter, a cat puking on the new carpet (do cats make a conscious choice to avoid the laminate floors and vomit on the carpet?)—and I’m all sharp edges and touchiness. All of these are very small annoyances compared to waiting in a crowded, noisy airport in a foreign country for half the night to board a plane that doesn’t show up.
I wish I had spoken to this young woman and asked her what her secret was. Was she just born a peaceful person? Had she spent years practising prayer or meditation? Was she just not in a hurry to return to Canada? I have a wild hope that maybe she’ll read this blog post and identify herself.
You might not think you’re a role model.  You might think you don’t have enough wisdom or love to inspire people. But you have no idea who is watching as you go about the business of ordinary life. Don’t underestimate the power of quiet actions and small, life-giving choices. The tomatoes in the shoe photo remind me to choose to act in ways that foster growth and love (as the young woman in the airport did) instead of destruction and hate.


  1. JT

    You’ve motivated me to try to spread peace and encouragement instead of focusing on my own frustrations or allowing myself to get caught up in the anger and tearing-down attitude of the crowd, the person I’m speaking with, or even just the expectation of the day. Our work places, our families, our friends, and places we visit to conduct our life’s tasks would all benefit if we each tried to take a moment before we speak and spew out nastiness, to remember to put peace and kindness first.

    • Clarissa Harwood

      Yes, but how do we remember to take that moment before we speak instead of just engaging in knee-jerk reactions? That’s my challenge. If I actually take time to think about my actions and reactions, I think I do make better choices.

  2. JohnB

    I believe that the kind of peacefulness that you talk of in the face of what most westerners would find stressful can be learned. Learned is not the apt word….it is acquired unintentionally and without any effort whatsoever simply by being exposed over a long period of time to asian cultures. The western world is ordered, logical, methodical, planned, scientific. In comparison the asian world is haphazard, irrational, and unmanaged. When you travel in Asia almost everything will go wrong. The chances of arriving when planned are close to zero. The odds of your trip taking three times as long as “expected” are at least 50/50. And after two years of experiencing these delays/mixups on practically every trip, one learns to take them in stride. When I now encounter travel delays, my reaction is similar to that of the woman you describe. That immunity to stress made my extensive business travel and occasional home exchange travel much more enjoyable.
    Here are some examples of things I encountered…..these are not worst cases but rather the norm when travelling outside the main cities in Asia and the Middle East.
    Border guard who would not let me leave the country claiming that the stamp in my passport that let me into his country was fake. I just sat down on the spot and read and napped rather than bribe him and a couple of hours later the guard gave up and let me proceed.
    The taxi driver who agreed to drive me to a border and took my money before telling me he was going to wait until he had enough other riders to fill his cab. A day later he had enough people.
    The border official who told me he couldn’t issue entry visas. I called his bluff and said “okay” and prepared to take the 8 hour bus ride back to where I had just come rather than bribe him. The official chickened out…he might have lost his job for refusing to issue the visa.
    I find your blog excellent. People spend so little time thinking about ideas.

    • Clarissa Harwood

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, John. I especially appreciate the examples you gave from your travels. I have more hope now that I too can acquire such peacefulness (or perhaps it would be better called deliberate non-action?).

  3. JWood

    Perhaps the first step to being as patient and calm and compassionate as that woman was is indeed looking and acting like her. Perhaps that’s another way to “get into their shoes”, to understand their character.
    I think it would be interesting to find some shoes like she had and put them on. Sit as she sat. Take a breath and try to be calm as she seemed to be. Then try to figure out what she was thinking about. I find it most interesting when I realize I am putting my thoughts into a character. I try to put those thoughts aside and try to hear what they might be thinking.
    Are they a giant squid, with needy, hungry suckers on impossibly long limbs and an un-loveable, frightening, hard beak for lips? Are they a cat who loves to be stroked and beckoned to, that decides if she’ll accept affection and when she’ll swipe it away with extended claws. Are they a willow tree, green and lovely and fresh, moving gently in the breeze, or a stalk of corn, feeling it’s leafy hands drying in the late summer sun, enjoying the camaraderie of fellow corn stalks and knowing death is near?

    • Clarissa Harwood

      JWood, thanks for reminding me of the importance of physicality when trying to understand someone. To take on someone else’s body language, whether she is a real person or a character in my novel, indeed helps me understand what might be going through her mind!

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