Habits of Ingratitude
Return to Los Angeles after 7 weeks abroad. 7 weeks in Africa:
(Artwork: ’3 Kings’ by Agents of Change)
HABITS OF INGRATITUDE
“The pilot would like to notify the cabin that we are now prepared for landing,” says the carefully manicured voice of the overhead speaker. Two flight attendants emerge from behind a blue curtain with trash bags, walking toward the plane’s nose.
Their smiles are rehearsed, perfectly placed in disconnectedness amidst their generally underwhelmed faces. I throw a banana peel into the bag.
“Thank You,” I say, looking up.
“You’re weeelcome!” says the slim waisted woman in repeat performance. Her eyes seem to look through mine, past them, into pages of one dimensional dialogue she long ago memorized and sees now, each time, in photographic recall, rather than the flesh and blood faces of true people before her.
“You’ve got beautiful eyes,” I say. And she does. Almond-shaped and hazel and dressed in a silver grey color accentuated by the feather-like sprawl of her long lashes.
Something behind them changes as I say it. Her usual, memorized response incapable of correlation to my unexpected reaching out. I’ve broken the semantic formality of two people passing each other on an unimportant plane ride home, broken that pattern of disconnectedness; and for an instant, she skips as a record, startled, her eyes widening, as a child, embarrassed, having thoughtlessly said ‘you too!’ in response to a stranger saying ‘Happy Birthday.’
“Ohâ€¦” she says, her face rearranging, her voice softening, her gaze becoming more and more human. She actually registers my face now. I see her see me, remember we are not robots, forgetting her habitual meaninglessness.
“Thank You,” she says. And she means it.
Outside the plane window, gaseous circles hover the silver grey color of smeared shadow on her passing eyes, clouds of great many sizes, sprawled across the blue of sky beyond. From this vantage point, godliness in any human is easy, casual at this distance, this moment, this vision, to find ourselves reminded of the bigness, the serenity of real life. Life as we forget it is.
From here, life appears in its absolutely simplicity. And simultaneous enormity. The power of the elements, wind currents, energy fields, gasses, aerial and astral perspectives. A faint outline of the city emerges from the ground as a city risen from deep water to sudden land. The plane dips slightly lower, engines growling, and rooftops spiral into view.
The flight attendant passes by, her trash bag full and smiles kindly, honest this time. Present.
“Do you mind pulling your seat upright, Miss?” She is really here now, addresses me as a three dimensional human with a history, a heart, rather than a redundant figure identical to all others on other flights in other cities in other days and lifetimes.
The plane dips lowers and more is etched into the fine canvas of Earth. Water, land, mountains, trees. Again lower, and more returns to mind. Millions of people, children, families, houses, heartbreaks, fights for happiness, searches for peace.
I pull my seat upright. Now Los Angeles sways, surrounding us in swells of swimming pools and urbanized desert, and just before the tarmac rises into sight, just before the plane’s wheels lower beneath to greet it, I count as many palm trees as I can, palm trees I’ve forgotten and dismissed growing up in this city, just as the flight attendant had not remembered to see my face.
I count seven. They are all different. In shape and height and spirit. I see them as if I’ve never seen palm trees before, let alone millions my entire life.
The plane lands.
My first few days back in Los Angeles are strange, though not for any negative emotion I may have expected. I respect the city itself. The people, rushing blindly through the expensive markets, skateboarding wildly through the abandoned street, cursing strangers in passing cars with stifled gazes behind fancy sunglasses, disconnected and rehearsed as the flight attendant, make me laugh.
I remember the children in the dust and wind. Their bare feet stamping dirt as they danced and sang, insisting the essence of truth. I remember their clothes, tattered and ill-fitting, for each child had only one pair. And their smiles, wide and startling as crescent moons with the glinting ferocity of sun passing through, that seemed never to realize their old clothes, dirty feet and dusty faces.
They move with me as I walk the expensive market isles, with me as I drive through the traffic jam of exchanged curses, with me in the dilapidated courtyard of the inner-city school complex. They are the reason I stopped to tell the flight attendant of her beautiful eyes, the reason I counted the palm trees and still do now, each time I pass.
They are the reason, at 5:38am, I wake to write, as I, throat dry and unquenched from several hours of jet lagged slumber, reach out ungratefully mid-sleep and begin gulping down the glass of water beside my cozy bed with the soft sheets and fresh blankets, beds like beds those children may never know.
My mouth shuts over the glass just short of a second sip.
I am still thirsty, but stare, patiently, at the glass, half full, remembering the few nights I woke desperate for water and could spare only several drops from my canister before boiling and refilling the next morning. I remember thinking then, even in my deep thirst, that the mere several drops I drained tasted sweet. And that they still outweighed what most of the children who’d danced and studied and barely eaten were given in an entire day.
Water came to mean something there, because it came from somewhere. From the Earth. Not bursting from a faucet or a tap or a refrigerator door or a plastic bottle in a shop filled to the brim with endless bottles identical.
I stare at the glass, half full, as I’d forgotten to stare at a glass of water, as the flight attendant had forgotten to see my face, as the voices of the traffic jam and market isles have forgotten in their disconnectedness to experience what truly surrounds them. Life. People. Containers and creatures of histories, hearts, beloved heros and hardships.
I resume drinking. This time, with thoughts of water in streams from lakes of hillsides filling my head. Visions of ocean, ice glaciers, the far Atlantic, the near Pacific, the watering holes of harmonious gatherings I witnessed in craters chronicling the dawn of mankind in what they call God’s forgotten continent, in Africa.
The water is sweet. Again, I can taste the invisible.
I am refreshed then, born again from the African moments that mended me, reminded in my deep knowing that nothing divides us in this glorified, golden city of palm-treed Los Angeles from those children dancing in the dust and wind of barren banana trees, so many worlds and time zones away without clean water – nothing, save our being fortunate enough to have been born, in this lifetime, near resource, near opportunity (however scarce or corrupt we consider it), near a full glass on a table beside a bed unlike any bed those young children may ever know.
We are so lucky. And with no need for shame of it. Rather, simply, of acknowledgement. Of gratefulness.
And these habits. These habits of ingratitude we’ve come to claim and live withâ€¦ disconnectedness, entitlement, false superiorityâ€¦
They are as easy to replace. One conscious thought. And truth spills forth.
One conversation with a child in an empty field.
One stranger on a plane who doesn’t pretend to forget you.
One true instance of appreciating how the Earth gives and gives and gives. And has asked for nothing, but acknowledgement. For gratefulness. And respect.
Respecting that, without it’s generosity, we as a species cease to exist. And that, without our gratitude, it’s generosity too shall cease.
After all, everyone knows we won’t outsmart the universe. Or the truth of humankind. And luckily, we don’t need to. We need only be present. Be here. See life. Live truth. Acknowledge. Respect.
All this and much more left unsaid I recall, amidst my unquenched, early morning moment back home, remembering the glass, half full, drinking sweetly, mid-slumber.
(Artwork: Fresh Stuff from Stinkfish in London)
TO THOSE MAKING GOOD, GO FORWARD.