Zen...and well, not so Zen...
I ended up holding a baby on my flight to NYC for the holidays. This is an unusual thing for me. In fact, sometimes these things have a way of literally falling into my lap.
The last time I held a baby for any sustained length of time was two years ago in Costa Rica. What should have been a 4 hour bus ride turned into an 8 1/2 rolling fiesta on the local "Chicken Bus", through every conceivable pueblo between San Jose and Tamarindo Beach. This was because I intrepidly jumped on the $4.00 public bus out of my stubborn assessment that I would never spend $25.00 on the air-conditioned direct bus for gringos. Little did I know that I would find myself traveling for nearly 9 hours on a packed school bus, filled with people singing Feliz Navidad songs and taking swigs of rum from a plastic milk jug that someone kindly brought on board to be passed around.
For miles and miles, the bus traveled at high speeds, kicking up rocks and swirls of dirt on the unpaved roads through the jungle. Somehow it managed to slow down enough to pick people up, too. Oddly enough, entire 20-person families jumped on until every conceivable space on the bus was packed with either a human being or his chicken.
At one point we pulled up in what looked like someone's yard while the driver jumped out and ran off to a little outhouse to use the facilities. For the rest of the passengers on board, this called for an instant party. Someone loaded music into a boom box, everyone poured off the bus, and couples started dancing in the glow of the bus' head lights. Children skipped and played. I retained my seat and chatted with the woman next to me, who kept talking smack about the size of other people's chickens.
Finally, when everyone got back on board, I ended up with a passed-out 9 month old child named Pablito in my lap. All of my new best friends on the bus thought it was beyond comical to watch the gringa hold one of their own. The women around me told me that I was a natural mother. I smiled and laughed, of course, but was more than relieved when I finally handed Pablito over to his abuela and made my exit at the surfer's beach.
Long story short, similar to my long-ago, Latin American bus ride, the plane to NYC was packed full. Of course, there were no live chickens in sight, and no one was dancing or passing around a jug full of rum, but there was one screaming child and one exhausted mother. Oddly enough, in the land of affluence, people are uncomfortable in the act of giving their help or services. Even around the holidays. Instead, the baby screamed louder and louder and people turned around in their seats to shoot poisoned dart stares at the mother. Even the flight attendants gave the mother nasty looks. It made me think that Americans have become so distant and detached from the understanding of communal village life that we no longer know how to help each other.
Of course, I was one of those people who sat there, too. For a half hour, I endured the screeching sounds of the uncomfortable child, and attempted to block it out by putting in my ear phones and closing my eyes. But the noise was unbearable to hear. As it stretched on, it made me think that the mother was probably well on her way to losing her mind. She was doing everything she could to calm the baby, but nothing seemed to be working.
I sat up and looked over my seat at her, and realized that, like the baby, the mother was now sobbing, too. And her single serving neighbors were doing nothing but sit uncomfortably next to her. Without really thinking about it, I jumped up and gently asked her if she needed a break. Without really waiting for her permission, I picked up the baby. Within seconds, he stopped crying and bobbled his head around to look at things. Maybe all he needed was a change of scene.
I walked with him to the back of the plane and the mother followed me. She disappeared into the bathroom for a minute, and when she came out, I realized that she was probably no older than many of my freshman students--perfectly old enough to have a baby, but not yet old enough to legally drink. Besides this, for someone so young, she looked absolutely worn through. At this point, the baby was on the verge of falling asleep on me, so I told the mommy that I would sit with him for a while, to give her a breather. She hesistated at first, but her face lit up when I told her that she could use the break to close her eyes and take a small nap.
So, the mommy slept, and I returned to my seat with her pink-skinned child. We sat there together for nearly an hour. I couldn't help but look down at the the little human in my lap and wonder what his future will be. It occurred to me that he won't remember the strange woman who held him on his first plane ride. But, who knows, maybe one day he'll end up on a chicken bus in Costa Rica and also discover what it means to be a part of this human community.
Happy holidays, everyone.
Happy holidays, everyone.