Crowds and Loneliness and Passive Social Wandering

I love airports. I loved them long before I went to work for the airlines, back when an airport drop-off meant getting to sit in the terminal and watch the planes load and embark. I loved them when driving to nearby Chicago meant seeing planes ascending and descending amid the cityscape of red morning skies. I love them now, even when they mean lines and delays and probable hassles.

Airports have this magical feel to them. Even after all the bureaucracy and commercialization of the aviation industry, an airport, to me, is this epicenter of action and excitement, this gateway to endless possibility. I love the screens that broadcast arrivals and departures, and when it storms, I love watching them flicker and change before my eyes, black and then red.

Chicago’s O’hare airport has a special place in my heart. I lived there for so many years, sometimes literally, with nights spent sleeping on a recliner in a crowded airline crew lounge. It was the place, for almost a decade, where I spent each Thanksgiving or Christmas. It was the place where I became myself and where I felt most comfortable. The blue-grey pillars and columns with expansive windows and noise were part of me, and I suppose when I was in uniform, I was probably part of them.

O’hare gave me an appreciation for early mornings. 4am at O’hare airport is a quiet,sleepy peaceful I often long for these days. As a mother of two young children and an admitted workaholic, quiet-sleepy-peaceful is often accompanied by exhaustion. The ambient moving walkway at the United Terminal, illuminated with spiral wraps of neon light welcomes one passenger after the next, and when it’s so early, the day has typically yet to bring the panicked family hauling suitcases and crying babies as they run to inevitably miss their connecting flight. Everything is still clean and new.

It’s about crowds and loneliness and passive social wandering.

Sometimes I like a crowd. This is never true when I have my children at a festival or event and every anxious minute is spent in fear as I frequently turn them to see their faces and ensure the little blonde heads trailing beside me belong to them. No, there’s something comforting about being alone in a crowd. As much as I love the tranquil mornings of a near empty O’Hare, I have an even greater appreciation for the crowded terminals.

Comfort, in itself, is an interesting concept. I’ve been told I am impossible to comfort, to the point now, where I might even feign resolution or relief to end the process of someone attempting to console me. I hate pity. I hate to be hugged when I’m upset. I don’t “want to talk about it.”

I want to be alone.

There have been times in my life, so many within O’hare airport, and really one moment in particular, when the worst heartache of my life seemed to cripple me with emptiness. As someone who abhors commiseration, I would keep it to myself and somehow find relief in the people around me, hustling and bustling from one gate to the next. Even a phone call, a chilling conversation,  all behind the little wall that supports the gate agent’s work station, was just feet away from the masses. I remember it clearly and, while desiring to be by myself, I never felt alone.

How is it to feel pain or joy or love, alone but surrounded by others? For me, it is the freedom to feel without justification or sympathy, and yet a reminder of perspective and humanity.

When my friend Brian died, I went to his funeral, which was standing room only, and afterward, I went to a favorite haunt of his, one of mine too. I ordered a pint of the darkest stout. It had been raining much of the day, and I thought the milky-brown cloud of beer was the absolute best fit for the occasion. I ordered a bread pudding, chocolate, and I sat at the bar alone, entirely secure in myself, the word around me but not on top of me.

A conversation this week took me back to these places, the scene always O’hare airport, always in or around those dark blue chairs with arm rests that sit too tall for me, or the moving walkway with it’s ethereal lighting. As I thought about comfort and crowds and passive social wandering, I came to feel there is a difference between being “among” others and being “with” others. It’s the reconciliation of the introspective dignity and the masses.

For me, it is comfort. It is knowing that people are there, even when you don’t need them… a social construct safety net. It is the opportunity of being one of many, while preserving the one. It is navigating the crowd, towing baggage, like everyone else, and arriving to the next gate.


Happy 37th Birthday to me… and the year I thought I might die

Life, to me, is a series of details. I remember the subtle nuances that make up every day and gradually these touches become cataloged into years.

The color I painted the living room in my first home was called “Moonscape.” It was the closest to yellow I could get my partner at the time to agree to, this sanitary shade of manila. Today, when I drive by the place, on the cutest little brick street in the most working class neighborhood one could imagine, I wonder what color the new owners chose. Were they careful to paint around the old fireplace? Did they keep the  crown molding white?

I wanted yellow, a bright golden hue to bring in light. Sunflowers. They’re my favorite. When I was younger I remember a painting hanging in my grandmother’s living room, an abstract picture of orange and yellow sunflowers in a vase, framed in shiny gilded wood. Her walls were a far cry from “Moonscape.” That little apartment she had on the boulevard near the river was the happiest place in my childhood and when I see sunflowers I think of her. I remember making my grandfather’s coffee with her early mornings and I remember a large tin box on a old decoupaged dresser in a room off her kitchen, adorned with folk art and the word “BREAD.”

Sunflowers are vibrant. They grow tall and proud. They’re naturally deigned to withstand the harsh winds and violent thunderstorms that christen their prairie homelands. Beaten-down and leaves a little torn, they still reach high.

Moonscape, on the other hand, is safe. It is the sterile risk taken by the blank page. A color of accommodation and compliance.

I think of these details, paint dried onto the metal rims of old brown brushes, and the box marked “BREAD” today, as I celebrate my 37th birthday. The calls and messages tumble in. I drank my favorite Americano from my favorite coffee shop and treated myself to the darkest chocolate, and I simply thought of yellow versus moonscape.

I considered that I might have died.

A month into the scan results showing remission of breast cancer and I am still working to catch my breath. When I got the call I was in my office, and before I could share the news, I simply needed to sit outside on the little landscaped wall next to our old building and breath. I cried.

I thought about the many phases of cancer, the series of feelings I felt the past few months, and where I am at now. I don’t think I was ever moonscape. The color betrays me to the core. How could I have painted my walls with this compromise? It’s life. I think. We may want to let the light in but we worry about how others view brightness.

When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I made about 100 meatballs and stored them in my freezer. I baked a quiche and wrapped it in foil for some morning down the line. I located important paperwork; my birth certificate, marriage certificate, my social security card, insurance policies. I thought about how quiche seemed like funeral food and meatballs could go with anything. I thought about who my family would need to call if I died.

It was entirely morbid, and yet, the practice made me feel as though I had control of what was the most impotent position of my life. In the past, even on a plane 40,000 feet in the air, piloted by two guys in suits and ferrying 300 passengers, I still maintained this sense of control as a flight attendant. I still felt responsible for my own destiny. Cancer was the first time in my life that I felt powerless. Making sure my family had food to eat in the event of my untimely demise- was just the ultimate organizing experience.

Now I am in remission. Once I am in remission for five years, I am cancer-free. So, I’m not cancer-free yet, but I managed to turn 37, and no moonscape for me, I am yellow paint on walls with bright orange petals reaching for the sky. Those details I remember, the hues of gold that mark my childhood and life, burn radiant for me now.

My leaves are a little torn, but I stand brighter and taller, a storm subsided and 37 years on which to grow.

Donuts, Plates, and Perfection

June 2 was National Donut Day. Everyone I know wished me a Happy Donut Day. I’m pretty sure more people wished me a Happy Donut Day than calls or messages I received on Mother’s Day. It wasn’t my day. I hadn’t previously celebrated it or made plans. Yet, friends and family alike messaged me and called me and wished me a Happy Donut Day.

It was all well placed because, you know what? I love donuts. I love them. It’s not simply that I love the fried, glazed, sweet pastry possibly filled with ethereal cream or decadent jelly. I love the box they come in with its’ folded corners, translucent plastic top, scribbles on the side and some franchise label holding the entire thin cardboard enclosure together. It’s the coffee that accompanies. It’s the lady working the retro orange-rust colored counter at 3am selling crullers and long johns. It’s the whole thing. Donuts are an experience.

I brought donuts to my office for patschke day. I ate most of them, but my friend Karen humored me with a photo before this one was devoured (by me).

When I was nineteen I dated a guy who had the metabolism of a giraffe (which I assume to be like this huge metabolism.) We went on a date at a park once, where we sat on a hill and polished off a dozen donuts from the local place down the street. Basically, I was pretty sure we were in love.

Donuts are simple. With them comes this implied sense of community as in “These are cheap and these are easy. These don’t complain and complicate.” They sit on the table in denominations of 12 and they wait, no questions asked, for you to take a few amid conversation.

It’s about perfection really. Donuts. Seems insane I guess. We all have idiosyncrasies and if donuts are mine I’ll reconcile the powdered sugar with myself.

It’s not ever really donuts though. It’s perfectionism.

I think back to my years with the airlines and the things I most loved. While I’d like to list the extensive travel and opportunities as the benefits I miss most, the truly honest answer for me is the perfection. The thrill for me was always the perfection.

Sometimes I miss the first class galley on the Boeing 747, and the service we prepared for international flights. There was a plate for bread. There was a cup for coffee. There was a fork for salad. There was a knife for butter. Each item had a purpose and each purpose had a place, both in time and tangible setting. Because this all happened on a plane, 40,000 feet in the air, every single item had to fit somewhere. It all had to come out, but eventually, it all had to be put away.

I miss the aircraft like I miss my favorite versions of myself. Everything was in order. I miss the fine lines of overhead bins, closed and latched. I miss plain white china adorned simply with a small grey logo, an aircraft or company name. I miss compartments, so many, where everything packed away neat and tidy, a door clasped shut, the weathered manila facade of general acceptance.

As I’ve worked through this pesky breast cancer thing, I’ve come to terms with the concept of perfection, this driving consumption that pushes and pulls. I struggle to define it. Do I refer to it as my battle with breast cancer?

I hardly think of my minimal efforts in this as fighting a battle. My idea of a battle is Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker jousting on the edge of the Deathstar reactor core. A battle is Verdun. A battle is some epic struggle of good versus evil. I didn’t struggle. I simply went to the hospital every day and had high doses of radiation beamed directly to a tumor in my breast. I even got to lay down on a special pillow while I did it. Total diva. No battle here.

Except, maybe there was a little bit of fighting? Maybe it wasn’t quite Luke dangling on the edge of the galactic abyss, but maybe there was a little bit of a scuffle? I know I felt tired. I still feel tired, now, even after treatment has ended. I push myself to continue life as usual, with my children, with home and with work. Still, there have been days when I’ve sat, head in my hands at the quiet kitchen table, when my house is sound asleep. I rub tired eyes and I think for a moment, “maybe I can’t do this.”

So, there’s been tired, and there’s also been this general lack of appetite, this nuisance telling me that I am not yet whole. I don’t want donuts. I love donuts and now I do not want them. Those perfect little circles of inclusive joy sit, packaged in rows of four on the table and I will not eat them, and to me, this is the hurtful thought that tells me I am not perfect. I am not columns of white china stacked away in preparation for turbulence. I am not pastry packed tight into consolatory presence. I am imperfection.

There’s magic in the art of embracing the thoughts in which we question our own strength. It’s human definition at it’s core. We’re not perfect. We get sick. We get tired. We can’t be neatly stored somewhere. We’re here, in all our faults and deficits.

So, maybe it is a battle, but maybe not on any level I ever might have anticipated. I know there will continue to be those inner conversations, the aching product of fatigue and weakness, but there will also be those moments, the ones when I feel a sense of order and completeness, the ones when the coffee cups and plates are set away, the ones when I am powerful and I am whole.

And donuts.

There will also be donuts.