Good thing I had that Chinese woman pummel me in the chair massage station near my gate before I boarded my flight from Hong Kong to Chicago. "You like hard massage?" she demanded more than queried. "Yeah," came out more as a puff of air than a recognizable word forced out with several hard blows to my back.
Arriving in Chicago 15 hours later, I continued to feel the effects of my Chinese chair massage - remarkably loose and as rested as one can hope to be. Such smooth sailing gave me hope for an uneventful last leg of the trip. I was wrong.
My four hour layover in Chicago turned into five, then six hours as my flight home was repeatedly delayed and then finally, cancelled. That's when I began to think of myself as a beef cow being led to the slaughterhouse.
I understand problems. I understand human stress and burnout. I understand too much work with too little resources for I, too, live these challenges in my own work. What I don't understand is nastiness, devoid of compassion, attack and conflict. I do understand the power of a thank you or a smile under the most stressful conditions. And maybe I'm just a pollyanna or crazy, but even when I'm going on 24 hours of continuous stress, I do manage to sneak in a empathic word or a kind glance. Silly me? Maybe. But that's who I'll always be. Guaranteed.
I don't remember correctly the entire sequence of events after my flight to Burlington was cancelled. I do remember long lines of angry people. I do remember gruff, understaffed United Airlines customer service representatives treating me as if I were the problem as they rebooked me on another flight from Chicago to Washington, then home to Burlington. And believe me, I am a complacent passenger. I do as I'm told. I say thank you. I don't give anyone crap when I recognize the futility of a situation. Not in airports, and definitely not in my personal life! It became a challenge for me to "kill 'em with kindness" to see if I could get a smile or some semblance of compassion out of a customer service rep. Nothing.
After more delays, I made it to Washington where I ran, at what felt like a five minute mile, across multiple terminals to catch my final flight home. I listened to a middle aged woman with a badly permed mullet and a track suit with white sneakers that had likely never seen exercise rant endlessly about her journey from Phoenix. And that's when my sarcastic voice kicked in - all in my mind, of course. "Shut the F up, lady. Phoenix is nothing compared to where I came from. Do you really think whining about it to your seatmate who looks oblivious to your silly little plight is going to get you anywhere faster? Do you think big bad United really cares about you more than the other stranded people sitting here?"
Several more delays later (I lost count), around 10 p.m. (I lost track), the flight to Burlington was cancelled and I knew I'd be sleeping in Washington that night, hopefully at a hotel as I was beginning to hallucinate from lack of sleep and my teeth were covered with the nasty film of crappy airline meals and foul smelling bacteria. My hair still looked great, I must add, not at all modestly. Thank goodness for my crazy hair which seems to always look better when I don't wash or brush it. And really, with good hair, I believe I can conquer the world. (Hallucinations in full swing now.)
That's when one United Airlines representative (one who did manage to smile just a little) told me and two men I'd befriended that we couldn't get to Burlington until the next day, "No, there are no hotels, but the seats in terminal C have no armrests between them and are quite comfortable for sleeping," she told us. After we begged for food, she gave the three of us (me and my two friends) food vouchers, but by this time all that was open was Dunkin' Donuts.
My two friends and I were now bonded and obviously in this together. And maybe this makes me less of an independent woman, but I have to say, I was relieved to be in the company of two gentlemen who allowed me to go first down the escalator, who waited while I used the bathroom in a deserted part of the airport and seemed to understand my fear about sleeping alone in an airport.
We dubbed ourselves "abandonmates." Yes, United Airlines pretty much abandoned us - no food unless we asked for it. No blankets for sleeping. No, "I'm sorry I can't help you." And worst of all, not any semblance of human compassion. We found our way to terminal C where we were to spend the night. I was slightly excited about running through a deserted terminal and checking behind all the empty ticket counters to see if I could find pillows and blankets for us. It reminded me of my childhood fantasy about being locked in a mall overnight. Yes, hallucinations were thoroughly in charge now.
I found three blankets and my two friends and I hunkered down for the night. By this time, I was so out of it, I wasn't sure if I could sleep and I questioned the wisdom of popping an Ambien to help with the process. Ambien won. I felt safe. I felt compassion and security with my friends and I swallowed a sleeping pill. All I remember as I drifted off was clanging of the change recepticles of a bay of pay phones as if someone was obsessively trying to remove money from them. It went on and on and on. Or maybe it didn't. I don't know. Snippets of what I thought profound poetry drifted through my drugged mind. "Oh, I have to remember to write this as a poem," I thought...and then I thought no more.
I awoke four hours later to an airport coming to life in the early morning hours. We still had five hours before our rebooked flight left. I worked a little. In all my burnout and exhaustion all I could think of was work and how burnt out I've been feeling. I ranted and raved in my own mind about work until it dawned on me. The compassion I was so craving from the airline personnel was the same compassion I felt unable to give myself.
So, I sat in the awakening terminal C and did my dirgha breathing. Calming breaths at first for compassion and then a little later, the breath of joy to breathe new life into my body. I even meditated for a short time. Cross legged on an uncomfortable bench, I forced myself to smile ever so slightly and to breathe. I held the smile for about 10 minutes. Yes, I cared that I looked like an idiot. Yes, I care more about compassion and peace.
The rest of the story is rather dull. I made it home to Burlington, was reunited with my luggage and drove home from the Burlington airport consciously forcing myself to be alert.
As I write this, I am still exhausted even though I've slept for a few hours and I am trying to figure out if this story is about travel hell or human compassion. It's about human compassion. What would it take for those United employees to have some sensitivity training and for irritable travelers to be trained in the art of compassionate assertiveness. What is the power of a thank you? Of a kind glance? Of deep breathing into a different state? What is the difference between the weary traveler who becomes abusive and swears and the weary travelers who become friends and help and protect one another as my two friends and I did?
I don't know the answers. It's a much bigger issue than an airline issue. I'm noticing it in other places in my life - the places where I'll walk away from a confrontational person versus the places where I will calmly try to have a conversation versus the places where I, too, realize I am human and my potty-mouthed, judgmental self kicks in. But she rarely stays for long. These days I'm learning to thank her for her contribution and working on not engaging her.
Yeah, this is rambly. I don't care. I'm working on something bigger. Understanding. Empathy. Compassion. Self. It's got to begin there.