“I can’t fly after 12am,” a Jewish gentleman who had been sitting next to me mumbled, his face drained of energy and his eyes tired. He got up from his seat a few times either to get some coffee or to check with the airlines staff.
I didn’t know and didn’t ask him why “after 12am”, but all I knew was we, those on that flight back to New York and a few others to various locations, were told multiple times to board in one hour or to be on standby from 2.15pm, our boarding time, till 8pm without having a firm grip on the schedule or whether we would actually be onboard or no.
Bad weather. It was said so.
By 8.30pm, all waiting and wandering souls in the gate no longer had to wait or wander, not necessarily for the better though: the flight was cancelled. The crowds evenly scattered throughout the lounge in a minute transformed into long lines. Next available flight. This was what all were queuing up for, not sure if there would be one.
The airport couldn’t be more crowded.
My flight was booked through an agency used by the conference organizer with whom I partnered with to deliver a workshop. So instead of adding to the already long line, I contacted the agency, copying the organizers. The result was I got an emergency number to call. I couldn’t wait to get home, imagining my children waiting for me.
The night before I went, my daughter was sobbing, “Mom, I feel sad because you go to Chicago tomorrow.” We talked a bit. I told her to think of our beautiful times together when she missed me. I asked her if she was proud of me training people on happiness and she said yes. And I promised her I would come back with some special gifts and stories to share. My son had slid a children’s book into my luggage which I didn’t realize till I unpacked my luggage at the hotel. So well, I missed his mischievousness and mentorship; I considered him as my coach and mentor when it came to writing the children fiction we had been working on together. He made sure mom didn’t forget her passion project and found the best companion for her on her trip.
After one hour on the phone, I got my flight booked, just to later realize, upon checking the ticket details, that the agent put my name wrongly. The next agent kept saying sorry but I told her I understood she was trying her best to help and advised her to reference my name from the correct ticket before to avoid the mistake most likely made due to the phone line. I spent another one hour on the phone to finally get it fixed.
It was 10.30pm. The next natural step was to find a place to sleep. I asked a woman next to me and she said she and her friends had just booked a room at the hotel right in the airport. A text to a kindred spirit regarding accommodation guidelines was returned with an article on the New York Times about what I should do if my flight was delayed or cancelled. So I hopped onto my laptop right away to get a room, not even bothering if my stay would be reimbursed. I was too tired.
After the booking went through, I saw the Jewish man walking by. We greeted each other and he came and shared he had his flight booked by the airlines and he was going to his dad’s place to stay for two nights. It didn’t take me shorter than him to have our flights figured. In the line or on the phone, it still took two hours. “You are so lucky that you have your dad here,” I said but his face didn’t show so. We wished each other good luck and bid farewell as if we had been neighbors.
By the time I checked in at the hotel, there had been a long line. It seemed like all those lines at the airport were shifted here. Normally, I’d have thought of roaming around the city the next day, as my flight was at nearly 8pm. “Just enjoy!” a little voice in my head said. Yet, I was not in the mood to do anything else except getting home. If I had planned for an extra day for a short vacation, I’d feel excited. But I didn’t, so my mind was not set up for that. I had not been ever more homesick. The next morning, I just wanted to stay rooted at the hotel till I had to walk over to the airport but there was virtually nothing there to do. I had a book with me but I didn’t feel like reading. I had my manuscript with me but my hands didn’t want to work on it. The cold lounge and the greyness of the buildings and roads outside all sent a “no” signal. I tried calling my husband but didn’t get through; he was busy.
I felt lonely. Most of all, I felt a little unhappy, after I trained people to be happy just the day before.
My husband called back. We talked a bit and he encouraged me to get out and explore. “See, you wanted to spend time by yourself and now you have it!” he exclaimed. True. Sometimes, I craved to have alone time and travel by myself. And I did have a great time sampling life in Chicago the afternoon before the conference and the evening after it, and the morning before I got to the airport, visiting the place I wanted to visit most, the American Writers’ Museum that I happened to notice the night before; it was close to the hotel. Now I longed for a home cooked meal, a family board game and planting daisies in my little garden. Autumn was coming.
“But it wasn’t planned and I was ready to go home. I have all these plans when I am home,” I said. He cracked some jokes, which he was always great at, and we laughed. I started to feel alive again, and like a rocket ship, I went back to my room and changed, packed my stuff and headed to the blue train. I had no idea where to go. Thinking about what to do with three hours in a big city was not easy. So I stopped at the station that was close to the hotel I stayed at for the conference earlier and let my legs take me where they wanted to.
It was such a beautiful day. Chicago seemed to be happy to see this traveler stay back so it was kind enough not bringing on its famous wind. Streams of people were walking up and down the spacious pavements, showered with the honeyed sunlight and wrapped around by the gentle breeze. Friends and couples lazed out on the grass in front of the Michigan river, chatting and reading and giggling. A café across the street invited me to come and visit and my legs agreed.
This is exactly what I need, I thought when looking at the menu and the ambience overlooking the busy streets and the bridge on the other side. A bowl of vegan soup. A slice of blueberry pie. A pot of detox tea. With the order made and a corner seat right next to the window found, my senses came back. They wanted me to enjoy and savor the moments. Opening my laptop, I felt like revisiting my manuscript. I had imagined taking off Friday, after I got home, and spending my time at a nice café to read or write, as a way to celebrate my hard work; the workshops took me months to prepare. Then I had an aha moment: here I was, celebrating in Chicago! The soup tasted so wholesome and clean. The tea cleansed my body and my mind. The pie made me feel, “Well, I deserve this!” And my hands wanted to type as my brain started to collaborate.
Three hours were well spent, even when I didn’t see more of the city. Feeling good, not what I should and could do with my time, was what made that window of time well spent.
After paying for a late check out, one-hour flight delay and half-an-hour being stuck on the airplane after it landed (there was a shortage of staff; it was told), I finally got onto a taxi and arrived home at 2am in the morning. My husband and children had slept, and only the sound of the crickets in the thick darkness made me a welcome.
Now writing this essay at my desk at home, I wondered if the troubles were, after all, worth it. And a resounding yes echoed loud and clear from a deep corner of my mind. They were not even troubles at all. Gifts. They were.
Without the delay, I wouldn’t have met so many interesting people. Imagine watching a fascinating movie or reading a great American novel with characters so real and loving at the airport. It was John who shared after his parents passed away, his sister sewn an embroidered painting that had been hung in their home for years onto the back of his jacket. “So now, whenever I travel, I wear this jacket. My parents have my back.” It was Katie who had recently quit her job as a therapist to go on a pilgrimage and walk for 500 miles from a different city. “I enjoyed what I did but I was at a point when I felt really exhausted. So let’s see what would come next after this walk. I may fall in love with this city and decide to stay,” Katie shared, wearing a hopeful smile. It was a girl whose name I didn’t know going around and asking if one was Jewish, a pomelo on her right hand, a bunch of leaves on her left, and a radiant smile on her oval face. She wanted to host a mini Jewish ceremony that happened to fall on this very day with her fellow Jews. Out of curiosity and in a spirit of honoring different cultures and traditions and the purest intention of the rituals, I joined her, following Katie who said she had Jewish blood. I repeated the words after the girl and shook the pomelo and leaves per her instruction. And that was when Katie and I started to talk about the book “Man’s in Search of Meaning” which Katie had read five times and how we navigated through career transformation and all things mental health. It was Heidi who was in her sixties whose face lit up when I said hello to her in Tagalog. It was Alan who passionately talked about his job, one that was so dangerous to many but fascinating to him. He had to climb up high buildings to check on the signals. “I made a few wrong decisions in my life. I got involved in drugs. So now I just want to do good and to make contribution,” Alan said. “My wife is going to give birth this November,” he continued, his eyes brimming with joy while I was wowed by his strength to overcome himself as well as his inspiring narrative. It was the Jewish man who told me about his previous job putting together the frames for houses before they were built and his current job teaching high school kids to create wooden arts work. He then showed me and Alan a few photos of the final products he and the kids put together. “Seeing the smiles on their faces make me feel truly happy,” he said. “I guess that’s my life purpose.” It was Jane, a silver-haired woman in her early seventies, who was on her way home in Baltimore after a training to a local medical team in Denver. Jane talked about her career with the government providing healthcare trainings and people all over the world asking her how they could stay connected as she retired. That was when her business was born, bringing her to different corners of the world while enjoying the company of her still healthy husband, four grandkids and two children living near her. “You have such a beautiful life,” I told Jane, who gave me not less than ten times of saying good bye and best wishes when the passengers for her flight were called. We were instant friends.
Without the delay, I wouldn’t have had that space to hardwire happiness and the love for the charming city. As I sat in the café and reorganized a chapter in my book, I also relived that very evening in the Vietnamese-French restaurant. That seductive fragrance from the big vase of fresh lily flowers at the entrance. The Latino hosts who wore the traditional ao dai. The French architecture with big windows. The vibrant painting finely reflecting cultural sophistication in the big dining room. The bartender who passionately made drinks and said he had been in the job for 25 years as he was very happy with it. “It was my treat,” he said, offering me a glass of Mua Thu (Autumn) mocktail, the best mocktail I had ever tried. I smiled when thinking of a stranger who insisted on buying me some chocolate when I dropped by a chocolate store near the hotel. “My name is Harrie but I don’t have any hair,” he introduced himself while removing the hat off his head. He didn’t lie. I turned the imaginary clock further to re-enter the French market where the staff at a bakery I chanced upon offered me a Macaron to try. “Oh, really, you have never tried our Macarons?” she exclaimed. It was so good that I bought a box for my kids, completing my mission to bring some gift back home. On the way out, I discovered a nail salon that was so empty and decided to contribute to the local economy. My day was often busy so doing my nails and maintaining them were a true luxury so I sat there for half an hour, being fascinated by the whole meticulous process. I rewound the tape of memories further, I saw participants who told me the happiness workshop made them feel enlightened, positive and happy. I heard them say they felt cleansed, calm and relaxed after the meditation and I got them to think about their life purposes. I felt that stream of joy coming from living my mission of bringing happiness to humanity flooding my body and my mind again: I guided the group of people whose roles were often invisible but who enable organizations to connect the world, innovate to better life, bring affordable housing to citizens and protect the country… to train their brains to be authentically happier.
Without the delay, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to reflect and see how lucky I was to have a place called home with the people I loved to come.
As I finally boarded the plane, I wrapped all these precious moments, the colorful and rich conversations, and the connections with the humans who were so open to share with me their beautiful stories. I also looked forward to a weekend having meals with my family, shopping for some pumpkins and pots of daisies and tending to my garden.
And being home brought me even more nice surprises. A red autumn dress I ordered for my daughter and a few kitchen items I had searched for so long had arrived. A creamy banana cake, my favorite, bought by my husband for our tea time together. A paper toy that opened up to an art work by my daughter. A pile of The Mysterious Benedict Society books on the nightstand for me to read by my son.
Home now feels more special. Life is beautiful regardless. Circumstances do bring meaning. And happiness could be infinite, if we choose to embrace it. Aren’t these that the whole experience is about? Was the flight delay there for me to make my happiness training feel truly complete? And isn’t the article not so helpful for my hotel booking earlier sent my way to inspire me to share about how we could tend to our feelings, hardwire happiness, connect with people, and feel a little happier, beyond booking the new flight?
Now I think I want to ask my Jewish friend why 12am.