I rarely get to see anything anew anymore. I remember the feeling from childhood, the absolute wonder of seeing something for the first time. I have memories of staring at ant hills for what seemed like hours, marveling at their clever cooperation, or of losing myself in clouds on endless afternoons. But who has time for that now? And what is ever really new anymore?
I was made to think about that on Sunday while waiting to board my plane home from Austin. A man approached the area where I was sitting and said in Spanish, “Alguien habla Español?”
I looked up. He was a little older than me, in clean but simple worker’s clothes, jeans, a plaid shirt. He looked and sounded like many of the men I know from my work with the non-profit that helps day laborers in my area. His accent was Central American. He was holding his boarding pass in his hand.
I told him I speak Spanish. He looked immensely relieved. I remember that feeling from childhood well too, that lost feeling of being in a group of people who don’t understand what you’re saying.
He had a question about his connecting flight. I helped him. He explained that he was from Guatemala and that his father had just died. The man (Oscar was his name) was on his way to the funeral.
As luck would have it, we were seated together way at the back of the plane. He was a great seat mate, chatting when appropriate, letting me read when the conversation had dwindled. He even saw me sleep with my mouth open. We bonded. But it was at the end of the flight, when we began our descent, that he reminded me of the magic of seeing things anew.
“It has always been on my list of things to do to go on an airplane. This is my first time,” he said. It speaks somewhat to the privilege with which I’ve surrounded myself that it had never occurred to me that a man of his age wouldn’t have flown before.
He had the window seat and he marveled at everything. “What’s that white stuff?” he asked.
“No, below them. Is that snow? Is that what snow looks like from up here?” I peered down. There, my beloved New Jersey had little patches of white where it had snowed while I was in Austin. Coming from a warm country and having lived in Texas while here, he’d never seen snow before either.
“Yes, that’s snow.”
“Look! The cars look like little ants!” he said.
He said, “I’ve driven cars for many bosses for thirty years. So when I feel bad about the plane bumping around I just pretend that I’m driving.”
“I don’t like the bumping either. It reminds me that I have no control over my life when I’m on a plane,” I said.
“But do we ever really have control of our lives?” asked Oscar.
As we approached Newark Airport from the southwest, we were made to do a loop, presumably until a runway opened up. We flew north, close to where my house is, and then turned back south and flew parallel to the Hudson River, Manhattan almost at eye level to our left, just outside his window.
“What’s that? And that?” he asked eagerly, his child-like wonder contagious. I told him. The Empire State Building. The Chrysler Building. “Where were the towers?” he asked.
I pointed to the newly-finished Freedom Tower. “There,” I said. “Where that one tall building is.”
He took out a camera and photographed it, saying how excited his son would be to see it. He showed me his pictures proudly, zooming in and out. I’ve seen this view and been on an airplane so many countless times I no longer pay attention. But watching him experience it for the first time reminded me how important it is to still face the world with wonder.
We landed and he looked visibly relieved. “I like it better when the plane comes down than when it takes off. Those noises,” he said.
“I don’t like the noise the plane makes on take-off either.”
We walked off the plane and I showed him where to go to connect to his flight to Guatemala. He extended his hand and wished me luck and gushed about how much I’d helped him. “You’re the one who helped me,” I said. And I walked away with the gift of remembering what it’s like to see something anew.