Last Saturday, when I boarded a flight from Moscow to Singapore (and then from there, on to Sydney), I was pretty excited: not because I was about to spend another 19 hours on a plane, but because I had never flown Singapore Airlines before. But as excited as I was, it was nothing compared to the Russian woman sitting directly across the aisle from me. She was about 70 years old, so I doubt very much this was her first time on a plane, but based on her reaction to everything around her, I’m guessing it was her first time in business class. If that was the case, she certainly picked the right airline to cut those teeth on.
She was literally buzzing with excitement: like seriously, if you leaned in close enough, you could hear her buzzing. She could not stop looking around her, catching eyes with everyone she could, giving us each a look that could only be interpreted as “Can you BELIEVE this?!” Because I was closest to her (and because her grumpy husband sitting on the other side of her was having none of it) she focused a lot of her fervor in my direction, speaking to me in rapid Russian, drunk with the enthusiasm of a five year old at Christmas but oblivious to the fact that I couldn’t understand a word she was saying.
When the flight attendant handed her a warm towel, she sat with it in her hands for about 10 seconds before she looked over to discover what I was doing with mine. When she received her amenity kit, she laid every item within it out on her tray table to fully inspect and marvel at them. When she was handed a pre-departure glass of champagne, she savoured it like it was the last thing she would ever drink on Earth. And when the flight attendant offered to refill her glass, she quickly refused, thinking, I’m sure, that she’d already had too much of a good thing.
Though her excitement and energy died down after a while, I would still catch the occasional squeal of delight when the flight attendants brought her something new to eat or drink. She’d giggle a bit, glance in vain at her unresponsive husband and then look over to me, her new best friend in seat 12A. And then she would smile, broadly, purely and without reservation. And I could not help but smile back and raise my glass in salute (because I had no problem accepting a refill) as a wonderful sense of kinship and camaraderie washed over me.
I’ve talked before about how someone’s enthusiasm and joy can be infectious, and this beautiful Russian woman most certainly was, turning a nice flight into a truly special experience. But beyond that, what amazed me about this woman was how totally and completely in the moment she was: more specifically in the story of that moment that was unfolding in front of her. She wasn’t worrying about the potential or improbable story of a future that had yet to pass: of missing a connection, of not sleeping enough to work effectively the next day, of the plane running out of my first choice of entrée. She was deeply present and, at the same time, deeply appreciative of every moment and memory that present story provided her: a story you know she will tell, again and again, reliving it each time as if it were happening for the first.
The Buddhist monk Thích Nhãt Hanh once said, “The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it.” This remarkable woman reminded me of the need to more regularly open my eyes and my heart to the present story in front of me instead of worrying about a future story that is not. For it’s the stories of the moment that make life rich; and we, in turn, are enriched by those stories, but only if we fully embrace and savour them as they’re happening.
Here’s hoping that this Holiday Season and the New Year ahead are filled with many such moments and many such stories for all of you.