“Life is like a box of Chocolates.” – Forrest, Forrest Gump

In the history of film, no one has ever portrayed a more veracious individual than Tom Hanks did when he became Forrest Gump. We all cheer Forrest on, and find him so endearing. “Stupid is as stupid does”, he says and we all chuckle because it’s so true. Forrest inspires people to be confident, to “consider the source” when it comes to scrutiny of one’s character. He challenges us to step outside of our comfort zone, and approach our fellow man as an equal. A friend. “You never know what you’re gonna get.”

Personally, I have always been fascinated by people. People of all ages and trends. I’m captivated by the possibilities of what people are like, their synergy with the environment around them. I like to read people. Does this married couple seem connected, or are they just going through the motions? He looks miserable, she doesn’t say a word to him, but neither of them look angry necessarily. They are merely … existing. Other times, I am more pleased by what I observe. Young parents playing with their toddler at the park. Mom plays paparazzi, and dad seems to predict that child’s every move. My husband often scolds me for shamelessly staring at people in grocery stores, restaurants, you name it. He’ll say under his breath “Elina…you’re staring again. Stop staring, sweetie!”, and just like that, I’m back in reality.

Throughout my life, I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to meet fascinating people. Some of them become an ongoing part of my life, and there are others whom I never see again. For this once, I want to remember those who I will never see again. Because just like Forrest left a mark in people’s lives at that bus stop in Savannah, I’m always being marked by the people who are around me – even if they are just passing through. People I stand in line with at the deli, people I sit next to on buses or trains or airplanes, people I meet at work…fascinating.

So. For the sake of disclosing a few of these blessed experiences and hopefully encouraging you to sit at your Savannah bus stop, here I go.

Mendoza, Argentina – Viña del Mar, Chile – 19… through 2002 

I grew up riding buses. I took public transportation to and from school, I took buses to classmates’ houses, I took buses to and from church, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. I knew those bus lines and train lines very well. And although I cannot recall a single incident when I had a life-changing experience while conversing with someone on a bus ride, I was enthralled by the different reactions I would get when I took a seat next to them. You see, after paying my fare, I would survey the bus for sleeping travelers. If the seat next to them was empty, I would take it. Not because I was avoiding human interaction, but because I was frantic that they’d sleep through their bus stop. I myself could not imagine how scared I would be to fall asleep on a bus, and wake in a completely unfamiliar neighborhood, with insufficient fare to retrace my steps back to my original destination. As I approached my target seat, I would develop a very strong cough, in hopes that they would wake and I could take the preferred window seat somewhere else. A win-win situation. This strategy did not work very often, so as I took my seat, my backpack was suddenly twice it’s size, and I would lose my balance shoving its weight not too gently on their arm before I would sit and very obnoxiously make myself comfortable. If I didn’t have a backpack, I would plop myself down on the chair rather harshly, sometimes hurting my tailbone – but for a cause. In retrospect, I can categorize people’s reactions to my seemingly ornery behavior, into four categories:

  1. Those who would wake peacefully, yawn, look out the window a few seconds, and get comfortable to doze off again. These I figuratively threw my arms up at. “So much for that.”
  2. Snorers, head-thrown-back-with-mouth-wide-open sleepers, fit this category for the most part. These people would perk up immediately and clear their throats like convincing themselves that “no one noticed that”. They would go on with their busy lives, making phone calls and reading their books.
  3. Those who would wake up with a jump, glare at me, huff at me, grumble at me, and turn their backs to me. Out like a light again. These I would just roll my eyes at, because half the time they didn’t even look around them to see where they were in the bus trajectory.
  4. And finally, the people for whom I took all the trouble. They would perk up, rub their eyes, look out the window, and stand up. “Permiso, permiso” they’d say as they practically walked over me to get to the exit door.

I never ever ever got thanked. But it was more than enough reward for me, to know that had I not awoken these people, they may find themselves far from home at the end of a long day. No matter the reaction, I had meant well, and I’d learned whether they were chill, uptight, grumpy, or scatter brained (or maybe simple exhausted?).

Temple University, Philadelphia, 2005

I was done interviewing at the Temple graduate program, all my bags were stored at the hotel, and I had a whole day and night to explore the historic city of Philadelphia. So I put my camera in my purse, and set off to explore. I sat next to whom seemed to be a student, at the Temple train stop. I smiled at him and sat down, ready to put the headphones in my ears. He said hi, and I said hi, and before I knew it, he’d told me all the great things about the school, and that he was heading to an internship at Johns Hopkins in a month. I of course was so impressed by this, and proceeded to ask him 100 questions. When I asked him how it felt to be going to a top notch hospital, he said “I’m terrified.” We only talked for 10 minutes, but in those 10 minutes, I learned that even the smartest people, people who I truly believe are much smarter than me, have fears and insecurities too. He taught me that all students, whether interning at a small town elementary school, or at a top hospital, were all in the same boat together. And at that point in my life, I really needed to see that for myself. This young man did not know how much he validated me as a member of a worldwide student body, where everyone is struggling to find their foothold in the world of careers and adulthood.

Southwest Airlines, Little Rock to Albuquerque, 2006

She had the window seat, I had the aisle seat. The beginning of the flight was pretty uneventful. We exchanged a polite “Hi”, and for a while that was it. About 30 minutes into the flight, they were handing out refreshments. Both of our headphones sat in our laps. For some reason, the electronics restriction cleared after take off did not compel us to tune each other out. Her face was glued to the window, and her whole upper body was turned against me. I kept thinking to myself that my waist would hurt if I held that position as long as she was. She was around my age, maybe a few years older (if you know what I look like, you know it’s not hard to look older than me). Pretty brunette, sophisticated in an eclectic kind of way. She looked intelligent.

I heard a sniffle, and saw her pull her sleeve over her fist to wipe something on her face. Her nose, her eyes? To my dismay, I heard her whimper very softly. She was crying. For the first time in a long time, I sat up and looked straight ahead at the seat in front of me. “What do I do?? Do I leave her alone? Do I offer her a hankie? Her body language tells me she wants to be left alone. Or is it telling me she’s embarrassed of crying? She could be sad she just said bye to someone. Maybe I should just leave her alone. She’d think I was weird if I talked to her now. I’ll just leave her be.”

Against my better judgment, I gently touched her arm and asked her “Can I do anything for you?” She shook her head and mumbled “no”. I nodded and turned back to the chair in front of me. I felt unsatisfied with this brief, unproductive interaction. I felt compelled to do something, say something.

“Well, we have another 2 hours or so, so if you change your mind, I’m right here. Whatever is going on, I really hope everything turns out well for you.” And… she’s bawling her eyes out. She thanked me for saying that. By the time the refreshment cart reached our row, she’d calmed down. I asked her where she was headed.

I learned so much about this girl and was lost in the empathy for her story. She was a senior at a school in North Carolina majoring in Women’s Studies, headed to Phoenix because her parents were getting divorced. She didn’t go into great detail, but basically her father severely disapproved of her female partner, and she had been estranged from him for years. Her mother had health issues, and this young girl was on her way to support her mother through this agonizing process. She was so flooded with worries about school, would she have to drop out and get a job to support her mother? She was so tantalizingly close to graduation. Would she have to transfer schools? How could she deal with seeing her father after so many years under such dire circumstances? All these things were rushing through her brain, and I had no earthly idea of how to proceed.

One thing I knew for sure. This was not a time to judge or lecture, and this was certainly not the time to take the comfortable route. I had to put God, no matter how indirectly, in her path. She needed some light, and I hoped God would shine some through me.

One moment I was frozen – not knowing what to say or do – and the next, words were flowing from my mouth. But they were not my words. They were loving things that God had told me, and He wanted her to hear them too.

I told her how beautiful, how intelligent, and how loving she was to take time from her education to take care of her mother. And I told her that she was the kind of girl to get though anything, because she was brave and strong to leave her comfort zone and deal with something so tragic.

She smiled at me, and thanked me. I can’t remember much else, except that as I walked to baggage claim, I felt this new appreciation for complete strangers. Since my experience with this girl, I have had so many more similar experiences. Just last year, returning from a wedding in Dallas, I sat next a music producer from L.A., who was headed to visit his daughter in Columbus. His appearance screamed “music industry”, but once he let his business, career man barriers down, the way he talked about his daughter was so refreshing. That man walked off the plane looking a little younger with a smile on his face because he’d fallen in love with his daughter all over again.

“Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.”

Please feel welcome to share any similar experiences of your own. I would love to hear them.

What’s on my playlist: “Tell my Why” by Genesis, “Fix You” by Coldplay, “Transatlanticism”by DCFC