When a stranger performs an act of grace everyone reacts with complete surprise. Nobody expects kindness from a stranger.
Have you ever sat in the back row of a domestic flight? In the planes with 29 rows? I totally recommend it. It was definitely 29, my row. I was pleased to be at the back, as it was an evening flight and I felt like nodding off. It was pleasant to discover that I was also intimately close to everything the flight attendants were doing back there: swirling coffee, unpacking cups, talking about which shifts they preferred and commenting on the passengers.
I freaking love it when I don’t have to strain hard to eavesdrop; when the eaves simply drop, like a tray table, into my lap.
I was early to board this particular flight. I settled in and as the other passengers boarded too, I realised there was someone advancing along the aisle carrying flowers. I couldn’t see this person, or her flowers, but the flight attendants were keeping me seriously posted. “Oh, aren’t they gorgeous?” one of them murmured. “It must be her birthday,” observed the other one. “Or she’s a graduate. We’ve had lots of them today.” There was a pause, and then the first one said: “She’s going to put them in the overhead locker. Because she’s young.”
I thought about this. Would I have put flowers in the overhead locker, because I was young? I guess so, because where else would you put them, unless you asked for special consideration, which at 21, I would definitely not have done.
Wait a minute – I’d still put flowers in the overhead locker, probably. Does this mean I haven’t reached emotional maturation, even in my 40s? (I guess we’ll never know, because the last time anybody bought me an embarrassment of flowers was when I’d just given birth to our son, and before that, our daughter. If I have to have another kid to be given six gerberas and some Queen Anne lace, I think I’ll tag off the bus at the next stop, driver.)
One of the attendants glided quickly down the aisle and intercepted the flowers, offering to put them in the back. She’d anticipated a need, intervened to avoid any awkwardness and her approach was so charming, she made everyone listening (me) believe it would be granting her a favour to burden her with this problem – the inconvenience of storing an out-sized bouquet.
Later I’d imagine her, hidden behind the pullacross curtain, burying her face in that beautiful crush of peonies.
When a stranger performs an act of grace (stepping aside, say, in a supermarket queue because you have only two items and they have more), everyone reacts with complete surprise. The till operator raises an eyebrow; the recipient usually stammers a thank you and then scuttles off with their groceries, semi-embarrassed.
Nobody expects unforced kindness from a stranger. This is because you’re nobody to them and their choosing to privilege you, at 2pm in Countdown, suggests that, in fact, they do think you have value. Your time matters, whoever you are; even though they have no idea that, in fact, you are running late to collect your little boy from kindy and you don’t want him to be the last kid sitting forlornly on the mat, waiting to be taken home. Now you’ve just been handed the gift of 10 minutes.
This would have anybody blinking, astonished, into the light; let alone you, who has learned to have low expectations of everybody.
But the winner here is the person who let you pass. That person just experienced their own grace. It’s not just a nice, smug feeling for them; it actually thaws them out. It’s like an ice-shelf melting into warm water, actually.
They’ve just dissolved into their own soul, right there in front of the till, just before they swipe their Onecard and then remember, almost too late, to ask for council bin bags. And that tiny moment of defrosting – let’s say it’s a 10-second thing – was worth the wait.
Elsa freezes everything because she’s scared, Maddy explains to me. A web of ice crystals spreads across the land. The ice only melts when someone does a selfless, loving thing.
Chip away, chip away. Carry a pick, and chip away.
“They’ve just dissolved into their own soul, right in front of the till, just before they swipe their Onecard and then remember, almost too late, to ask for bin bags.”