A few months ago I was traveling for a conference from Providence, Rhode Island to Washington DC. Because of the weather, there were significant delays and the quickest option to get to the conference was to take the train.
Arriving at the station around dinner time, there was an intense hustle of rolling suitcases and quickened paces of busy travelers in a crowded station. Sitting on the bench waiting for an announcement for the track of my departure I scanned the train station: almost every person in the station was staring at their phone. There was an eerie silence amongst the travelers, no one was talking, no chatting or conversations. To share space with a hundred people and not hear a voice or a conversation was noise deafening.
As I waited, an announcement came on, my train, delayed for the second time, another hour before departure. Breaking the silence of phone scrolling, a man sitting across from me began to rage-cursing-expressing his upset over yet another delay. His energy so intense, I decided to change my seat to a bench across the station.
As I sat and contemplated what I was going to do as I waited, and adamant not to get on my phone and start scrolling, I decided to practice a mindfulness exercise and just continue to breathe and notice my surroundings. As I did, my mind and body relaxed, and with the grumble of my stomach, I realized I hadn’t had dinner. Reaching into my bag, I pulled out one of two apples I had packed. As I bit the apple, a loud crunch as I broke the skin, summoned the older woman next to me to turn her head and look at me. We smiled and held a gaze with one another for a second or two.
As I continued to take the second bite, I looked at the lady next to me and noticed, she had no baggage, no ticket in hand and no jacket for the rain. A bandana covered her hair, and I could see it was unkempt and her shoes were too big. Simultaneously, a traveler ran by us creating a breeze, and it became all too apparent, the older woman next to me was not a traveler; instead, she was homeless. I imagine she was at the train station to escape the storm. Over the years volunteering to feed the homeless and those living on the edge, I’ve learned to ‘see’ the subtle signs of poverty.
In this moment of awareness, I said a prayer for clarity in the situation, wanting to preserve her dignity. She spontaneously looked over at me and smiled. Her smile: a green light to offer her my second apple. Her lovely brown eyes lit up as did her smile, and she graciously accepted the fruit. We sat side by side eating our apples. I wondered to myself when was the last time she had a fresh piece of fruit-as I could see from the corner of my eye, and she was mindfully savoring every single bite.
The clicking of the board updating the track numbers for arrivals and departures took me away from this moment; my train was coming into the station. Standing up and arranging my luggage, I looked over at the older lady, our eyes met, and we smiled again. This time I asked, “Do you like peanut butter? I have a few bars I’d like to give you if you’d like them.” To which she nodded, and we embraced hands, leaving the bars in hers.
Sitting on the train, I thought of this woman and felt so incredibly grateful for our moment of contact. And I felt tremendous appreciation for all those travelers on their phones, incredibly preoccupied, as they shared a lesson with me, likely not even knowing: how connected we can feel but how disconnected we’ve become. If I hadn’t seen them, I might have quickly sunk into the distraction of my phone. I also felt gratitude for the man who expressed his rage at the delay, had he not, I wouldn’t have moved my seat which brought me to the lady.
My train trip was somewhat smooth, aside from another delay on the tracks. The attendants were so thoughtful as it approached midnight, offering travelers snacks. I opted for cheese, bread, and grapes. By the time my train arrived at Union Station, Washington, DC, it was close to 1 a.m. Not exactly the best part of the city in the middle of the night. An announcement came on before departing the train, and the station was experiencing a power outage due to repairs and construction. As I walked from the platform to the station and into the corridor of the station, I held in one hand the wrapped snack I opted to save for later upon arriving at the hotel, pulling luggage behind in the other.
As I walked through the dark and mostly vacant station, except a few police officers, construction workers, and travelers, I was hyperfocused on navigating myself and luggage to the dimly lit sidewalk from the taxi area. As I stepped from the station to connect with a taxi driver, I was approached from behind by a man, asking if I was going to eat what was in my hand. Startled, I turned around, and the man quickly turned and said, “Never mind, sorry.” Pausing and scanning to see the man, I could see the person who approached me was not a man, but a teenager, thin, wearing a hoodie and a backpack. I called out to him and walked toward him, handed him my food. He smiled and said thank you.
What started as, and continued to be, a stressful travel day had so many moments like no other day I can describe. The lessons for me: to pay attention, put down the phone, connect to what is happening around, to be open to opportunities to help and do what you can to help people.
In a world that often feels overwhelming and stressful, each of us has the opportunity every day to choose kindness, connection and share our gifts with the world.
One act of kindness reaches places we can never know.