Last fall I was in the Fort Lauderdale airport returning home from a final memorial service for my brother. It had been another visit full of all kinds of emotions, mostly love, loss, sorrow, and the joy of connection with my brother’s circle of friends. I was a sea of feelings in the busy and diverse world of air travel.
Something completely unexpected shook me on my last bathroom stop before departure.
In the women’s restroom a black woman was cleaning the floors in each of the long row of stalls. One at a time, thoroughly, she cleaned up after the hundreds of us rushing through that morning. As she did so she was singing Amazing Grace, the most touching version of it I have ever heard.
We all know that melody. She was singing it strongly and surely, just loudly enough to be heard by those of us in the restroom. Her cadence was steady, and perhaps a bit slower and more deliberate than I’m used to. It seemed to me to anchor her careful intention and attention to her cleaning, while creating a container of peace and beauty in which she worked.
Her words weren’t English. I was thinking French as I raptly listened to her, as I felt her song in my soul. But they were not quite French, and then I realized she must be singing in Haitian Creole.
Her voice was beyond exquisite, with no artifice whatsoever, just beauty emerging from within to caress us all.
A couple other women and I, privately in our individual stalls, began tentatively humming along, ever so lightly, with her song. We had neither her unselfconscious, soulful voice nor the depth of truth that animated it, and still we responded to her call to sing, to sing in that moment, exactly where we were and how we were, in some way recognizing the sacred in the truly mundane.
As this woman cleaned the bathrooms in Florida hurricane Matthew was roaring over her home county, killing hundreds, making thousands homeless, and leaving well over a million people desperately needing humanitarian aid.
My worries were of getting a bottle of water and a good seat on my flight home before the storm would inconvenience me. What might hers have been? Was her song a prayer of thanks, a petition for grace, or was it simply a comfort to her in that moment?
I don’t know her story, not at all, and any story I make up about her is my projection, is me dreaming her up as I imagine she might be. It is entirely filled with my history, my motivations, and my privilege.
Many stories of immigrants and refugees are being told today. Far fewer stories are being told of the lasting impacts of slavery and colonialism or of the unimaginably inequitable distribution of wealth and resources and opportunity. True and yet impersonal, these global stories live in our heads. Rarely do they touch our hearts.
In that moment, through her voice and her being and her choices, one woman offered me the gift of a deeper, more soulful story than the one I was obliviously rushing through.
My entire view of the world and myself in it shifted in those moments as I heard her sing.
A song written by a penitent slaver, sung by a woman of color, echoed through bathroom stalls in a busy airport to melt away my petty concerns and travel anxieties.
I thought I was good at gratitude. The truth is I have been so showered with grace, blessings, fortune, or privilege, however I attempt to name it, I don’t know a thing about being thankful. I have absolutely no idea how many gifts have been and continue to be poured down on me. It’s my mission to empower and uplift women, which I thought I knew a thing or two about, and yet one usually invisible and by all external measures powerless woman blew open my mind and heart with her song.
She reminded me that what we do in our mundane lives matters. The song we sing, the stories we tell our selves and others, the way we view the world has an impact on all of us. Simple things can change minds and change the world. We all have our pain. We all have our joy. We all have our gifts to give no matter the circumstance. The choice is all ours. In that moment I was fiercely willing myself to have as much courage as I imagined she had.
I lingered there listening as long as I could and then went up to connect with her, eye to eye, before I dashed back to board my plane. In her eyes I saw sweet kindness. All I could say was a heart felt and humble thank you. How do you tell someone you don’t even know that they have touched you deeply and rocked your world? How do you find adequate words in a fleeting moment to express what your heart knows and your mind can barely grasp? What do we say to both the unexpected and the vast gifts of grace in our lives? Thank you. Thank you. Thank you!