Leslie Jamison on Grace without a Backstory

The Story of a Layover, and the Bigger Story of Grace

Sarah Woodard / 2.12.20

“This is the story of a layover. Who tells that story? I’m telling it to you now. One January evening, my flight got delayed out of Louisiana, where I’d been talking to people about their past lives, and I missed my connection in Houston. I had a night there. Trying to have a travel experience near the Houston airport is like trying to write a poem from the words on a yeast packet. Don’t try to make it beautiful. Just let it rise. Let the freeways run like unspooled thread into the night. Blink against the neon signs of chain stores. Take shelter where you can.”

As the excerpt indicates, bestselling author Leslie Jamison is obsessed by the dynamics and psychology of stories and storytelling. In her evocative collection of essays memorably titled “Make It Scream, Make It Burn” published in 2019, Jamison looks unflinchingly into the face of longing and pain. She writes about the reincarnation tales of children, a lonely blue whale, and a museum in memory of ruptured relationships and broken hearts. She finds the extraordinary in the ordinary, and asks fierce questions about human tendencies and desire. She plunges into the depths of human psychology, often starting with an exploration of her own disturbing or fascinating realizations about her mindset, or her struggles as a recovering alcoholic. Thoroughly witty, relatable, and self-aware, Jamison has a lot of wisdom to offer about the human experience.

One of my favorite essays is called “The Layover,” which starts off with the excerpt posted above. In this essay, she tells the story of finding herself in a conversation with “a difficult woman from New York” with a limp, a quick tongue, and a whole host of perhaps unreasonable demands in the Houston airport. (She also talks to a man on the plane about his daughter’s three hermit crabs named Peaches, among other things.) As Jamison talks to the woman, she oscillates between feeling embarrassed by associating herself with the woman and guilty that she would feel embarrassed to come alongside a woman struggling—limping to be exact. She realizes this “woman with the voice is also a woman with a body” (50). When they exchange names, she can’t help herself from googling her, and believes she finds an article about this woman being a victim of a stabbing. Suddenly Jamison gives the woman a story, and she finds her own place in that story: the kind woman who will help her out at the airport. But it turns out Jamison’s story is quite wrong—the woman later reveals she actually injured herself dancing to “Mama Mia” while on vacation in Cabo.

Jamison’s reaction to this story, and her subsequent reflections on that initial reaction, are nothing short of a profound image and understanding of the Gospel, even if she does not label it as such. Upon hearing the woman’s confession of her real injury story, Jamison writes:

“But inside I’m feeling robbed, like something has been stolen from me: the story in which I carried the bags of a woman still recovering from a stabbing attack. Now I’m in a story about a woman who danced too hard on the Mexican Riviera. It’s a story about putting bags in overhead compartments and waiting in the bitter Jersey cold, about getting to the ugliest train station in the world and weaving through its maze of underground tunnels with three suitcases to emerge into the grim bustle of a purgatory between Midtown and Koreatown.

In a way I can’t explain, I’ve started to feel attached to this woman, weirdly protective. It’s as if we’ve been on some kind of odyssey together, and it has less to do with the night in Houston or the blizzard in Jersey and more to do with all her shape-shifting in my internal narrative. First she was a tyrant, then a saint, and finally just a tourist, dancing.

We part ways by the cabstand. The woman with the voice thanks me for my kindness. She’ll take a taxi home. I’ll take the subway to an empty apartment in Brooklyn, where I’ll read another article about the attack, full of eyewitness quotes. I will never hear what her voice sounded like when she was crying out, in broad daylight, for help; when she was just a difficult New York woman asking her city to save her.

This is how we light the stars, again and again: by showing up with our ordinary, difficult bodies when other ordinary, difficult bodies might need us. Which is the point—the again-and-again of it. You never get to live the wisdom just once, rise to the occasion of otherness just once. You have to keep living this willingness to look at other lives with grace, even when your own feels like shit and you would do anything to crawl inside a different one; when you would claw one Peaches out of the way, and then another, and then a third, just for a shot at some shell of respite. A 3:30 wake-up call in Houston isn’t the respite shell. New Jersey public transit the day after a New Jersey Super Bowl isn’t the respite shell. The blizzard is no respite shell for anyone; it makes the hurt knee throb harder.

Does graciousness mean you want to help—or that you don’t and do it anyway? The definition of grace is that it’s not deserved. It does not require a good night’s sleep to give it, or a flawless record to receive it. It demands no particular backstory.

You thought the story kept changing, but the most important part never did. She was always just a woman in pain, sitting right in front of you. Sometimes it hurts just to stand. Sometimes a person needs help because she needs it, not because her story is compelling or noble or strange enough to earn it, and sometimes you just do what you can. It doesn’t make you any better or any worse. It doesn’t change you at all, except for the split second that you imagine the day when you will be the one who has to ask.”