I love airports. Whether they are small regional airports in the middle of Pakistan or large, metropolitan mega centers of the world – I love them.
I find that airports are contemplative places. They provide a place of quiet watching in the middle of chaos; they allow me to stare out at nothing in particular without interruption; they offer me cinnamon buns, with gorgeous thick icing and gooey middles.
Today I’m sitting at JFK airport in the Jet Blue terminal. It’s a relatively quiet Thursday morning with few family travelers. As I was settling in for a long layover, I suddenly heard my name paged over the loudspeaker. Because I am who I am, in 30 seconds I had gone through a list of catastrophes. By the end of the list, most of the people I love more than life itself had died.
And then I mentally kicked myself and told myself that God doesn’t give us grace for our imagined tragedies. It’s amazing how quickly the brain can go from slow contemplation to imagination induced funerals to relief. I headed to the Jet Blue “Just Ask” spot, and I “just asked” why they had paged me. It was my license. It must have slipped out as I was walking between gates.
The kindness of strangers always amazes me in airports. Just a small incident of a misplaced license is an example — the anonymous person who found the license and turned it in; the person who paged me; and then the person who met me halfway between gates just to make it easier.
I see other acts of kindness – the person who gave up their seat for an older woman who looked like she needed rest; employees who work day in and day out seeing anonymous people and still smile when they serve you; the mother/daughter duo who stop to help a young mom struggling with a toddler and a baby.
Airports are liminal spaces, spaces between hello and goodbye. They are spaces where little is required and much is anticipated. Airports are bridges between places and the people who travel through them are the bridge-builders. Airports are also non-places and though I love them, most people don’t.
The Terminal, a 2004 Spielberg film, tells the story of an Eastern European man trapped in the same airport where I now sit. He is caught between worlds in “diplomatic limbo” as his fictitious country experiences a coup rendering his visa and passport useless. The country he comes from no longer exists, so he is not allowed to set foot on U.S soil. Instead, he makes his home in the international departure lounge.
The main character (Victor Navorski played by Tom Hanks) is sympathetic and pure. He doesn’t lie or try to take advantage of the situation, instead he gets to know the people in the airport as human beings. He intervenes in what could have been a tragedy and he drives the customs and immigration official, Dixon played by Stanley Tucci, crazy.
I love this film. I love the pace. I love the characters. But most of all, I love the story. It’s a story of people stuck in the space between who end up opening up to each other and becoming friends.
My friend, Mariuca, says that my life is like The Terminal. I laugh when she says it, because in recent months I’ve done little traveling, but I’m also the only person I know who wouldn’t mind if my life was The Terminal. The idea of befriending airport employees and driving immigration officials crazy sounds incredibly appealing.
But I don’t live in the terminal. I live in real life where this morning I said goodbye to my husband and in a bit I will say hello to my mom. And that’s the thing that every person in this airport has in common, no matter their age or nationality; no matter if they are airport employees or travelers; no matter what their occupations. Every single person is between goodbye and hello. Every single person left wherever they left this morning saying goodbye. It could have been a painful, poignant, or relieved goodbye and it will end with a painful, poignant, or a relieved – perhaps ecstatic – hello.
We’re fellow life-travelers between goodbye and hello. Some of us know to make the moments count, others haven’t seen enough of life to know that moments matter.
Living between worlds in the liminal space of an airport may not be what many would enjoy, but I sit in happy contemplation.
I am content in the terminal, content between goodbye and hello.