The Airport Is My Sanctuary

I am twenty-two years old and still — I cry as I walk through security after my mom drops me off at the airport.

She holds me close and makes me promise to take care of myself, tells me she’s proud of me, and to buy aloe vera at the drugstore when I get back. My sunburn really is egregious, and I wince as I feel my backpack’s friction against the sore, inflamed skin.

I am flustered, tearing up as I stare obsessively at the toddler whining in his stroller, reaching for his mother’s arms. I fell asleep the night before curled up in fetal position against my mother’s body. It scares me how I’m reaching that stage where I find myself looking around for the adult in the room, only to discover the disturbing reality that I am that adult…I don’t even remember to take off my sandals to go through TSA.

I’ve gone what seems like months without prayer, at least without opening a prayerbook, but for some reason I am compelled to sneak in a quick mincha (afternoon prayer) at my gate, just as they begin to announce boarding. It’s been a while, but I want to just check in with G-d, let G-d know I’m still around, and that I’m aware She is too. And admittedly, I get a kick out of seeing the reactions of those in more noticeably “Jewy” garb to my short-skirted moment of piousness, my careful bowing (so as not to flash Detroit Metro airport), and those final whispers under my breath before I shut the small leather booklet, finish off those last few sips of iced coffee, and wander into the boarding line.

How many airport gates have witnessed my anxiety attacks, my to-Xanax-or-not internal debates, my baseless but substantive worries? How many baggage carousels have heard me humming an improvised niggun (melody), trying to feign something holy out of my small distress, out of my smallness?

I used to write inspirational notes and quotes in in-flight magazines, or slipped into seat pockets or cupholders. I had read about some other anonymous person doing the same on Postsecret, and had one of many middle-school moments of epiphany. I indulged myself in fascination, considering the paths crossed mid-air, mid-airport. Nowadays, I may or may not acknowledge my seatmate’s existence. I don’t leave notes anymore with Ted Leo lyrics (but if you’ve ever landed upon a scrawled “if you believe in something beautiful, then get up and be it” in a Delta catalogue, hey stranger!), because it got old. I got bored of finding ways to flirt with the world, and  instead, I’m playing harder to get.

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But still, everyone at my gate, on my flight, in the whole airport, in the world, has his or her own story and concerns, the worries and joys that pull at them and vie for their attention above anything else. My seat-mate could be flying to a job interview, or a family reunion, or a funeral. She could be hoping that this trip is the journey that changes things, that changes her. She could be hopeless or hopeful or madly in love, or just mad she didn’t get the window seat. Beyond the daled amot (immediate parameters) of my consciousness is a world of small worlds. Does that demand anything of me? Perhaps. But would my notes make a difference?

I don’t think I believe anymore in some magical possibility of a heartbroken person finding some vaguely “uplifting” lyric or “empowering” message in a barely-perused catalogue advertising useless, overpriced devices, and then feeling determined to carry on with strength, to leave her deadbeat husband, to change the world. I believe in the power of human connection. It’s just, sometimes, the anonymity of Laguardia at six a.m is something I believe in too.

In my Buddhist Ethics class this past semester, I learned about the nature of interconnected reality, that our separations and interpersonal barriers are but artificial constructions, and that the awakened mind is attuned to the shared experience of all living beings. This requires a conscious effort to cultivate compassion, to stir one’s heart to hurt for others’ pain and rejoice in their fortune. But still, doesn’t the Dalai Lama ever want to tune out his seat-mate’s coughing and listen to Sublime’s “40 Oz. to Freedom” album on repeat? Okay, maybe not exactly that, but the question still stands.

My neighbor on my flight back to New York asks me about the book I’m reading, and I answer in monotone, “it’s just short stories about women’s lives and relationships, that type of thing”, before raising the volume of my Phish album. Compassion is too much to muster sometimes, I must admit.

In airports, I often feel like the only one around, caught up in my own reflections, and lapsing into listless loops. At best, this solitude is meditative, and at worst, just short of masturbatory. But these journeys rival the mileage of my travels. I hope I’m not the only one partaking in these opportunities for reflection. I hope we all arrive safely, together.