March 04, 2009


This post was written on Monday while sitting, at various gates and cafes, in the General Mitchell Airport in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Depsite my sincere desire to go back and edit it, I have left it alone as a testament to exactly what I'm talking about, crap and all.

I have often tried to write in airports, with less than worthwhile results. It is not easy. The words come out chaotic, broken, the sentences disjointed, the plot or thesis, if there is one, going in a dozen different directions, mangled beyond recognition. There are too many adjectives, all of them sharp. The verbs are bipolar and confused. Nouns hide behind fake potted plants. And people, people mill everywhere, trampling it all, every thought and feeling smashed under a hard boot heel or sharp stiletto – until all that comes out on the page is rubble, a flaming, smoking wreckage of what used to be an idea, a poem, a heart, or a soul.

Yet I have always rather liked airports. As buildings, they are intriguing. They have no historic precedents. They are sprawling, gangly teenagers and it shows. Some of them are still awkward and uncertain, a few dark and angry, and the rarer few maturing slowly into something of rare and elegant beauty. They hum like machines, every angle designed for efficiency. If they are pleasant it is only because that amiability aids in their functioning. No one has time for a tantrum when everyone must move smoothly as a cog in the machine.

They are also fraught with peril. They are filled with people who have felt their control, or illusions of control, slip from the fingers the moment they walked through those sliding glass doors. From that moment on, they have seen themselves transform from seemingly independent adults into small, sometimes fussy, children to be herded this way or that. Go here, then wait, go there, then wait, go over there, then wait. Get on the plane, then wait some more. Get off the plane, wait once again. We can do nothing, only wait. We like to imagine we are the masters of our own destinies, but the airline industry, in its never ending quest for safety and efficiency, has slowly stripped all that away. We do not like the harsh reality of our interdependence, even though it is no different here than anywhere else.

So we sit and wait. The people are fascinating. There is a beautiful woman with long silver hair in a warm butterscotch coat. There is a young girl who appears to still be in her pajamas, all baggy sweats in loud colors with collegiate letters printed on the butt. There are grey-haired grannies who stare down at their cell phones like they hold a small poisonous creature in their hand. Everywhere is the weary business traveler, sipping lattes and working feverishly and their laptops or just sitting quietly with the Wall Street Journal spread across their laps. They are all interesting and beautiful – the families with kids, the power consultants in expensive shoes, the old men in suspenders. Even the airline attendants in their matching uniforms four decades out of date and the maintenance crews in sturdy work boots and orange jackets. Complete strangers stop the servicemen in their pixilated uniforms just to shake hands and say thank you. Small clusters speak in foreign languages and others watch them, wondering what, of all things, could have brought them here.

Airports are such strange places. They are rich with the opportunity to practice. There is an opportunity to be calm in a sea of chaos and to be able to spread that calm - to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger who happens to be reading the same book, to discuss her teenage daughter and your middle-aged father, and later to smile and wish each other a happy journey - to not complain over mediocre food at twice the cost because at least it is warm and served quickly - to learn that we all must, in fact, depend on each other and that we are all equally helpless in the face of lake-effect snow is a very important practice – to let go of our control - to see that it was all an illusion to begin with.

My ability to sit here and write, badly or well, in order to compose thoughts and stories is not something that I do alone. It is not a solitary occupation. Without these people, these places, this so-called bad luck of a weather borne delay, I would not have this opportunity to practice or write. It is only these things which give me the opportunity to learn, to push past all the obstacles with have distracted and tormented me on previous attempts. I get a little further, a little better, every time. I learn to focus, to center, and not to shut out the swirling chaos around me, but to let it in with all its glory and energy, but without feeling carried away or pushed around. Every time I am here, I learn to let go of my struggling just a little more.

Airports are profoundly good places not because they are easy, but because they are not.


john said...

Great post! Would the Daily Nebraskan maybe want to use it?

Monica said...

Naw. It's not that relevant to students, especially of a non-Buddhist audience. They wouldn't understand what I meant by "practice" and I'd have to really finagle to reword it and explain it better.