The forces of air travel are virtually unknowable and immense, and we ourselves are small. I find a sort of peace in that.
Sky’s the Limit
Sky’s the Limit
Trying to find my way to a connection with the divine, I’m stuck in the airport again; the plane takes off, but without me on board.
As an adult, I am a reluctant atheist. I wish I could yield my life to something greater than myself, but I don’t understand how. I’ve tried and failed to take up prayer or meditation, but I can’t quiet my mind enough to hear the universe’s whisper. I don’t know how to relinquish control. I love Tarot and astrology, but only for the potency of their symbolism. I have no faith in stars or cards. I keep my faith in airports.
I know airports aren’t most people’s idea of a higher power, a sacred space. They’re crowded and loud and chaotic. They’re incubators for contagion (see: coronavirus, but also just the sniffles I get every time I fly). Everyone there is stressed and over-caffeinated and will happily run you over if it means getting to their gate a minute sooner. Just when you think you know when to take your shoes off, they tell you to put them back on.
I’m not saying I like airports; this is not, by any means, a love letter to security checkpoints and increasingly draconian luggage restrictions. All I mean is that, when I try to imagine what it would be like to believe in God, I think of waiting for a flight.
Because my father is an airline pilot, we traveled frequently when I was young—for free, as long as there were seats available. I may have gotten a little spoiled by the relative ease with which we arranged vacations, but I also learned early on that all plans were tentative at best.
My parents, siblings, and I were used to being separated. In a best-case scenario, we’d be scattered all across the same airplane; more often, two or three of us would get on one flight, then wait around at our destination for the rest to trickle in. The one immutable law of standby travel, drilled into me over and over by my parents, was that we did not complain.
Flying for free was a privilege. Whatever inconvenience came with it, we would accept gracefully—or at least silently. If a freak snowstorm flooded the gates with pissed-off passengers from canceled flights, so be it. If I was comfortably settled into a seat only to be deboarded when a ticketed passenger arrived at the last minute, oh well. If I flew into Tulsa but my luggage found its way to Dallas, it was time for a road trip.
Whatever happened, my parents insisted that we greet it calmly—calm gratitude if we were fortunate enough to complete our intended journey, calm resignation if we never made it past the city limits. It was impossible to predict how much waiting a trip might require, so we wore comfortable shoes and packed lots of books and snacks. Accepting what I cannot control does not come naturally to me, but airports offered many opportunities to practice.
Is it redundant to say that, in 2020, I have anxiety? I’m a parent of two small children who will grow up in a world of environmental catastrophes and global pandemics. I’m a freelance writer in a crumbling gig economy. I’m a queer person in *gestures at everything*. And everything about our pathologically individualistic society tells me every day that I should be doing more, specifically and personally, to fix those problems. I should be hustling harder, making more money, networking, protesting, campaigning, parenting, creating, more, more, more.
I don’t think I’m unique in this. The modern world keeps us inundated with crises, so we’re always scrambling to keep up. Terrified to be seen faltering, we pretend everything is okay. I don’t think I know a single adult who isn’t desperately trying to hold the fraying ends of a life together with cracked and bleeding fingers.
But that’s not so in an airport. There, we are all equally powerless. We are all at the mercy of an incomprehensibly complex web of influences most of us could never hope to understand. The forces of air travel are virtually unknowable and immense, and we ourselves are small. I find a sort of peace in that.
Everyone is miserable in an airport, of course. But by far the most miserable are those who are determined not to be. People who believe they can avoid being inconvenienced if they’re smart enough, prepared enough, persuasive enough. People who think arguing can reopen a closed gate or change the weather in San Francisco. People who have not yet learned to make themselves humble in the face of suffering, and suffer all the more because of it.
A state of resignation kicks in like muscle memory, a remnant of childhood when I set foot in an airport. I am conscious of handing my life over to a force beyond my reckoning. On an oversold flight to New York last year, when no one volunteered to give up their seat, I was bumped for being the last passenger to check in. Taking a later flight would inconvenience not only me but the friend I was visiting. I waited for the spiral of guilt and self-recrimination that usually accompanies a last-minute change of plans, but it didn’t come. This was simply out of my hands.
It’s a relief to give up control. With all the things for which I am responsible—and the many more for which I pretend to be, because micromanaging gives me an illusion of influence over an uncaring universe—it feels good to admit that I am not in charge. This is why I still love flying, despite the steady encroachment on airline passengers’ space and dignity over the last few decades. I don’t understand how airplanes work, and it’s exhilarating to step into one and trust it with my life nonetheless.
Accepting what I cannot control does not come naturally to me, but airports offered many opportunities to practice.
I’m a leaf in a river. The river doesn’t have a plan for me; it doesn’t even know I exist. Still, I can’t fight the current.
This also means that the people around me in an airport aren’t my enemies or my obstacles, no matter how tired and frustrated we all are. The person in line ahead of me is not standing between me and my goals. We’re all moving in the same direction whether we want to or not. There is a level of camaraderie to this. We’re not united, necessarily, but we need not be enemies.
Is this what it’s like to believe in God? To feel that your fate is being decided by forces beyond your control or comprehension; to look at the people around you with compassion, because they, like you, are infinitesimal motes in an unfathomably massive design? I can almost imagine it.
You do not pass through an airport to reach your destination. You enter the airport; you surrender to the airport; the airport extracts from you whatever it requires; the airport releases you at the time and place of its choosing. The airport is neither a path nor a vehicle. It may exist for your use, but it does not bend to your will. It was here before you, and it will be here long after.
Sometimes it’s useful to look at the world and think: None of us chose to be here, but we all have to make the best of it. We are all on our way to somewhere else, and it might or might not be where we’re hoping to end up, but we may as well treat each other kindly while we’re here.
Lindsay King-Miller’s writing has appeared in Glamour Magazine, Bitch Magazine, Cosmopolitan.com, Vice.com, and numerous other publications. She lives in Denver with her partner, their daughter, and two very spoiled cats. She is the author of Ask A Queer Chick (Plume, 2016). You can follow her on Twitter @askaqueerchick.