Airports are interesting places.
Aside from the sea of humanity, the cacophony of sounds and the mélange of smells, they are places that, by their design, purpose, nature and very existence, make one reflective, full of thoughts on where you’ve been and where you’re going.
At this very moment, 8:53 p.m. on Dec. 28, 2013, I’m sitting by a charging station in the Miami International Airport. I’m going to be here a while. I’ve just returned from a quick solo Christmas trip home, to see the parents and the nieces. At 10 a.m., my husband’s sister will arrive at the adjoining terminal as part of my long-planned and envisioned Birthday Surprise. I had vague thoughts of getting a hotel near the airport, but those rooms were $300 last week and have not exactly decreased in price since.
When I flew out of this airport four days ago, on Christmas Eve, I felt quite sophisticated. This feeling was no doubt exacerbated by the attractive man giving out free samples of Absolut vodka mere feet from my gate. I checked in on Facebook, because it’s not real if it’s not shared within five minutes of happening, posting a picture of my teeny weensy shot and noting to myself the contrast in my check-in point – Miami International Airport – and my destination – Greenville, S.C.
Of course, that wasn’t even the full story. The Facebook app didn’t have a recognized destination of Inman, which is my hometown and I'll smack you if you say it but about as far from Miami as one can get.
Going ‘home’ – a word that means so many things and so many places to me, in my 40th year – has always sparked powerfully ambiguous feelings in me. There are so many things I love about the place I was raised. The gently curving spines of mountains silhouetted against the gray-blue sky, the rolling green hills dotted with trees, the clumps of cattle casually grazing as cars whiz by on Interstate 85 – or 26, depending on which way you’re going. The soft, unhurried pace of movement and speech, the complete certainty that the man (or person, period) in front of me will hold the door till I get there, the way people don’t shoot a startled glance at me when I say yes ma’am or sir, no matter the age of the person I’m addressing.
There are so many things, and people, I miss. There are so many things that make me think I could come back to stay.
And there are so many things that make me able to breathe because I know the length of my stay is predetermined by the airline ticket I purchased weeks ago.
For instance, every third business has a sign, in black block letters or scrawled in handwritten ink: “Happy Birthday, Jesus.” Now, I grew up Southern Baptist, looking forward to Christmas for many reasons, reading Luke Chapter 2 while my granny got ready to sleep beside me in a house half a mile from hers but suddenly a scene of immense celebration because she, and my Pop, and my Grandma and my Grandpa, were all under one roof. Christmas was, for many years, indeed Jesus’ birthday, and the most wonderful, candy cane-striped, glistening-light time of the year.
The fact that I know now that it isn’t – whether you take the tack that research indicates such a divine birth, guided by such a radiant star, would have occurred closer to June, or whether you understand that so many of the Christmas traditions were co-opted or downright stolen from more popular, more threatening celebrations of the time – doesn’t really diminish my remembered joy in those footy pajama nights, lying awake with Granny, listening for the faintest scratch on the roof we could imagine as a reindeer hoof. Some of the joy has dissipated with the passing of the people, some with the stress that negotiating the holidays across four states and three families now requires, some of it with the gilded luster that time takes such pleasure in rubbing to a much duller sheen.
The joy that I still feel is deeply personal, burnished by my own memories and now-beliefs, and seeing such public, unquestioned, accepted displays, on the business signs or the front page of the newspaper, makes me inwardly squirm. I feel crowded, pressured. I know that my now-thoughts, the ones that were given a foundation in the church near the lake but that have grown, sprouted wing, flown far from their original base, would not be widely welcomed here, in the soil where they grew.
And God knows any talk of politics, or the hot-button issues of the day such as gun control, is initiated at one's own risk. Conformity is, if not demanded, expected, and I have never been much good at conforming.
I see people here, dear people, faces I’ve known as long as I’ve recognized my own. Sometimes the conversations are stilted, both parties striving to find the common ground that is there, somewhere, under layers of children and work and different roads, but usually it is sprinkled with laughter, and if I leave houses where I’ve been greeted with warmth for 25 years feeling a little out of sorts, a bit off-center, at least the knowledge that these doors are still open to me is a comfort, a little space heater in my heart as I drive my mother’s truck-car down winding roads I once knew like the veins on the back of my wrinkled hands.
There is comfort in being known, 25-years known, every-conceivable-wart known, and not just accepted, not just not judged, but appreciated and loved. There is freedom in being able to be exactly who you are, even if that person varies day to day or minute to minute, even if that person is totally different but so much the same. And there is a certain amount of pressure, largely if not wholly self-generated, to be the Interesting Friend Who Lives Far Away, not the 40-year-old who some days feels lost and directionless.
Home is many places and many people. There’s what I see when I return. And there’s what I’m returning to, when my daddy drops me off at the airport an hour from my parents’ front door smiling, without complaint, saying he misses me already.
I used to drive to and from the past and the present, heading four hours down the interstate to a coastal town, bathed in the promise of saltwater and youth. Then I drove six hours in the other direction, to the place where my roots grew substance, where my back porch and mortgage waited, along with some of the best people I’ve ever known.
Now, I get on a plane and, if the Travelocity gods have cooperated, fly two hours and change nonstop to a tropical city where the heat and humidity smack me lovingly in the face on the way the baggage claim. In my previous destinations, I was flying back to a definite sense of self, to cover the nationally recognized high school basketball tournament that tipped off the day after Christmas, or to a bowl game the college football team I covered had proudly gone 6-5 to qualify to attend, or to help with the Year End sections that are the bane of every section editor’s existence.
Tonight, I’ve returned to a less certain future, one filled with the family I’ve also longed for but without the everyday presence of friends who are family. In a few days, there is a new challenge awaiting me, one filled with promise and with terror, a completely unchartered path with no map, no compass, no directional arrows. I think that’s OK. I think that’s good.
It’s just something to think about, in an airport, as the clock ticks toward 10 p.m. and janitors roll their wheeled carts through the little sanctuary I’ve found by a long-shuttered ticket counter and the garbled loudspeaker announcements reverberate with less and less frequent urgency through a concourse slowing hemorrhaging people and movement and purpose.
In front of me, the escalator to the VIP lounge gamely soldiers onward and upward, undaunted by its dearth of nipped and tucked passengers. I have CNN in front of me, Christmas carols still wafting by, my Kindle full of books and Facebook friends willing to while away the hours with me. I contemplate sleep; I hope it’s feasible and legal.
If sleep proves elusive, I’m sure there’s some more introspection available with any no-fat, no-whip concoction served at Starbucks, doing a booming business at 5:15 a.m.
It’s now 6:03 a.m., and there has been no sleep. My throat is scratchy and sore and my head hurts, but I’m eager to see my husband’s sister, and I’m even more eager to see the look on his face when she walks into our house.
I so want to be home, and right now, it’s crystal clear where that is.