Liminal: an adjective to describe a transitional stage or something on a boundary
‘Liminal’ has long been a favorite word of mine. It always reminds me of the colored bands of light in a sunset or sunrise. I love that an image of those lights without context is ambiguous. It could come from the beginning of the day or the end. The liminal light of dusk or dawn gives transition a life of its own, even without movement or time.
Last week I saw several sunsets and sunrises through plane windows as I flew from the US to Uganda. My mind and heart were full of the liminal thoughts that come with a transcontinental move between one home and another. That light out the window gave color to the feelings of transition otherwise so hard to understand and express. Even if I couldn’t put my finger on all the emotions, I could just be in the light that could be both sunrise and sunset—a transition that is both backwards and forwards.
I know it’s strange to say, but I LOVE airports and flights. As much as I’ve traveled, and as many bad airport experiences as I’ve had, I still love the thrill I feel when I pass through security and all the flight gates are lined out in front of me. The excitement is equal parts for travel, autonomy, and otherworldliness.
I’m not alone in this weird affection. Quite a few people who live in different countries or cultures than they were born into share that love: expatriates who live elsewhere than their passport country, or third culture kids (TCKs) who’ve been raised in two or more cultures and function in their own ‘third’ culture that mixes the others.
Many of us expats and TCKs, and other types of world travelers, enjoy airports or airplanes because they give us a ‘place’ that feels oddly at home. They can be a tangible experience of the less-defined middle point we often feel we live in. Many of us have both a ‘home’ country and a ‘host’ country, or more than one of each. But after years of surfing between the two, or trying to straddle both at once, we often find we don’t wholly belong to either. Yeah, maybe we miss Target and pizza while we’re away from them, but when we have them, we also miss open-air markets and local foods.
No one place is completely home for us anymore. We don’t feel that we completely ‘fit’ in any of our homes even though they’re all a part of us. We have beloved people and places scattered all over the globe.
And maybe that’s why we like airports. They aren’t ‘real’ places that merit a passport stamp on their own. They aren’t fully a part of any one culture or country. They’re more like C. S. Lewis’ “wood between the worlds;” a nowhere between everywhere. A transit place with magical portals that promise to whisk you off to any time zone or language or reality you want.
Airports let expats feel the in-between places we sometimes think live only in our minds as we cross cultures and don’t quite belong. Announcements are spoken in multiple languages. Signs communicate mostly through the universal language of pictures to be understood more clearly. No one completely knows what they’re doing, where they’re going, or what time it is. But there’s always someone more lost and confused than you. You depend on perfect strangers, and most people are more willing than normal to help.
In international airports, no one expects you to know the unspoken ‘rules’ of what side of the stairs to walk on or how to greet someone. You can talk to everyone, or no one. And it’s a lawless place. Prices don’t match the outside world. Social status means next to nothing. The mysterious codes of social conduct are often breached—men in business suits sit on the floor near outlets to charge electronics, whole families take naps in public piled on each other in a corner, some people wear their nicest clothes while others wear their comfiest.
We feel we belong in airports because everyone else is between cultures just like we are. Everyone else is on unsure footing too.
But this feeling isn’t novel. The religious speak of “thin places” where the separation between physical and spiritual realities doesn’t seem quite so distinct. These thin places are cathedrals or historical sites or even a lonely place in the woods where the spiritual seems physical and heaven feels closer to earth. The veil between the two wears thin and you can sense the other side.
At first thought, an airport seems nothing like a cathedral. But in many ways an airport is a thin place in the boundaries of our world. And have you ever paid attention to some of the best airports? Their architecture is expansive and light. Glass windows fill the walls and ceiling to let in streaming light and to ‘thin’ the appearance of the boundary between you and the outside world. You can see the landscape stretch for miles past the runways, and the high, open ceilings bring the sky itself inside to you. An airport like this instills a sort of reverence for the wideness of the world. It embraces liminality and welcomes all who travel between places. And perhaps it feels strangely a home to those who have made their home between places as well.