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On liminal spaces, and ceasing to be earthbound

It’s funny how my experience of airports is so different to my experience of the journeys or the destinations themselves. An airport visit is often an integral part of the journey, and yet it is entirely unique. 

I often pass the time writing in a notebook, reading a book, or listening to a podcast or an audiobook. Mostly I like to sit and watch, listening to the sounds of the terminal around me. They’re the sounds of luggage wheels clunking over tiles, of the whine of electric carts, the crackle of artificially amplified announcements in brisk but measured tones that break into my thoughts. 

I feel so alien, so very apart from my fellow travellers at airports. As though I’m a ghost standing still in their midst while they blur around me in their flurries of excitement and anxious activity. Even when I travel with a companion, I find myself, or ourselves, isolated and “other”.

Planning a trip is filled with anticipation; the days leading up to departure have an edge of excitement. But once I reach the airport I fade into limbo. A very literal no-man’s land – a space that belongs to everyone and no one, simultaneously bursting with stimuli and void of any distinctive features to truly draw my attention. It’s a good thinking space. 

The plane is a different kind of removal from reality. The idea of distance is never far from my mind, and I marvel both at the technology and at our collective indifference to temporarily becoming earthbound. 

I have a similar feeling on trains, rattling through the countryside at inhuman speed. It’s liberating for both body and soul.

The airport today is Houston International, the flight one to Guatemala City. A new destination for me, and one I’ve been excited about all week. But on the plane, I’m still halfway nowhere, neither here nor there.

I find myself fascinated by the play of the sun’s rays on the water, smoothed somehow, as if captured by long exposure. The illumination is golden, soft, otherworldly. As we fly further out over the Gulf of Mexico, the light begins to catch the clouds. These begin way below us and rise only a little, in tufts like cotton, or the rock formations of the Utah desert. Tiny towers, one side dark and blue, the other glowing bright, their contours highlighted, verging on translucent. I am transfixed. 

The sun begins to set, and the light changes. This is my favourite kind of light. It is so alive. It bathes the clouds in shades of rose and orange so that they, despite being made up entirely of water, are briefly aflame. The horizon, visibly curved at this altitude, is a bright, warm line between the intense blue of the sky and the now shadowy blue-grey of the sea. the higher cirrus clouds continue to be lit brightly, from below, it seems, as we skirt the lower edges on our path. I’m sure if I tried to paint it, the contrast between the orange and the purple would be too stark to be believable. I see no defining line but the two complementary colours are definitely, unquestionably, both present in the same cloud.

As we fly into the darkness, soon to be engulfed, I look intently back towards the setting sun, see the halo form, grow, and then fade as the scene is softened by clouds and we cross the threshold into night. It is exactly at this moment that I feel the furthest from time. I’m captivated, held as a breath, suspended for a moment longer than should be possible.

When I look forwards again, there is enough light to see the swirling clouds that have been reported over Guatemala City. They look exactly as they do on the weather forecast, spiralling in an almost cartoonish way. They are thick, much thicker than I have seen so far, and it makes me wonder, briefly, if the Perseids this weekend will actually be visible from the ground. The swirl of the clouds bears a passing resemblance to our spiral galaxy, and that may have to do for the stargazing.

As we approach land, the captain dims the cabin lights and I see we are approaching a towering thunderstorm. The cloud is dark, heavy, and then suddenly lit from within by the lightning and I feel like I can see every hard edge of the interior of a craggy cave. The lightning rages like a caged animal, racing from one edge of the cloud to another. I see out of the corner of my eye the tallest, heaviest cloud bordering the eye of the storm. It looms larger and larger, brightened from within by the barrage of light. It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.

As we leave the storm behind, the stars begin to emerge. the lights on the ground are so small and so few that even as the last remnants of the sunlight can be seen in the blue sky near the horizon, the stars I can see easily outnumber and outshine them. I can see Jupiter, making its stellar companions look comparatively drab. It makes my neck ache to keep looking up, but I do it anyway, in case it’s the last I see of the stars tonight.

I don’t want to miss even one.

2023 Note: I had thought this writing was lost forever, when my previous web host (tsoHost) shut down the server which hosted my site with no communication. Happily, I discovered it in a handwritten notebook in 2023, for which I’m very grateful (and have started writing more in notebooks again). The photograph which accompanies this post is, however, not the one which was taken on that flight and which accompanied the original piece – that one is lost forever – but imagine, if you will, the smoothed ocean and a golden light, diffused and magical, and I am sure that your version of it will be more pleasing than the original ever could be. The photo included above is actually from a flight four years earlier, which had some of the same feelings of the sunset.

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