There’s nothing like air travel to drive a person to prayer.
I arrive at the Madison airport to discover that not only is my flight happily one of the only flights out of Madison not listed as delayed by thunderstorms, an incredible live folk band is playing in the airport atrium. And so I sit, listening to an Irish flute and guitar ensemble as I dig into some last minute anthropology reading in preparation for interviews this summer. And life is so very good.
This does not last.
By the time I make it through airport security, my flight has joined all the others on the board listed as “DELAYED.” Five hours later, my hand luggage tucked like a football under my arm, I am running a solid 10-minute mile through the Chicago O’Hare terminals to make my next connection to Brussels and on to Uganda. The only other option if I miss this flight, the calm people at the airline desk have informed me, is a combination of five flights for a grand total of four days in airports from the Middle East to Cairo, arriving at 3am the morning I begin teaching.
As I pant along through the airport trying not to pummel over old men in neck pillows and children hugging teddy bears, begging God to hold that next plane a couple more minutes, I realize this is the third time this year I have run through the O’Hare airport to make up for delayed flights. And I find myself asking, “Why the heck do I do this to myself?”
It’s a question one asks when flights are delayed, or when (like right now) one is jetlagged and wide awake at 2:30am before an eight-hour teaching day. Or when one’s daughter asks (as mine sweetly did the night before I left), “Mom, don’t you research besides anthropology, something interesting—like electricity—so you won’t have to leave us?”
This summer is an odd one for our family. I’m on my way to teach a class in Uganda for three days, followed by a week in South Africa speaking with researchers in Johannesburg, after which I’ll meet my family and they’ll join me for a portion of the remainder of the summer tooling around South Africa visiting old friends and investigating where my future research will lead. It’s not exactly what one could call a relaxing summer.
And why the heck do I do this to myself?
It’s a question anybody who travels a lot for work should probably be asking. There are plenty of down sides to travel—time away from loved ones, interrupting commitments in my home community, stress, jetlag, unpredictability. Is it worth it?
As I sink into my airplane seat after indeed, thankfully, being allowed on my next flight just seven minutes before departure time, I begin brainstorming. My first thought is that this day should be named a national holiday called “Hug a Pilot and Flight Attendant Day.” My next thoughts are these, of why my travel for work is worth it:
1) This is what I’ve trained for. This phrase joggled in my head as my feet slapped along the O’Hare airport floors. All my biking and running exercise the rest of the year was paying off not in some pricey Crazy Legs Half Marathon, but here in this little airport race against departure time. In the same way, most of my travel leads me to intense chunks of time that remind me what I’m training for the rest of the year. I get to speak with people at conferences, prepare talks about what I care about most, teach eager students, and get my head out of anthropology books to learn from real live people. These are moments a friend of mine calls “teachable moments,” when we get bowled over by tidal waves of learning instead of the slowly meandering river of learning through most of life.
2) I meet peculiar people like me. In the opening address of the courses I join in teaching this week, my colleague pointed out that “we are a peculiar people.” The phrase peculiar people comes from Biblical description of Christians, and she went on to describe how this university draws students who care passionately about faith, God, and international justice, and this is, compared to most humans on the planet, peculiar. Many of these people work in lonely isolated places where they don’t meet a lot of others with similar passions. Here we draw together people from a geographic spread of thousands of miles because we find that travel is worth it to meet our fellow “peculiar people” face to face and remember we are not alone.
3) I have one of the most supportive husbands on the globe. Not only does he figure out how to juggle parenting with full-time work, and single-handedly lead our kids through two days of international flying, and earn enough money that I can contribute the pittances of a grad student fellowship to our household economy… he genuinely believes in what I do and who I am. He is my biggest fan, and his support means the world to me. He does his own fair share of travel (more than me, in fact), and I try to be as supportive as he is. Spouses out there, don’t poo-poo your spouse’s gifts and dreams.
4) Airports are magically soul-clearing spaces. Anthropologists would call them “liminal,” that is, in-between spaces in the doorway between one state of being and another. A such they’re like wedding ceremonies, rites of passage, pilgrimages, quests, deaths and births. In a liminal space you get drawn out of normal life, and from that vantage you see your past and future more clearly, you’re drawn to the strange hodge-podge of people hovering in liminality with you (like a kind older couple on their way to Seattle who patted my shoulder and encouraged me through our flight delay), and you have a chance to come out changed. As my husband recently wrote, we get some of our best thinking and work done in airports.
5) I believe I have one of the coolest jobs ever. If I didn’t think my research was interesting and valuable (more interesting that electricity, even, dear daughter), I wouldn’t be doing it. I’m studying how people think about employment and work in South Africa. It’s a country where employment has always had tricky racial overtones, where work has often been so poorly-paid and oppression-laden as to be hardly desirable at all, where people struggle to exercise some control over the course of their lives. I genuinely believe that it matters that people get to work in ways that allow them to fulfill their own dreams for their lives, and I consider it a privilege to contribute to a better understanding of how that can happen.
6) Absence really can make the heart grow fonder. In the two and half weeks since my kids finished school, my imminent departure reminded me constantly to live every moment with my family to the fullest. We biked a few dozen miles, went swimming, organized a half-dozen play dates, went on picnics, visited a petting farm, practiced basketball drills together, jogged, fished, wrote songs, made a bucketful of origami, and ate a lot of ice cream. Already I’m pumped to meet my family again, and when I do, I won’t take them for granted.
And I won’t take this crazy traveling thing I do for granted, either.