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How I Spent Shavuot In An Airport

...and what I learned from two days of delays

“I am now officially in hour 37 of trying to leave Minneapolis,” I texted ISJL CEO Michele Schipper at seven on a Tuesday morning. I had already missed a full day of work, and was apprehensively waiting to see if the flight I was supposed to board in an hour was actually going to leave on time. I figured there was a 70% chance I’d just have to become a remote employee of the ISJL, because I was never going to get out of the airport.

As a historian, I’m familiar with the concept of liminal space. Liminality is associated with rites of passage, with moments of transition. Many people think of liminality as standing in a threshold — not quite in the place we’ve left, not quite in the place we’re going. It’s uncomfortable, being stuck in limbo, but it’s also an opportunity for growth.

Last month, a lot of Jews celebrated Shavuot with all-night text studies, time with friends and family, and delicious dairy treats. I spent the holiday in the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, where a series of compounding weather delays and mechanical issues caused a simple 4-hour trip home from a friend’s wedding in my college town to take almost 48 hours.

Shavuot is a holiday identified with the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. In honor of the giving of knowledge and the reflection that happens so often on the holiday, I thought I’d offer some of my own reflections of my Shavuot spent in a liminal space.

I got a serious lesson that weekend in control and agency. Airline travel, with all of its opportunities for expensive and useless perks, gives passengers the illusion of control. But we are at the whims of the gods of the sky, as I came to think of them that weekend, and we just sort of have to go along with them. At a certain point, when your two flights are collectively cancelled three times, you throw your hands in the air and celebrate your utter inability to fly your own plane and give in to the chaos. You try to keep a good attitude, and be good to others along the way, no matter what:

On standby all day and 0 for 3 for your possible flights? Heck yeah!

Give up your standby seat for an exhausted older couple so they can make it home on time? Obviously!

Sampling the various offerings of the Qdoba around the corner from your gate? Duh!

Sleeping in two different hotels in Minneapolis for two nights, effectively doubling the length of your trip? It HAPPENS.

At a certain point, there is nothing you can do about it but hope you get home safe. And ideally before the staff meeting on Wednesday morning. I suppose it would have been easy to have a really bad time, to spend the almost 48 hours I was in limbo railing against all of the factors that caused me to spend some quality time draped across various boarding areas in concourse E of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. There were moments when I caught myself feeling pretty terrible, but they were few and far between.

And ultimately, I made it to Jackson safely. That’s all that matters in the end.

After arriving at the Minneapolis airport at 5pm on Sunday, June 9th, I finally landed in Jackson at 1:45pm on Tuesday, June 11th.

After all of that, the only emotion I had was gratitude.

Gratitude for all of the tiny miracles that align to make the vast majority of flights run on time in the first place.

Gratitude that I’d gotten the chance to visit one of my many homes to see dear ones celebrate their partnership.

Gratitude that when I drove into my college town, my friend and I rolled down the windows and smelled the intense chocolate odor of generic-brand Cocoa Puffs at the Malt-O-Meal factory whose production schedule dominated the smellscape of my college years. They say that memory and scent are closely tied.

Gratitude for friends who kept me entertained, who sent good cheer and podcast recommendations (Wonderful is a gem) and stupid jokes and pictures of themselves with llamas.

Gratitude for my friend Charlotte, who scooped me up on my second night in a hotel so we could go eat tacos.

Gratitude for airline employees who knew me by my first name and took care of 300 other people, including many who had a slightly less cheerful attitude than I did.

Gratitude for a Jackson community of colleagues and friends who rooted for me to get home safe, and in some instances offered to drive to Minnesota to bring me home. One friend offered to go to work for me, which would have ultimately been hilarious but unsuccessful. Here’s a picture of her dropping in on a lunch meeting with our History and Heritage summer interns:

Hey look, it’s my team from work, with my friend Blair… and not me

Gratitude for falafel and water and good books and shaky airport Wi-Fi and well-placed electrical outlets and fellow passengers who were all on the same team—clapping and cheering for each other as folks gradually made it on standby.

Gratitude to have been given the chance to reflect on these blessings, even if I had to do it surrounded by screaming children and crackling PA systems and the smell of fast food and the gleaming lights of newsstands.

Perhaps next Shavuot I’ll head to another airport.

Or unintentionally get stuck in one.

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