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#4 The Quiet Room

When was the last time you were home with your family? Not the pixelated zoom or skype versions of family (admittedly, the next best thing), but actually with them in your own flesh and blood.

Two months before covid hit, I made a great decision to fly home and be with my family for Christmas 2019. 36 hours from Melbourne to Dublin. Three flights. Two six-hour layovers. Just as I'd planned it, none of the family had any idea I was coming home.

After the layover in Ghongzhou Airport, China, I had my second six-hour wait in Schipol Airport, Amsterdam. After flying in from a hot Australian summer, the winter Christmas decorations adorning Schipol sparked some nostalgia in me. The usual Christmas songs played on the airport airwaves as I made my way to the duty-free. I bought a couple of large Toblerones for the family, noted my departure gate, and wandered around the terminal for a while, getting my bearings in the huge airport. At a sign for ‘Multi-faith Space’, I went to check it out.

With the Netherlands well known for their liberal and secular government policy, I wasn’t surprised to see that the ‘prayer room’ equivalents of Ghongzhou (and many other international airports) were secularised here as a 'multi-faith space'; to include all denominations and none. On the corridor into this quiet room, a large pane of glass held the religious symbols of various faiths around the world. A note on the door provided more Dutch liberalism and practicality; "It is not mandatory to remove your shoes, but please leave them in the space provided if you do".

I enter the quiet room in socks and see a young woman sitting against the window to the runways, reading . A group of six muslim women in bhurkas are kneeled in prayer on their mats. A compass drawn into the floor helps them to find Mecca. Two American Jews arrive in the room shortly. They are donning black cloaks and tiny black lego-like top hats. One of them wraps his arms with reams of black ribbon before continuing his ritual by bowing repeatedly to a plain white wall in the room. Half a dozen more Jewish men come through the door, and carry out their prayers and rituals in their own ways, on their own, or in twos and threes.

For half of the six airport hours, I write and meditate in the quiet room, observing at times people coming and going. People of all faiths and none, closing the second door into the room, sound-proofing it to the airport din. Some come in to read; some teenagers scroll down their phones (on silent); some write; some prey; some speak in hushed tones. This place, it seems, is a sanctuary; a space between places where anyone can lay low or drop down into themselves for a while. I think to myself how valuable more of these quiet rooms would be in the midst of our busy public places.

The Jews have whispered their inaudible prayers and I catch some of their smiles and whisperings to each other on their way out of the room; “Where are you from?”, “Where are you heading to?”.

I ready myself to leave the quiet room. The voices of two American/Canadian women at the back of the room are respectfully low, but there is the emotion of a heart-to-heart. As I sit up to leave, I see them sitting cross-legged, facing each other so close their knees are almost touching.

It’s not quite time to check in yet. But there are important things that need to be done back on ‘the outside’. For one thing, I must exchange my Australian dollars for Euros and avail of the 20 Chicken McNuggets offer. I’m beginning to feel hungry. And one of the silver-lining indulgences of 36-hour plane journeys, jet-lag, and forgetting what time it is in the world, is that you can have McDonalds for breakfast, whatever the time of day. On my way out, I see the young woman I noted on the way in, still leaning by the window-to-the-runway view, still reading, having apparently not moved a muscle in three hours.

As I board my third and final plane, six hours after disembarking from the previous one, that buzz of excitement about seeing my family again electrifies my whole body. This feeling, in lower intensity, has become familiar over the past few weeks, pervading my body in quieter moments when I ponder on how to surprise my parents, brother and sister in turn. This time, the feeling really floods through me. I’ve never been more excited about anything. I can't wait. And at this same time, I find myself remembering a lesson from the quiet room: not to ignore the transition-time between destinations. That I am in the transitory moments just as much. That wherever you go, there you are.

And while a massive part of me can hardly wait to be in the flesh-and-blood presence of my family again, I remember the people in the quiet room asking “Where are you from?” and “Where are you going?”, and how that room never really cared for an answer. I remember how everyone was equal in there; how all the constituent moments flowed on for everyone just the same. And as I board the plane, I decide not to resist all the emotions swirling inside me, but to allow them to flow. I am simply being there with them, like a quiet room that has the capacity to embrace all who enter, or like a wise and loving parent who finally says, “welcome home”.

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