Gate A-4 and the Gifts of Travel and Learning
a writing prompt for you to use this week
As this newsletter goes out I am yawning at an airport gate. I’m on an early morning flight to Birmingham, Alabama for a conference with ministry friends and colleagues.
I always learn something at these annual events for faith formation leaders. Sometimes it’s a new theory or a collection of inspiring resources. Sometimes it’s a fresh way to teach the old stories we’ve been teaching forever.
Often I learn something about myself—a different kind of gift to carry home.
Like I need a private room, so my introvert self doesn’t collapse after days and nights of socializing with the loveliest of people.
Like the difficulty I have with vulnerability—but also my deep need for it—the year I sat with a table full of strangers and shared my fear over a looming biopsy the week before I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Like the way confidence and nerves are intertwined for me as they are this year, as I prepare to lead a workshop on writing for healing.
I also expect to learn something more about the complicated racial history of Birmingham, and even more on a day trip to Montgomery to visit the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice. In 2020 I read Just Mercy, the book by EJI’s founder, Bryan Stevenson, and it shifted something in me. I pray for open ears and eyes as I keep trying to learn how to be anti-racist.
Travel can teach us if we approach it like a student—willing to learn, open to the wisdom and experience of others. Poetry can do the same.
Our writing prompt today is a prose poem from 2008 by the Palestinian-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye. Written in the wake of 9/11 amid increased racial fear and suspicion, the poem illumines the power simple acts of kindness have to break down barriers.
It is just as timely today.
Below the printed poem is a video link to the poet reading it herself.
a writing prompt: Gate A-4
—by Naomi Shihab Nye
Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning my flight had been delayed four hours, I heard an announcement: “If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately.”
Well— one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.
An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing. “Help,” said the flight agent. “Talk to her . What is her problem? We told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.”
I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke haltingly. “Shu-dow-a, shu-bid-uck, habibti? Stani schway, min fadlick, shu-bit-se-wee?” The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the next day. I said, “No, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just late, who is picking you up? Let’s call him.”
We called her son, I spoke with him in English. I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know and let them chat with her? This all took up two hours.
She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life, patting my knee, answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies— little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts— from her bag and was offering them to all the women at the gate. To my amazement, not a single traveler declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the lovely woman from Laredo— we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.
Then the airline broke out free apple juice and two little girls from our flight ran around serving it and they were covered with powdered sugar too. And I noticed my new best friend— by now we were holding hands— had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country traveling tradition. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.
And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought, This is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that gate— once the crying of confusion stopped— seemed apprehensive about any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women too.
This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.
—Naomi Shihab Nye, "Gate A-4" from Honeybee.
You can listen to the poet read it herself:
Use the poem to prompt your own writing today. What will you learn from it as you travel on the page?
A bonus question: Have you been to any of the Birmingham or Montgomery Civil Rights Experience sites? Let me know what you learned there, and what I should pay attention to.
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