Key to Symbols
The terrazzo sparkles in the early morning sun as I step quickly across the floor of the Milan airport. I have never been here before and I’m mesmerized by the towering Italian Alps that encircle the sprawling landing strips. Even at this distance their majesty is not diminished. The security check is routine. Off with the belt, the watch and my shoes, revealing the holes in my socks.
“Keys, change and other metal objects in the tray, please sir”.
That word ‘please’ has such a lovely ring to it. Where I was born in the U.S. it’s not used that often, always making me smile when I hear it. Hup okay, belt back on, carry-on in hand and off I go, into the swirling whirring masses of humanity. Sometimes I can get irritated in busy places like this, but not today. I look out across the airport’s piazza, every size, shape and color of person you can imagine – and then some.
I absentmindedly walk past my transfer gate. A quick glance at the giant Ferrari red clock in the window of a shop brings me back to reality. ‘Oh yeah, the gate, hmmmm, where is that?’, my own voice speaking to me now. I see a big sign, a map of the airport. Looking, looking, nothing familiar, it’s in Italian, of course. At the bottom I see a small box with the words in English, ‘Key to Symbols’. Again I look out and across the vast departure hall, momentarily forgetting about my transfer, the gate, even my flight.
I have spent the last fourteen months or so in a deep funk, unable to access my feelings, unable to find any light or meaning in anything. Now I stand fixated; not on any one person, but on them all. I notice how each person’s face has its own expression, its own history. Lifetimes and the children of lifetimes stroll past or sit waiting. In some of the faces the eyes are turned down, others are bright and shiny, while still others are red from long sleepless travel. The corners of mouths twist in unique, unusual and often seemingly grotesque ways. Each expression the key to its symbol – keys to lives, paths, souls. I’m caught off guard by this living ‘map of life’. Tears form in my eyes, tears of joy and realization. Here is my place, now. I stand quietly for a moment giving the experience a little reverence. Then POP! - the bubble bursts and I’m back in real time, the real time of if I don’t find my transfer gate I’ll miss the connecting flight.
I find the gate, B55. It was right behind me the whole time. The boarding call has just been made; I’m right where I need to be as usual. Smooth sailing, somehow I never get searched, and within five minutes I’m settling into my seat. As I’m stashing my bag in the overhead, I hear a voice.
“Excuse me sir, is this my seat?”
I turn and see a small older man of Asian or Indian descent behind me.
“I don’t know, let’s have a look,” my eyes smile at his.
I glance at his boarding pass, “Yes, right here next to me.”
We are lucky, I’m thinking. Our seats are at the beginning of the row against the bulkhead of the restroom wall. It’s the one spot in coach where you don’t have a pair of seats in front of you, allowing you to stretch your legs out. I introduce myself, then he.
Arjun is from India but has lived for the last forty some odd years in the U.S., almost the length of my entire life. He’s been visiting his sick older brother in his homeland. At seventy-three, he’s weathering the long trip back to the U.S. quite well. We talk at once and easily, the conversation covering the usual subjects; “Where are you from?”, “That’s not too far from where I live now” blah, blah. Then to politics, he’s also non-Bush person. That’s about the nicest way to put it, we agree. We also agree the world has become more divided, less hospitable, and far more expensive the last four years. And now another four, we sigh together.
“Well, not much to do about politics” we say nearly in unison. We both voted. I’m just glad I’m only going back to the states to visit and not to live. Oddly, the talk turns to spirituality and faith, a subject I’m just now getting comfortable with bantering about with close friends. It comes easily as well with this man. I look at him closer as we continue chatting.
He’s bald except for a gray furry fringe that runs from just above his ears to the back of the shining brown skin on top of his head. Hair is growing out of his ears and nose, and he’s wearing a pair of those old ‘Radio Shack’ glasses. The kind that was popular back in the late 70’s, no design to them at all. The roll of his belly bulges out over his trousers that are pulled up way to high, exposing the elastic band of what appears to be classic generic boxer shorts. His wrist watch is the kind you might get after saving up ten box tops to some odd off-brand cereal, also from some other decade.
This guy wouldn’t know what I was talking about if I mentioned Red Hot R&B or Raw Urban House or graphic memory expansion. You won’t find him in line at Jimmy Woo’s on Saturday night or sipping a no-fat soy latte at the local coffeeshop. He is the antithesis of cool; a refreshing change from my everyday world.
Arjun says he’s not religious but he has a strong belief in some sort of God. “God”, the word itself seems a little shocking coming from a stranger. I’m waiting for the Ten Commandments, the Twelve Steps, the Eight Fold Path, or some other standardized propaganda to follow. Instead he tells me a simple story.
He was talking with his dying brother last week when the topic turned to faith. Arjun had told his brother that his idea of faith was like walking into a room that he’d been in five hundred times before and turning on the light. He had faith the light would work because of those five hundred times it already had. His brother, on the other hand, said to him faith was like walking into a dark room he had never been in before and knowing that there would be light. I feel the tears welling up in my eyes again. I have spent this last year without any faith in anything, including myself, much less some abstract amorphous idea of a god. Now it returns, powerful and sudden, sweeping through my heart and mind like a wave.
He continues, “Of course, no one has ever seen God,” he says smiling. “If they tell you they have they’re full of shit.”
I’m liking this guy more every second. Everything out of his mouth confronts and challenges the negativity I’ve felt about myself and the world around me these past fourteen months.
“What people use to represent their belief are symbols or icons, just the same way nationalities around the world represent their country’s ideas and beliefs with a flag. This symbol is one of the keys to that belief. It’s their image of God or the Creator,” says Arjun.
My heart is in my throat, I choke. Words try to come out but instead tears flow down my face like a child. I’m embarrassed. After all I am sitting in the coach section of a commercial airliner. Arjun doesn’t miss a beat.
He repeats himself, as if the first time wasn’t enough, “No one has seen God. They give their belief a symbol, an image, and that’s the key to their belief.”
I manage to clear my throat. Words come from my mouth.
“I disagree,” I mumble.
“Oh, how so?” he smiles. A couple of teeth are missing in his crooked grin.
“I see God right now,” I say looking into his eyes.
All rights belong to its author. It was published on e-Stories.org by demand of Bill Piccolo.
Published on e-Stories.org on 02.02.2005.