It was 9:30 PM or so, and we pulled onto the runway at Toronto Pearson International Airport in our enormous 777-300ER. The pilot didn’t even come to a stop before throttling up and setting the plane’s engines roaring. The behemoth lurched forward and shook as thunderstorm-like power propelled this long tube of metal and people down the runway and up into the air.
I had a window seat: 51A to be exact. (Yup. Fifty-one. Our plane actually had that many rows.) Laura was next to me in 51B. I usually never look out the window. Let’s just say airports don’t put me in the most cheery of moods, so I try to bury myself as deeply as possible in a book (or really anything else) and forget about everything and everyone around me. Plus, we usually try to avoid window seats altogether and instead opt for a middle-seat-aisle-seat combo. You know. Small bladders. No having to jump over some sleeping grandma to tinkle. This time, however, we were so far back in the plane that our row only had seats A and B. Looked like seat C had been removed to make space for people waiting for the bathroom. So we had a window seat and an aisle seat. It was kind of like getting a double word score in Scrabble. Kind of. (Just trying to be positive.)
Even so, I wasn’t planning on spending much time looking out the window. As soon as Mr. Captain-Man turned off the seatbelt sign, I was going to whip out my time passer of choice—my laptop—and let my fingers get me to Central Asia. This time, however, the sights of the world passing beneath me drew my nose to the window and held my gaze. The sun had set hours ago, and soon I was looking down on a toy city of white and orange lights, crisscrossed with streets lined with light posts and busy traffic, all punctuated by shopping malls, industrial parks, and quiet neighborhoods. We passed over housing developments and schools and highways and skyscrapers. Ant-sized cars and trucks and busses and semis sped along below us on predetermined routes like strands of tiny white blinking Christmas lights.
Soon we were flying northeast out over Lake Ontario, heading away from Toronto, following the shore. The contrast of so many lights with a pitch black Lake Ontario was stunning. It was like the lights of the city had had a thick blanket thrown over them right at the shoreline. It’s impossible to capture with words, and my phone didn’t do any better, but suffice it to say I’m glad I looked.
Planes, you know, travel real fast, so before long we were leaving Toronto behind. I began to see more than the lights of the city. And that’s when my heart sank. I looked out past the city limits, past the lights and the excitement and the activity and the sense of comfort, and I saw huge swaths of darkened snow. There was the occasional light here and there to shine hope into the barrenness, but for the most part, the night ruled. And that’s when it hit me. That’s where it felt like I was headed. Out of a city so densely populated with warm, comfortable lights and into a land ruled by one bitterly cold night. Out of a place where I could be constantly surrounded in a soft glow of so many relationships and into one where I would be very much alone and in the dark.
It was then, of course, that I had to face the question, Isn’t the fact that so much of the land beyond city limits lies in darkness exactly what compels some to leave the city in the first place? Isn’t that why we left? What, then, did I expect?
And do we not go in the unshakable hope that light always overcomes the darkness? That a single soul struggling and staining beneath the veil of night is worth every last ounce of strength spent to find him or her? That the God who is Light not only goes before us but also goes within us?
And yet, the allure of the city lights is strong. And the thought of plunging once more into the lonely night is heartbreaking.
Over ten hours later, we landed in Istanbul, Turkey. In that time zone, it was day. Six hours after that, we boarded our final plane for the final five-hour leg to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. We arrived. Our bags arrived. The customs official even smiled at Laura. We were home.
The first few days are always the darkest, and my eyes are slow at adjusting. But you know something? Some large tracts of Canadian countryside are literally without a single light. I know. I saw them from the plane. But now, back home, it’s clear that we’re not in one of those places. A few lights is a world away from no lights at all. There are fewer lights here, perhaps, but there are not no lights.
And while it took a few days for my city eyes to be able to appreciate them, slowly the local lights that were shining all the time slowly registered. And I saw them. And they were beautiful. They were there just waiting for us. And they were genuinely excited to see us.
We’ll speak with them in a different language and eat different food when we go to their houses. But love is a human universal. And it’s here, too. If I look.
And how precious it is.