The view from the hotel window captivated me only because of the incessant movement: pickups and cars ad nauseam, gyrating cement trucks, convoys of B-train dump trucks, lime-green garbage trucks, RVs in search of summer, an occasional motorcycle, a load of farm equipment, a stout armored car, and a Smart car, toy-like among the steady stream of freight-liners emblazoned with company slogans—CN: We Deliver, FedEx: The World on Time, Grimshaw Trucking: Gateway to the North.
Beyond this ever-flowing tributary sat terminal, tower, and tarmac—the stuff of international airports—where the thundering roar of jet engines regularly overpowered the thrum and rumble of the freeway below.
If we had been in this hotel for a vacation, we probably would have reconsidered our choice.
But we weren’t there for vacation, and after I sat long enough and paid close enough attention to what initially presented as a lackluster view from a hotel window, I began to understand something about the spaces we inhabit.
The freeway and the airport, and even the less-than-stellar hotel, are liminal spaces—those places of transition between somewhere and somewhere else, between a starting point and a destination, between a beginning and an end. And the never-ending stream of activity declared that we all probably live in transition more than we would like to admit.
Urban Borderlands and Margins
In the foreground between our hotel and the northbound lanes wound a ditch populated with bulrushes and lined with shelter-belt trees, recently planted. In the close middle-ground lay a no-man’s-land of sorts between the going-north and heading-south strips of asphalt. The far middle-ground between the freeway and airport was plowed into furrows and fringed with self-seeded alfalfa and renegade grass. These tracts of land took up space, but only as borderlands and margins.
But they were not useless or lifeless.
At least one pair of mallard ducks lived in the foreground ditch. I could only see them as they arrived or departed from some enclave deep in the bulrushes. Several male red-wing blackbirds and their nondescript female companions used the fledgling trees as perches and places for playful cavorting. Occasionally, a few birds darted across the northbound lanes to the median and back again, perhaps for no other reason than to say they did it and survived.
A steady watchful presence patrolled the close middle-ground. A hunter. From high above, a Swainson’s hawk soared back and forth scanning for life along the median. With amazing dexterity, he could anchor himself to a singular piece of sky in a stalled hover before plummeting head-first into grass deep enough to swallow him for the final foot of the dive. At times he rose on wide wings with empty talons; other times he left clutching a furry morsel, incentive enough to continue his pattern for hour after hour.
The far-middle was far enough away to lack fine detail, but I could clearly see an animated swirl of gulls around the muddy edges of a puddle sprawled across the furrowed ground. Too much noise reverberated from the traffic for me to hear the gulls, but I imagined their gossipy chatter and mildly alarmed or offended squawking as they rose and settled, rose and settled, like miniature planes that never quite take off.
Missing from this window view were permanent dwelling places. There were no houses, just hotels, hangers, terminals, and outlet stores. Even the birds that lived contentedly in the marginal spaces at the time were seasonal visitors, there only for the warmer summer months. We hoped to go home soon too.
Settling into the Impermanence of Daily Life
The unrelenting motion of land and air traffic mirrors the general pulse of the world around me, driven by action and progress. Life has purpose when we are going somewhere, achieving something, becoming someone worth noting. The constant striving leaves me soul-weary.
When I read Wendell Berry’s writings, I am drawn to the idea of rootedness, of place. Annie Dillard’s prose reminds me that paying attention to the details in marginal places can awaken me to beauty and knowledge. But Jesus’s life also models something profound.
After a forty-day sojourn in uninhabited wild places, he settled into the impermanence of daily life. “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head,” Jesus said to an inquiring follower. He was not trying to elicit pity for his apparent homelessness. His response pointed to the paradoxical truth that we can live fully while holding life loosely, that life is best lived by losing it, not by chasing after it. In essence, life itself is a liminal space between what is and what will yet be.
The margins of society were the core of Jesus’s existence, and he imbued those spaces with honor and meaning, hope and possibility. Rather than shun the ordinary and the mundane, he calls us to find life in the ditches, the medians, the spaces on the edges of what appears—like freeways and runways—to be more useful and important. He invites us to contentment as fringe-dwellers and edge-keepers. We can, like the mallards and the blackbirds, the hawk and the gulls, live with purpose in a world that may not notice or care that we exist.
My Particular Margin of the World
After a three-day stint in the hotel-on-the-highway-by-the-airport, we packed up our suitcases and left the used towels for housekeeping to clean for the next itinerant traveler. After a five-hour drive in northbound lanes, we lugged the suitcases into our house-on-the-edge-of-a-marsh. We have some roots here; it is certainly much quieter, less hectic than the hotel, but in the larger picture of God’s purposes, it is not a permanent place. Just as God’s plans have always included each of us with a distinctive personage, he calls us to live faithfully in specific places until all is made permanently new and the liminal and marginal made irrevocably obsolete.
There is life in my particular margin of the world: neighbors, strangers, garbage truck drivers, dog-walkers, birdwatchers, and yes, birds.
Cover image by Sebastian.
 Luke 9:58. New International Version