Three grey day hours of delay in the Nashville airport, two caffeine-grabbing stops at Starbucks, and one restive ramble through terminals C and B had me in a serious state of mental exasperation last week. Three glorious hours of quiet, albeit unexpected, had been dropped in my introverted lap and I couldn’t do a thing with them. My brain was jammed with mental white noise, every channel of thought scrambled by the dash through early morning traffic, the monkey dance required to make it through airport security, and then, this sudden space of free time. I had tried my old steady; reading. Too fidgety. Same with writing. I tried to be quiet, to draw inward to those silent spaces at my core. No luck. I tried to pray. Even worse. Time sat in front of me with a grey, blank face.
So I draped myself in a sharp-boned chair under one of those wall size airport windows and watched the planes glide in and out like silent white giants. My eyes were red with lack of sleep, my brain was buzzing with it. I was too exhaustedly restless to think up anything to do but watch the TV blaring another cycle of “breaking” news over my head. I looked around; everyone near me had a cell phone or iPod in their ears. They stared ahead, unseeing. I glanced down. There sat my plucky black Macbook. I stuck my book and journal back in my bag, pulled out my headphones. The impulse to flip my Mac open, find an online show or lose myself in cyberspace, was an itch in my fingers. I reached for it. Anything to distract me from feeling distracted.
Yikes. My idealistic self came spluttering to life. What was so wrong with me that suddenly, I couldn’t think of a thing to do but watch TV? Of all things in the world, mindless submersion in electronic entertainment is my pet peeve. I have spent endless hours and a ridiculous number of journal pages in outrage at the amount of time my culture, and sometimes me, wastes on TV. We could be thinking, writing, cooking, carving, weaving, planting, loving, dancing… and here I was about to succumb to the temptation of the screen. What had brought me to such a state?
At that moment, I remembered Neil Postman’s arresting book, Technopoly. Bear with me. When I read it a few years back, the first thing that struck me was his explanation of the way that every new technology changes the shapes, needs, and spaces of our lives. Inevitably, an old way of existing is displaced by a new one. Fine and good, yes? Maybe not. The example that startled me into a keener understanding was his account of the written word as a new technology. As a lover of books who considers all things bookish to be old-fashioned and good, I was startled to read of how writing displaced the grand, oral tradition; the bardic art of poetic memory, of epics sung round firesides. To write something down is a wonderment, but it did replace an ancient way of remembering that was immediate, poetic, and highly communal.
The reason I remembered this in my airport reverie was that I had the abrupt realization that I was experiencing exactly what he was talking about. I watched, wide-eyed, as another line of toe-tapping travelers ducked into a tunnel to be whisked round the world, and I knew that my restless brain, my impulse to mindless entertainment, was a direct result of the processes of technology that Postman described.
Travel, as we moderns know it, is a technological innovation. What does it enable? Global movement. Business. Adventures. Connection with people halfway round the world. But what does it change? Our use and experience of time. Our connection to home and the rhythm of work, rest, play, and creation that we live within is disrupted and we are faced suddenly with what I’ll call vacant time. Normal life is suddenly suspended by the need to be in transit. For me, this sort of time is on the rise, not only from airport jaunts, but also from the vast amount of time I find myself spending in the car, a habit shared by most people I know. We as a culture are living more and more in spaces of transition; hours that take us to and from our spaces of living, yet somehow don’t feel like real life themselves. Vacant time.
So what is the natural impulse when confronted with such emptiness? To get through it as quickly, and painlessly as possible. Boredom has never been something the human brain tolerates with equanimity. And if we don’t have recourse to the tools, stability, and quiet needed to accomplish our usual work, relating, or creating, what happens? We need to be entertained. We need some form of transportable distraction that will fill these empty hours, and allow us not to feel lost. Hello virtual reality. Hello TV and iPod, cell phones and endless sessions on the internet. Hello to me, perplexed in my metal airport chair, bewildered and bullied by the forces of technological change.
I know you’re probably wondering why this seems so vastly important to me. It’s just a few airport hours, after all. But hours add up to days, and days to years, and years to lifetimes. Time is God’s gift to me, and the way I use it is my answer back to him. In the airport, I forgot this. I was tired, distracted, and unaware of what had made me so. Life happened to me that day, instead of me happening to life. That makes me a little afraid, and then, indignant. I don’t want to spend my life, even bits of it, with a soul disconnected from the people around me, the earth under my feet, the moment by moment possibility of doing something creative or good. My ideals mean nothing if I give up the fight to fill my hours with meaning. I don’t want forces outside my self to determine how I use the drip by drop flow of my precious, numbered minutes on this earth.
Epiphanies happen in strange places. I decided that day that I want to become accountable for the empty spaces of time which modernity hands me. My travel schedule won’t change, in fact I love it. Good grief, I’m the girl who named her car Gypsy because that’s what I wanted to be. But none of us gets any practice hours here on earth. To let time come to us, and then depart in vacancy is a waste, a sort of death. I want to require the same level of creativity, love, and wonder of myself in travel that I do when I am at home. I’m just beginning to figure out how. All I know is that nothing, not even airports and freeways and hectic hours should be able to shove goodness out of any given minute in my life.
What do you think?