Up in the Air

I love traveling, don’t you? Okay, so there’s the headache of making hotel and flight reservations and deciding what to pack, plus the anxiety the night before of whether you will wake up in time to get to the airport. But once you’re out the door and on your way, it’s exhilarating.

New places to go, new things to see, new people to meet. Whereas the day before, life seemed heavy and uninteresting, now everything seems possible, lighter somehow and open to change. I especially love the feeling of being in the airport after my bags have been checked and I’m through security. Suddenly, thanks to the magic of carry-on restrictions, my possessions for the moment are reduced to their essentials: my wallet, my cell phone, my laptop, my totem bear, a few books, my iPod(s), some money. All I have to worry about is getting to my gate on time, and I’m free.

It’s an illusion, of course. In reality, I’m no more free than I was yesterday; I’m still as bound by obligations and schedules, hopes, fears and dreams as I ever was. And yet, up here in the air, sitting in seat 25F on American Airlines flight 2317, there’s only so much I can do about any of it. I can’t go into the office, I can’t do my yoga, I can’t check my email, I can’t eat, I can’t call my mother, I can’t work on my book. All I can do—blissfully—is read one or other of the books I brought with me or work on this blog post.

O blessed lack of liberty! I’ve been oppressed for days by the thoughts of all of the things that I might or could or should be doing other than what I was. There I was, the apartment clean, my son at camp, myself free to do whatever I wanted. And feeling guilty because I wasn’t (apparently) doing any of it. Not more intensive yoga practice, not learning to draw faces with different expressions, not plotting my graphic novel, not practicing the piano, not going to see the new modern wing at the Art Institute. Just sitting at home, reading comics and the catechism, trying to enjoy my time off.

I’m a bit of a workaholic, I know. I get anxious when I don’t have looming deadlines to structure my day. Yes, I complain, particularly during term when every day seems to be filled with committee meetings and papers to grade, but the truth of the matter is, I depend upon such urgencies to make my life seem, if not interesting, at the very least important. Left to my own devices, well, look what I do. I sleep in, I waste my time reading all the wrong things, I neglect to do my yoga or say my prayers. While I could be doing anything, I do nothing but dither away my day.

Okay, so that’s not entirely true. I did write some good blog posts these past couple of days, and I really did need to do that reading about comics in order to be able to revise an article I’ve had on the back burner for the past year. And I haven’t been doing my yoga at home because I’ve been going to more classes at my club. But still, what about all those things that I always say I’d like to have time to do but don’t? Why didn’t I do them this past week when I had the chance?

Maybe I should travel more. After all, many of my colleagues manage to travel a great deal more than I do, jet-setting from conference to conference, library to library, museum to museum. Wouldn’t that be the life? Every day would be an adventure with new problems to solve: how to get to the conference, what manuscripts to consult in the library, what paintings or sculptures to see at the museum. Blissfully busy, busy, busy: that would be me. And just think: then I could blog about writing the way other writers do, giving advice on how to snatch those precious moments between meetings, on the train, on the plane, sitting at a café, wherever one happened to be.

Okay, so I’m being a bit cynical. Travel is good for you, right? It broadens the mind, makes you more cosmopolitan and sophisticated, introduces you to new cultures and ideas. Perhaps. But I’m not sure this is the real reason that people do it. Oh, sure, thanks to the tradition of the Grand Tour, it’s what they say, but what if the real reason people travel so much is that they can’t bear to be at home where there are too many options for what they might do? What if it is not so much the freedom but rather the restrictions of travel that they enjoy?

It’s like T.S. Eliot said: “Man cannot bear too much freedom.”* At least, I’m pretty sure that’s the way that the line goes. I don’t know, I can’t check it up here in the air far from the Internet. And that’s good because otherwise I might get distracted and start surfing and looking for the quotation and there I would be, adrift yet again in too many possibilities. Whereas here in my airplane seat all I can do is think.

*Actually, I think what he said is probably, "Man cannot bear too much reality," but in keeping with the real-time fiction of this post, I'm not going to double check even now that I'm on the Internet at the hotel. It's from Four Quartets, in any case.

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