Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Zen and the Art of (Public) Transportation

Okay, so I don't believe in the whole Zen thing, but the title still gets at what I'd like to talk about, and a good part of I like to travel so much.

And I do like it. Despite the feeling that your skin is layered in some sort of film by the end of the day, despite unidentified foot-long smudges your jeans pick up somehow, somewhere, along the the way, despite the delays and the frustrations and the missteps, and the tired back and feet and the required watchfulness over one's ambulatory possessions, I appreciate travel, particularly that by public transportation (though as my friends know, I also wouldn't slam the door in the face of a good road trip that came calling--Alaska, anyone?).

Of course, public transportation is time-consuming and I'd be annoyed with it if I had to do it everyday (witness my driving to school), but on vacation, my writerly self quite enjoys it for three reasons:
  1. Serendipity. Although I've been traveling "alone" this weekend, I've never lacked for companionship. Airports, airplanes, and trains are fabulous breeding grounds (liminal spaces, some academics would say) for fabulous conversations. I've certainly experienced that this weekend. Beyond giving me good material, this stretches me and reminds a girl who spends a ton of time beyond a computer screen that there are other people out there. Sure, there was one ride where the person was a bit too much of a chatterbox, but forbearing is part of being part of community, and I like that public spaces are spaces where I get to exercise my community muscles.

  2. Eavesdropping. This wouldn't work for academic research, but for my creative writing self, public transportation is a great place to overhear conversations of people, keeping my ear open for interesting types of dialects and bits of characterization through dialogue. Besides, sometimes overhearing on public transport is inescapable, so one might as well keep its useful purposes in mind. :)

  3. A Step toward Peace. Sure, if I did this on a regular basis, I would feel the need to be fully productive during my public transport time, but this same liminality, disjointedness from what's come before and the place you're going to, is a great space to relax and allow one's brain to calm down, to either give oneself space to dig into a book deeply without so many distractions or just to be still, to stare. As Eliot put it so well, that point when "an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between stations / And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence" (Four Quartets, "East Coker") can be a jumping-off point into that stillness, that listening mode, that in my everyday life I can be so bad at. That point from which both prayer and writing can grow so well.
And that, I think, is at the heart of why, despite the hours and hours spent moving around this weekend, I can go home retaining a level of stillness and a measure of refreshment, ready to plunge back into the page and the screen. (Of course, remind my jetlagged self of that Wednesday morning when I have to get up early and go to school after a final day of buses and airports and airplanes tomorrow.)

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