It is only when it stops that it becomes apparent it was a major part of how life was regulated. I used to travel. I had endless meetings across the country and across different countries. I was on the move. No one thought to ring any more, because I was always likely to be somewhere unexpected. It would be 2am where I was, even if perfectly civilized for the caller. It would be a place that incurred obscene call charges just to make the connection. It might even be that I was on a different number, such as the deals for a SIM card I would get in Australia so that I could call locally without obstacle. I made a point of going that far for long enough to justify such an economy – not for the sake of the phone deal, but because I believe that if you take a long flight it must be justified by a very long visit.
And such a punctuated life was one rich in adventure and the prospect of adventure. Even the thought of all the films I could watch on the long flights was a motivator. But mostly I took a train or a short hop to the Continent and visited people with a sense of increasing friendship, be that Oslo, the outskirts of Paris, Stockholm, Limerick…all over. And mostly I did so because work was taking me that way, and it followed that, the more I visited, the more likely that the work would come up in partnership with my widely spread circle. So, over time, I travelled more and spread myself even thinner.
I even took a part-time job in a different country because it connected me to people and ways of thinking I hold dear. So, then I had to go between two workplaces at different times of the year.
In January 2020, I renewed my passport a good 10 months before expiry, as it was the only 3-week period of the year when I knew I was staying still and wouldn’t need it. For whatever reason, I hate travelling in January and this year I had given myself the luxury of the month at home.
And then everything changed and I have hardly been out of my area in the south east of England for over a year. But more specifically, I have not been into my office, or on the train, or taking a bus, or planning a trip or thinking about the logistics of combining visits, or eating unusual cuisine or hanging out with friends, or buying something unique to the area or remembering what the local kissing/hugging protocol is. None of that. I have been at home and making my own entertainment, working, cooking and delighting myself (or otherwise) with meals, walks, bursts of dance, digging, running and mending. That is most of what I’ve been doing and most of it has been within the same set of four walls.
There are things lost and gained by such a sudden change of focus. My health in general is better. My back and neck are worse from the repeated strain of working on Zoom. My diet was better, till I discovered the wonders of freezing fudge. My mental health has been relatively good, with noticeable dips when I got overwhelmed, lonely, sad that I couldn’t be at a particular conference, unable to get outside because short days and bad weather made it more difficult than it seemed worth. My job became semi-detached from its institutions and firmly attached to my living quarters. It became so firmly attached that aspects haunted me all weekend and I rarely took time off.
But the thing that I found hardest came in two forms. The first was the lack of incidental encounters. There were no corridors to meet in. For me, some conferences are entirely about the corridors and not the talks. And I would rarely go into a meeting without using the time around it for some informal business to think through, influence or otherwise connect things up. All that was gone and I had many conversations in my head that were too informal and insignificant for a meeting, but which would have made the year flow better.
The other side effect was what I have here called the condition of continuousness. There has not been a point in the last year when I have got away from my writing through natural displacement. The same rooms that spawned it have continued to embrace it. Nothing has interrupted my telling of it or the continuity around me that led to the mindset. While this is harmonious and may even have led to greater productivity, it has not led to better critical thinking. I am not getting away from it so that I can return to it.
Colleagues and I are now starting to find devices to deal with this, such as getting a pictorial version of ideas drawn up before committing to analysis of concepts and so on. Such devices help.
But I am becoming convinced that my diet of movement and high variety was more than a lifestyle, it was a way to think.