World enough, and time

What is to blame for everyone else being so busy these days?

By

Allow me to introduce myself: I am the last man in America who has time.

If you should run into me on the street, I will have time to chat with you. If you invite me for tea, I will seize the opportunity and savor a cup. Should dinner be on offer, I will be punctual and pull my weight as a convivial conversationalist at your table.

But, in the words of the poet John Donne, "all pleasures fancies be." The problem with having time, when nobody else seems to, is that one becomes a sort of islet, or rogue planet, with little connection to one's surroundings.

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When did people become so busy? Sometimes I think it happened when shopping, instead of being a necessity or occasional pleasure, became a form of entertainment. At other times I blame it on the computer, with honorary mention given to "smart" phones, for creating appetites that can never be sated, no matter how intently we stare at the movable feast on the screen, no matter how incessantly we peck away at our keyboards. These devices have become a time sink, absorbing moments the way a black hole absorbs light.

It wasn't always like this.

The days, the seasons, the years used to be punctuated with lax moments. Sundays, for example, were days of repose, replete with closed stores and empty highways. It was a sort of unwritten law that one should not telephone another person beyond a certain evening hour. And then there were the holidays, which were set aside for family time rather than a trip to the mall.

The compulsion to fill every moment with activity has been called "the American sickness." I have grown accustomed to the predictability of the response when I run into a friend or acquaintance and ask, "How are you?" The inevitable answer: "Busy!"

A singular example: I recently spotted an old friend as he hurried off to wherever it was he was going, and I called out to him. He stopped to acknowledge me, but I could tell from his body language and the checking of his watch that I had upended him. "I see you're in a hurry," I said. "Why don't we get together to catch up?"

Looking pained, he bit his lip. "I should have a free hour in June," he said before continuing on his way.

"But this is March!" I remarked.

"Check with me in a few months," he yelled over his shoulder. "I'm very busy!"

Maybe my problem, then, is that I am nostalgic with a too-good memory. I came of age when one walked for the sake of walking, with no particular destination in mind. I recall evenings lying on the sofa, reading. Sunday drives. Tinkering. All of these leisurely undertakings gave me the freedom of time to pause should a familiar face present itself. Whoever I was in those days, that person still resides within me and looks on in wonder while the rest of the world seems to have cycled into a blur of ceaseless activity.

I find that I align myself squarely with what Socrates once said: "Beware the barrenness of a busy life." Or Robert Frost, whose poem title put it succinctly: "I Could Give All to Time." More recently there has erupted a so-called Slow Movement, which, according to Wikipedia, "advocates a cultural shift toward slowing down life's pace."

So I do have kindred spirits after all, and perhaps a place to call home. I would formally join the Slow Movement, but I hesitate, fearing that, like any organization, it would make inordinate demands on my time.

In any case, come June I'll have a friend to catch up with. That is, if he still has the time to see me.

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