We’re busy from wake up until sleep down; we spin and dart from work to gym to home to eat and prepare for more work. According to the Census Bureau, the average American commutes just over 25 minutes each way to work, so most of us are in our cars for about an hour a day. I commute two hours per day, five days a week. While I’ve gone from numerous part-time jobs to one job that I love, the commute has and, probably will, remain steady.
For most of us, the commute is part of life. Our cars have become our second homes, and they wear the trace of meals and restless traffic clogged days: steering wheels bear the rub of our hands, driver’s seat cushions sag where our bodies press in, between our seats might rest a small piece of a nutritional bar or corn kernel.
No matter how we try to carve the commute time into something useful, the time remains time not taken for exercise, for hobby development, or for family and friends.
Lesson One: The Daily Commute Can Be Your Training Ground
How can we maintain and develop ourselves in the hours and hours we pass over asphalt and speed through exhaust-filled air? The lessons of the commute can be training grounds for how to maneuver past the obstacles that populate our lives.
Allow a cushion of 15 minutes, or 5% more than the anticipated time. Practically speaking, you should always expect to be delayed. Most jobs start in the morning and, like marching ants in our cars, we return home between 4:30-6:30.
If you are lucky enough to work outside of these hours, at least lucky in this sense, then you should still expect to be delayed. Accidents happen, our roads, thankfully, are in a state of constant destruction and resurrection, and you might need to fix a tire, or pull off the exit to use the bathroom because you’ve had too much coffee.
While sometimes we set reasonable timelines for ourselves, often, we run into similar roadblocks that delay. We imagine getting job X by the time we turn thirty, we’re suppose to be in love and married or partnered by the time we turn 35, we plan to be able to buy the house, the apartment where we will settle down by the time we turn forty.
Often we set goals and timeframes for ourselves, but these measures are often developed without the anticipation of halt or pause. Recessions happen. We might decide we’re in a relationship that we won’t be able to maintain with the same vigor that we approach it with five years ago. Maybe home prices have suddenly shot up, or we land a job in an area where the homes are out of our price range. Don’t just allow for extra time, create a space that prepares for time goals to shift. Think flexibly about destination and timing.
Lesson Two: Does This Really Matter As Much As I Think It Does?
If you hit congestion or are slowed down by others or yourself, don’t get frustrated, focus on how none of this matters as much as it seems to now. When we think flexibly, we can step outside of our immediate situation to see that our individual stories of late arrival probably do not matter as much as we think they do.
Of course, no one wants to be late to anything, especially to work. Constant lateness can be grounds for dismissal, might lead to missed deals, and annoy those who wait for us at the other end. These complications do matter. However, if we pull out of ourselves by imagining we are in a goose’s mind as she flies over the causeway on her way south, if we pull out to imagine we are in the body of a coyote stalking mice in a corn field, if we pull out and inhabit the rat’s heart as she pulls herself out from a drainage ditch with smooth fur and a mouthful of food, our lateness might seem irrelevant in the order of the world. And our lateness, this one time, doesn’t interrupt the grand scheme of our lives.
When we flashback on our lives in fourteen or thirty-three years, will we remember this delay, will we remember the fact of our commutes, or will we remember how we were able to step outside of the path we’d set for ourselves to reset and imagine how another being experienced the road as it crossed through valleys and marshes?
Lesson Three: If Filled With Activity, Time Passes
Fill the moments of apparent stagnation with study. If filled with activity, time passes. We are fortunate enough to live in an age with electronic devices that we can load or stream with books of poetry, fiction, memoir, language study, self-help guides, and approaches to financial-planning.
While taking time to stare off into the pavement’s muted horizon can be meditative, learning something on each leg of the commute helps us maintain productivity. Stay active in the mind and time melts. Develop your ability to listen to others, learn a language, study how to be more financially solvent, unstick yourself from old patterns of thought: develop the self.
Lesson Four: Make A Mental List Of Self-Motivated Goals Or Tasks
When bored, make a list of what needs to be done and what you can do right now. Then do it. Please don’t write while you are driving—you could kill yourself and others. You can, however, make a mental list of self-motivated goals or tasks you need to take care of when you get home.
While the “to do” list might end up adding to the weight that causes you to step on the accelerator, focusing on self-motivated goals will help align your current situation and potential future. If you want to achieve X, what can you do in the span of the commute to get closer to that goal? Can you remember all that you have achieved, quiz yourself on the parts of a tractor engine or the basic process of braising meats? If you have lost touch with a close friend or family member, call them or develop a plan to get back in touch. What can you do right now to position yourself closer to your goals?
By focusing on the lessons of the commute, you can transform what might appear to be wasted time into minutes populated with purposefulness. With minor planning, the time that you accumulate on the highway can allow you to create the next version of yourself—the version that will continue to take on the world the way it is, with its miles of bumper-to-bumper traffic, seemingly rigid barriers, and potholed and cracked pavement.
©2015 Gabrielle Myers.
Book by this author
Hive-Mind: A Memoir
by Gabrielle Myers.
About the Author
Gabrielle Myers, an Associate Professor of English at San Joaquin Delta College, went to graduate school in her early thirties to earn an M.A. in English from the University of California at Davis and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Saint Mary's College of California. Her poems and essays have been published in professional journals and literary magazines. She coauthored a nutrition book, The New Prostate Cancer Nutrition Book. Access links to her poems, essays, and a gluten and dairy free recipe blog through her website: http://www.gabriellemyers.com