I waited four and a half hours at the DMV, and all I got was a plastic card. But that plastic card was all I needed, all I could ever want — it was my ticket out of the New Jersey suburbs, allowing me to reach my destinations by the fastest route possible.
I blended in easily on the road: Ever since I was little, I would shove down the rest of a takeout lunch or read the last few chapters of a book as my family carted me from city to city, rushing to finish our list of errands. Forty-five minutes on I-78 takes you to bustling New York City for a recital: check. Twenty minutes on I-287 brings you to a mall: check. Ten minutes on U.S. Highway 22 drops you at a Costco and the Asian supermarket: check. Time was always ticking, appointments were waiting, the distance was maddening. Piling into a car and lurching onward became the solution.
Life was reduced to a series of points, and I was eager to connect them in the fewest number of moves possible.
As I left New Jersey for college, I was more than ready to leave the wash of green trees and rolling hills behind for glittering Boston and buzzing Harvard Square. The city held an endless number of things to do, and the T pass was my new ticket to freedom, whizzing me from museums to restaurants and back to campus.
I took pride in my carefully color-coded Google Calendar, bursting at the seams with office hours, classes, and meetings. While scheduled appointments painted my calendar into the rainbow, the unscheduled white space reserved for meals and walking time threatened to tear the rainbow apart.
So I took no chances. Meals squeezed in as I swerved through Annenberg, more often than not running out with a bagged lunch. Lunch was a cold caprese wrapped in one hand as I scrolled through a textbook with another, the green pesto juice oozing into the clear plastic wrap. The Yard shrunk into the few paths of least resistance that I could cover in minutes with long strides, head down to skim an email and mind alert to race through a to-do list.
I felt alive. Classes and meetings and opportunities and success just couldn’t wait.
But in March, at the start of the pandemic, it all had to be put on hold. Back at home, I sat at my desk as the world grinded to a halt. The rainbow blocks of my Google Calendar peeled off to an empty white.
I wrestled with the distance, the time. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner as full sit-down meals with my family set my fingers drumming, eyes flickering, and feet tapping. But as much as I tried to fill the white space with to-dos, it lingered and left faded trails of the life that had been. Those blank slivers in my schedule once stood for M2 shuttle runs or brisk walks to CVS to run a few errands, but now they’d multiplied and expanded into hours of emptiness.
As days and nights passed, I shifted uneasily in my childhood bedroom seat. I had no more colors to splash on the blank canvas my calendar had become, and I realized I was fighting a battle I couldn’t win. Life could no longer run at breakneck speed with no destination in sight. The accelerator was hopelessly broken, and I felt unproductive and unsuccessful.
When my parents suggested we take daily walks together as a family early in the morning, I leapt at the opportunity — here was another chance to fill up my day. But as the walks swung unpredictably from 20 minutes to a full hour, as we wandered from one end of the neighborhood to the next, baking under the hot Jersey sun, the walks became more than just another invite in the Calendar.
Life was expanded to include the routes between.
White space on the Calendar transformed into deep breaths, long walks, and open conversations. Gold, bronze, and red leaves dancing in the wind and later settling in the grass; a shelf of wavy fungi encircling a tree right by the main road; a squirrel sitting back on its hind legs munching on an acorn — the smallest observations took time, but, scattered in every walk, they were beautiful to behold. All this had been invisible when driving from point A to B for most of my life, yet here they were, right under my nose and clearer than ever.
Mental space, too, shifted. Space originally allocated for simultaneously checking an email, walking straight ahead, and listening to music was cleared away for conversations about long-term dreams and aspirations, values, and goals.
I was taking in the world around me, finally slowing down to link snippets of thoughts together into coherent musings. These reflections influenced and better informed decisions like choosing classes and deciding how to spend my Saturday afternoons. The white space was formally empty, but never had it been so full of substance and time to process and recharge.
Time ticks on, the notification goes off, and we may fall back — and that’s okay.
— Staff writer Felicia Y. Ho can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @HoPanda007. This is one of eight essays published as a part of FM’s 2020 “Synapse” feature, about gaps and how we fill them.