Thursday, February 15, 2007

time, trip, trust

Here's what's on my mind today: time, specifically how an immaterial aspect of reality, a "non-thing," can infuence a person so powerfully. Or maybe it's just something I'm going through. I just had an experience that led me to contemplate time, money and, of all things, trusting God. Here's what happened.

I just returned from a delightful trip to Miami, where I had a satisfying visit with friends I had not seen in a long time. I had anticipated the trip for a long time, so when at the start of the trip I experienced a significant flight delay that could have completely derailed my plans, well, you can imagine my great frustration. My original plans were to head out to Miami on a Thursday and back on the following Tuesday; an excursion that was slated to be just the perfect time for my current schedule; longer than a weekend but shorter than a bona fide vacation. It didn't take long for my perfect plans to fizzle, however. Due to techinical problems with my flight I found myself eagerly--and helplessly--awaiting the next available departure. For 10 hours and 25 minutes.

About 45 minutes into the wait, when all the re-routing, reticketing and re-scanning of carry-on bags and potentially hazardous shampoo bottles had occured and I was, again, safe and secure beyond the x-ray machines, dobermans, and uniformed anti-terrorist agents, I considered how I was going to spend both my time and my extravagant $10 consolation prize (meal voucher). The voucher was supposed to cover a meal, but not one that has a name. Due to its having to satiate me for the duration of my 10+ hours stay at the airport, let's call it "blinner." Or "dunchfast." Anyway, if you have ever spent any time at all in the SEATAC mall, uh airport, you know that there are at least 2,486 ways to spend ten bucks because the place caters to people who are in a spending mood. For various reasons they have suspended their usual spending blockers. They're on vacation, on business, or just plain busy, tired, hungry, bored and in need of retail therapy. This is especially true of a person who has unexpectedly found herself stranded between life and Miami, work and vacation.

So spend I did. I found a very soft pullover fleece at a travel store that boasted long-wearing, moisture wicking underwear ("one pair. Sixteen countries. Six weeks." Whaaat?). I decided I needed the sweater because the temp in the airport was sub-zero(ish). Never mind that I was on my way to tropical Miami. It was cold in that airport, darn it! Or, maybe it was my gloomy mood that just made it feel like I had landed at a peace summit in Reykjavik? At any rate, after I had secured needed apparel, I set out to provide sustenance for myself. As I wandered up to a chic seafood bar that offered both lounge seating and snack bar take-out, I knew one thing for sure. The last thing I was going to do was grab a bag of fish and chips and hastily inhale my them while sitting on a hard plastic chair, feet guarding belongings. At this point the pullover purchase had broken the spending barrier; I was feeling generous toward myself and not a little self-pitying. I thoroughly enjoyed my blackened fish tacos and lingered over a couple of cold beverages. By meal's end I had spent my meal voucher about three times over, had spilled salsa on, but had not read one complete page of my book, had talked my cell phone battery down to an anti-surge. The problem was I had only worn down one hour and 30 minutes off the clock.

My stomache now full, I set my mind to making the most of my wait. I was seriously going to get some work done now. I decided to read at least one chapter of Nathaniel Hawthorne's, The Scarlett Letter, the book I was currently researching for my master's thesis, and which I had brought along with the intent of reading by trip's end. I looked around for a place to sit that was as far away as possible from jumbo TV coverage editorializing on gay ex-NBA atheletes, Democratic candidates, or Anna Nicole Smith's deadly drug overdose. Now, normally love to read, so finding a place to sit down with a book would be no ordeal. But since at this point in the day I was supposed to be well into my Miami vacation at this point, was carb-loaded from the meal, and since the book relates to my thesis and symbolizes "work" rather than "vacation" I found myself internally resisting the idea of opening it. So when I passed by a bright, shiny magazine shop with tabloid mags practically yelling my name, I was easily lured.

After 20 minutes I had explored the fascinating depths of Cameron Diaz's jealousy, Nicole Richey's eating disorder(s) and Anna Nicole's penchant for methadone and slim fast shakes. Feeling about 20 IQ points down, I peeled myself away from the magazine shop and decided that sitting at the departure gate would be more conducive to serious reading. Wrong. In avoiding the big-screen media, crying babies and loud speakers, I had chosen the business section. Which is to say, the really-busy-people-talking-loudly-and-making-very-important-deals section. Sitting amid two men and a woman, all three talking loudly on phones to people who-knows-where, while simultanously fiddling with hand-held devices, I felt commerce stress wash over me. Needing consolation, I looked around for a crying baby.

With 6 hours 35 minutes left to go, I was starting to feel circumspect (reading gossip mags and listening to uber-stressed business people will do that I guess). I was experiencing some strange feelings: buyer's remorse over buying a fleece on my way to the tropics, guilt over seeking out the most expensive restaurant in the airport, and disgust that as even while alone in a croud, I could not discipline myself to get to work. Then it hit me. I'm not at work. Sure, I'm still 2,986 aeronautical miles from Miami and stranded in my own personal no-fly zone at gate A9, but like it or not this is my down-time, my mini-vacation. Just because I'm not sipping a cuban coffee, doesn't mean my holiday has not started. Why don't I chill out, stop stressing, and start actively enjoying myself. Could that be what I'm "supposed" to do right now? I wasn't really sure, but that's what I set out to do. I found--of all bizarro and wonderful places--a wine and hors d'oevres bar that sold affordable (sorta) small plates of tasty foods paired with wines. For one hour and 20 minutes I was transported, not by the food or wine, mind you but by the whole experience. If you know me at all, you know that sitting down at a table with loved ones over good food and a glass of wine is my idea of God's earthly blessing. As I sat nibbling and sipping, I talked to a man who loves his job and playing golf in the winter and a woman who travels for business but eagerly checks on her young son as much as possible when she's away. I overheard a table of people--former strangers themselves, it appeared--talking and enjoying themselves. I forgot that I was not where I wanted (with friends in Miami) or at least doing what I was "supposed" to be doing (work), and enjoyed being right there where I was, with acquaintances at the SEATAC Vino Volo. My copy of Hawthorne was on the table--reading material of all kinds being the solo diner's standing date-- but I didn't really read it. And I didn't feel guilty at all.

Later, on my return trip (which was also delayed, but that's a story for another time), I learned that downtime, rest, relaxation, cessation from labor, whatever you call it, has become a rare commodity, at least for Americans. In between Hawthorne chapters--yes, I finally started to read my book!--I skimmed a humorous article in my in-flight magazie about the so-called working vacation (apparently unless you are crazy or masochistic those develop into bona fide vacations). And then I read a business column that contrasted the work/vacation patterns of Europeans and Americans (the latter work way more, make a lot more $, take less vacations, but are less productive on an hourly basis). The column debated the value of a workforce comprised of richer workers over and against rested ones. It made me want to book the next flight to Paris or Milan. Or at least return to Vino Volo for an hour.

I realize that my story may not touch the details of yours. I'm writing this mainly to our youth group, and after all, you are teenagers, and Americans at that, so you probably don't hang out at wine bars in airports (!), or travel alone to Miami to see friends. But I think the relationship I'm describing between work and rest, trust and guilt, is universal. I imagine you can understand that nagging sense that you should be working all of the time--prepping for SATs, studying for AP classes, practicing sports, serving church or community, making money at your job, cleaning your room, etc. I bet you feel guilty when you rest, stop, play, chill, hang. Or if you DON'T feel guilt, there are people in your life who would want to guilt you. That's because our culture drifts us all that way. And if we don't actively resist, we all end up incessantly working, never resting, and forgetting what it's all for in the first place.

What I learned, or at least remembered, by being confronted with delay and disappointment, is that I'm not the CEO of the universe, mine or anyone's. That's terrifying, but okay. Sometimes things are out of control--MY control--and sometimes I feel out of control, too (why did I buy a sweater and eat expensive food? Well, I felt more in control, better about things). Without justifying myself or my motives, I boarded my rescheduled flight with a positive lesson in toe. When it's time to work, work. When it's time to play (even in the neighborhood of gate A9), it's time to play. Sometimes the hardest work is to rest. But when we do and look around, we see good things happen, meet interesting people, and learn about ourselves because it starts to dawn on us: we are not in control and Someone else is. That's terrifying sometimes, but more than okay.

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