Time Bubbles

‘Ekaterina II’ in Sevastopol, 1902, public domain



Travel—and here I do not mean tourism or flight from danger—is often no escape. If anything–if it is being done well–it makes obvious how we are individual bodies at the mercy of time and the world. Your library card is a useless talisman in another city.

I am traveling now for a project, and the citizens of this other state rightfully have little interest in me, though that is often masked in courtesy. (Our society must learn to extend full courtesies to all, or the empire will fall.) No one really cares if I eat, sleep well, stay warm in the cold snap, enjoy my stay, or see the vaunted sights. They do not care if get sick or slip on the mountain, unless I become a problem to solve. I am a stranger in a strange land, but so are we all, outside our bubbles.

We often measure the difficulty of travel by time zones, but what we experience are time bubbles different from the ones we have built at home. Hurry up and wait, soldiers complain, because they are not in charge of their own schedules, and the experience of time is distorted by boredom and anxiety.

The time bubbles of my trip, which created local climates of emotion, included the period of preparation, pre-departure: research, paperwork, waiting to see if I would be allowed to have the immersive experience, packing bags, and making my family ready for my absence. This took months, off and on, but felt quick.

Then, in this case, a 10-hour drive, but sometimes flights, boats, busses, cyclos, tolls, refueling, entry through customs, maps, and new landscapes while needing rest. My drive through the still-scarred tornado alley, up and over the mountains, and down to the coast felt like limbo—overlong but eternally in the now.

A strange room, different bed, noisy heater, and blackout curtains make me feel like a fugitive or a narc; trying to eat healthily from a mini-fridge and microwave, and to get some exercise, is a pretense that life is normal. Making calls to stay in touch, as others have time in the rhythm of their home lives, and realizing after two or three days that they progressively do not need me as much—a little taste of death.

Then, the experience I came to have, 12 to 17 hours a day; rising, eating, using the bathroom, and sleeping to a strange organization’s schedule, with no contact permitted to the outside world. Just as I start to open to new friends they are dismissed and disappear, with no hope for further contact.

All my emotions from change, discomfort, and alienation threaten to take over, but I note them and let them go in the need to keep on. They are another way to consider my life, a change in texture I must acknowledge, as temporary or strange as it is, or else risk believing I have not lived because the experience of time has not registered: to wish for a fig in winter, as the Phrygian said.

The bubbles of time are tests to see if we can take what we are given. They are often jarring but are no reason not to travel. On the contrary, they are a privilege, and naturally metaphorical, because they show what life is like, not just what it is.

We can travel and stay at home too, of course. This is called education. You want to know about family, but your mind falls into an enjoyable bubble of time as it searches for an online image of a steam ship that has something to do with one of them. This is not waste; it exposes to the wider world and puts in context the narrow and nearly meaningless narrative of begetting. Several books could be written about the purpose and beauty of the Ekaterina, after all.


John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.