As I write this blog post, I am travelling on an early morning regional train. This is part of a commute I do on a weekly basis (so not everyday) and the round trip is about six hours. I kind of live in two places at once. While not for everyone, I find this arrangement surprisingly easy and suited to my lifestyle. On the one hand, I have a partner, fieldwork and other connections that keep me in my regional town. On the other, I have work and academic life which takes me to another place. Public transport happens to conveniently convey me to all these locations.
Many people around me react surprised at such a lifestyle. ‘What, you catch the early train!’; ‘but it’s so far to travel’; ‘that must take so long!’ Clearly in this narrative decrying lengthy commuting, time is valuable. Time is something to be protected and used on worthwhile pursuits. Sitting on a train, going from one place to another and living in-between doesn’t seem to be meaningful here.
So basically, travel time is dead time, useless, a waste. Extensive commutes are something to be avoided where possible. Indeed, links have been made between commuting times and reduced general wellbeing. And these studies do take into account a greater array of circumstances that are present for me here.
But is it possible to make effective use of commuting time?
I find that my regional commutes constitute precious intervals in a week normally defined by disorder and disarray. In many ways these protected windows are meditative. They enable time to reflect or even time to study. In general, it feels like extra time totally free of normal distractions.
Indeed, not all would be able to benefit in the way that I am describing. I’m lucky, or as some might argue, unlucky, because I am able to supervise my own time at work. I am also flexible and not impacted by the vagaries of train timetables or delays. Much of my work requires no more than a laptop and the occasional internet connection. A good part of my leisure time is also centered on my laptop.
In many ways, this distraction free, and valued window of time is recognisable as mindfulness. Mindfulness is popular in academic settings at the moment. Billed as a cure-all for stressed and distracted university people, it is heavily promoted in a range of faculties. Having attended a few seminars recently, and asked to reflect on my own mindfulness practice, I realise that travelling by train fulfills some of this need. My time on the train is a protected slab of time that cannot be encroached on by the normal distractions. Going for a run or taking time to meditate: these are mindfulness practices that I have implemented in my daily routine. But it’s a matter of luck whether they actually occur. More times than not, something seemingly more important crops up edging out any planned mindful activities.
So, the two days I spend commuting to and from regional Victoria are cherished. The enforced early morning/evening slice of time provides opportunities to complete work (or blog writing for instance), bookending the day in a neat fashion, while privileging reflection as well as time for leisure.
Still, when I explain that I live in two places at once and commute between them on the train, many express sympathy and compassion. I protest the value of train time and its many uses. But more often than not, others do not share my perspective on time spent going from one place to another, living in-between for a series of moments.