Somewhere between arrival and departure, there is time spent. And it is in time spent where the great variance of life occurs, the vacillations. We love a place then loathe it, we step out of ourselves and take things in, then we ebb back into ourselves and shut things out. This period is defined as undefinable. Arrival and departure — these are easier to define. Arrival is anxious, it is warm turmoil. Departure, well that’s not as easy — but it usually feels like a sigh. And sighs can go one way or the other, but they go either way, and they generally feel the same.
To complicate things further, there is a grey area where it is difficult to determine whether we are spending time or just passing through. Passing through is easy. It is accompanied by a sense of detached voyeurism, a sense that we are not a part of a place but apart from it, watching its comings and goings unfold just as they would if we’d never made the choice to pass through. The word “voyeurism” is in danger of becoming hackneyed, but the passer-through is a voyeur in a sense — perhaps tourist is a better word. He goes to say he’s been, not to actually be.
And to really dig in here, the distinction between spending time and passing through is completely unrooted in time itself. After a month spent in a far-off place, I might feel that I’ve spent time there, that I’ve stepped out of myself. But six months might pass in some different place and I might still fancy myself a passer-through. I might live in a place for years, never stepping out and spending time — just passing through.
In Out of Sheer Rage, Geoff Dyer reflects on time he spent living in Paris — or merely passing through. He did not have any of what he calls “the trappings of permanence.” He writes, “lacking any of the trappings of permanence, I was perpetually on the brink of potential departure. That was the only way I could remain anywhere: to be constantly on the brink not of actual but of potential departure. If I felt settled I would want to leave, but if I was on the brink of leaving then I could stay, indefinitely, even though staying would fill me still further with anxiety because, since I appeared to be staying, what was the point of living as though I were not staying but merely passing through?”
When I first read this passage, months ago at this point, I dogeared the page (an unwonted impulse — I like to keep my books pristine) and took a picture to send to a few people who I felt echoed the sentiment. I’ve thought about this passage every day since I read it, and I’ve intended to write of it every day — but in a funny way the only way I felt I could properly write about this idea was only to ever be on the potential brink of writing about it. Like Dyer and departure.
I sit and write now at home, a space completely devoid of the “trappings of permanence.” And this is the only way I can stomach the fact that I live here. The walls are white and asylum-like in their blankness. I hang nothing on the walls. Literally nothing. I do sometimes think I’m going insane if I sit here too long, but wall decor is too pleasant, it is for those people playing the long-game. My sheets are plain white and always in plain sight because I refuse to buy a comforter and I have no headboard, because headboards are for people who intend to put down roots. I had no air-conditioner in the heat of summer because then I’d have to keep it somewhere in the winter before dusting it off and putting it back in the window for next summer. The word “next” exits my mouth like a snarl, my upper lip curls up like a wolf’s at the sight of company unwanted. “Next summer.” Permanence.
I refuse to buy a microwave because, like air-conditioners, those are for people who intend to stay. And while I’m beginning to recognize that a microwave would probably drastically improve my quality of life, I won’t even attempt to quantify the day-t0-day detriment of looking at it every day, in all of its modern convenience, knowing it is mine, that I put it there, for my use, because I in fact live here. I am not a passer-through. But I’m sure as hell not going to spend time. And if I ever need to depart, quickly, the microwave would be one unwanted hassle standing between me and the door.
I don’t really have anything in my apartment because things had are trappings of permanence and I make a point of lacking completely any trappings that connote anything of the permanent sort. Anything essential is in my backpack, and the backpack leaves with me wherever I go. I find comfort in the fact that I can fit my life in a backpack. If I did have to suddenly depart, I could. No microwaves to worry about, no sentimental photos hanging on the walls.
My friends and family tell me it’s no way to live. They tell me to buy a damn microwave. Yet I refuse. To me, this is precisely the way to live. I’m always ready to go, and while I know I’m not going anywhere, that I’ll be here at least another year, that a microwave wouldn’t hurt, I still refuse. The only way I can stay anywhere is to tell myself that I’m not, and I rest easy at night knowing that my apartment is more or less empty, and I wake up refreshed by the sparseness.