As the cold snap takes the air and the arid heat of summer finally, mercifully subsides, I’ve been thinking a lot about how this year has been spent. Clutching my phone in my hand, certainly. Crouched over a laptop, absolutely. Online, totally. In the last week I’ve been in Paris, and Bantry, and barely at home in my bed at all. I’ve been on buses and trains and in taxis and airplanes, I’ve crouched in the Metro, I’ve had my body touched a little too rigorously by security, I’ve stood in lines and I’ve walked miles and miles. This week is not an uncommon one in the scope of 2019: my family and friends don’t even bother asking where I’m going to be this week, next week anymore, they just assume it’s somewhere that isn’t home, isn’t around, isn’t available unless I come to them first. I woke up one day a nomad: none of this is by design, all of it is by necessity.
Too, of course, there are times I’ve chosen to be away from home. A writing retreat. One family holiday. A hike. A wedding abroad. But cocktail these short skips with the shockingly constant work-travel and suddenly sitting still too long makes you restless, worried. In my constant packing and unpacking, in this column I’ve been trying to unfold why I lean so hard on the internet, how I can live less tethered to the digital world. In earnestly interrogating why I spend so much time on my phone, I’ve hit on some hard answers and one of them is that travelling so much has made me unmoored: and the internet is one constant, familiar landscape I can check in with no matter where I am.
The interfaces I stare into while I am waiting in another line for another plane, or curled up on a train or bus, too nauseated to read properly, have become the only ritual and routine I have left in a life where every week I am somewhere new to work. None of this is a complaint: I work in my vocation, being asked to teach or to speak is a privilege. More it is a statement of a strange reality: how can I feel at home in a house I spend two days a week in? Where am I home when I am always, always moving?
Hotels are unpredictable, lonely places. Airplanes mean your body is close to the body of strangers, but the last thing you want is to speak to them. Trains see you sharing tables, avoiding eye-contact. Buses can sometimes mean someone vomits into their lap four foot away from you but you can’t leave the capsule to get away from the poison in the air, nor can you help them really (if you have a sensitive stomach like mine, helping is also a liability). Here is a home where there is none: a small black rectangle in your palm where your family live, your friends live, where you can share your experiences and do your job and listen to tunes and feel like you know where you are. Tiny escape portal. One normal thing. One constant. In a strange hotel, the antithesis of home, I put on Youtube on the tiny screen and try to sleep to the voices of those Americans I have by now become more acquainted with than many people in my real life, comforted by the one way track of their monologue, satisfied by how real they feel and how they ask absolutely nothing of me in return.
I can only take on one of these weird, lonely problems at a time. I have been trying to make my notebook home, or at least a bright conservatory in contrast with the windowless trap of the phone. I have to keep travelling to work, to make money, to pay rent: that bit isn’t going to change immediately: so managing how that travel forces my hand to my phone is the most important thing to me, right now.
I handwrite a lot, which is something that, hilariously, I write about a lot. I have written three books by hand, almost four, in my life. I have given myself repetitive strain injury from the act of handwriting: I fill up a diary a month, sometimes two. Handwriting is one of the only things left that makes me feel real at all: holding a pen and watching ink come out, staining my hand, leaving a mark on the earth in some way, filling up paper with the symbols that come out of the inside of my body. My pain, my hope, story, language. All that. In the act of getting closer to the things that make me feel the most human, I know that handwriting more is a huge help.
On long train rides I have been trying to settle myself in with my diary and not feel utterly naked writing in public, in these claustrophobic shared booths. There is something less vulnerable about scrolling and using social media on a train: writing with a pen in a notebook feels like a performance of something, some bullshit erudite pantomime of writerliness – whereas there’s something more innocuous, invisible about phone usage. I could scroll for a two and a half hour train ride across the country, making myself nauseous from anger or anxiety, or I could write alone into white paper and feel as though I’ve achieved something – maybe even actually achieve something.
All the way to Cork I wrote, page after page. The week before last, all the way to Westport I did the same, my handwriting more erratic than usual from the motion of the train. I still lie awake at night in weird hotel beds staring at Youtube. I still feel a growing anger at my tiny suitcase. I am still unmoored, but I am trying. Perhaps the trick is to be alright with the loneliness, the boredom, the nausea and alienation of being in motion all the time, to not hold the internet as a crutch, the one unmoving thing, or the one thing that moves in a way I can understand. Perhaps the trick is in fact to feel the disquiet of the world and not bury your head from it. To lie on the starched white sheets and wish you were at home, feeling every inch of that wish, and not try to numb it at all. To feel the gaze of the stranger beside you on your notebook and not care that they can see what you are saying to yourself. To not drown yourself in the comfort of white and blue pixels. To live, actually. To make a home within yourself.