One of my earliest and most popular posts is Punctuality: It’s About Time. To recap, despite years of meditation, I still find it challenging to feel neutral about lapses in punctuality. I once believed that those who ran late lacked respect. Perhaps the issue, or my reaction, is more complex than that.
A few weeks ago when I was at an Aikido camp, one of the organizers invited people to go to Montreal’s acclaimed jazz festival. While I don’t usually enjoy unstructured group outings, especially among crowds, I occasionally check to see if that has changed, or if there are aspects of the experience I can modify to minimize the drain on my energy level. As an experiment, I decided to join. I brought ear plugs to protect me from the decibels and snacks for fuel. I went to the meeting place, our dormitory lobby, just before the appointed time, where others had already gathered. That’s when someone asked whether another person would be coming, too. We decided to wait for her. My energy began to dissipate immediately, not because of the person but because of the waiting. In groups, waiting often gets filled with small talk, something that drains me. I chose to sit quietly rather than try to perform as an extrovert. When she arrived about 15 minutes later, we walked to the metro and descended a few flights of stairs. Many of us, myself included, didn’t have tickets, so we stood on line to purchase them. By the time we made it through the turnstile, waited for the train on the noisy platform and then changed metro lines twice more to arrive at our destination, nearly 90 minutes had passed since we’d gathered in the lobby. My introvert energy tank felt like it had suddenly emptied. I realized that my well-intended experiment had ended and I needed to leave soon, but how to extricate myself from an activity which, for the others, had barely begun? In introvert parlance, people speak of “ghosting”, disappearing from a gathering without saying a word. While I’ve done that before, I didn’t wish to be rude to the host and vanish.
Years ago, before I knew much about introversion and high sensitivity, I faced a similar situation. One New Year’s Eve I found myself out and about with a bunch of other people from my master’s program. We wandered around the Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan neighborhoods of Washington, D.C. after midnight, with many moments of collective indecision as we huddled beneath street lights trying to plot our next move. Should we go to another bar? To someone’s house? I kept hoping that another person would peel off from the group and go home, thereby giving me permission to do the same. I didn’t want to be the first one to call it a night and risk ridicule, nor did I wish to “miss out” on the “fun”. According to the cultural narrative, wasn’t it supposed to be a blast to be out late with a group of friends? That wasn’t something I had done much as a teenager or even in college, yet my peers seemed to relish all-night outings as if they were rites of passage and/or made life worth living. Plus I remembered the many times I had left a party after a few hours only to be told the following day that things had picked up later or that I had missed the best part. Because of my congenital incapacity to hang around, make small talk, or drink enough alcohol to tolerate the awkwardness, I felt perpetually out of sync with the crowd. As I recall, that New Year’s I stayed out until 5am or 6am and then crashed, all the while wishing I had left our parade of aimlessness a hell of a lot sooner. The desire to fit in had been stronger than my need for self-care. I am not sure the phrase “self-care” had been invented yet and, even if it had, I lacked the confidence to act on what my body was telling me.
At the festival, we stopped in front of a one-man band playing classic rock tunes, perfectly audible through my silicone ear plugs. After he’d performed a few songs (I even danced along to one to see if that would perk me up), I tapped the organizer on the shoulder and told him I’d be leaving. The group wished me well. Returning via the metro, I took a closer look at the map. Our route had a U-shape. It occurred to me that it would have been faster, and in my case consumed less energy, to have taken a bus from one side of the U to the other. Indeed, that turned out to be true. I wondered why I hadn’t looked up the route beforehand, which I would have done had I been by myself. Perhaps after two days of Aikido I had wanted to relax my alertness, even though being alert fosters more energy and vitality than being on autopilot. I suppose I also wanted to experiment with being a follower and not trying to improve or modify the plan, especially as I wasn’t sure how long I’d participate in it. And, it might not have mattered if we had taken a bus, shared an Uber, or teleported to the festival area. The group stayed out until after 11pm, so I would have likely bid adieu long before then. Still, had I checked the logistics first, I might have decided to forgo the excursion entirely.
The following night offered another chance to experiment. The camp’s host arranged a dinner party downtown for the final evening. Since the event had been included in camp tuition, and I’d enjoyed the people, I decided to go, even though I generally find group meals more taxing than tempting. Not knowing if there’d be gluten-free options, I filled myself up with cheese beforehand. I took the bus, planning to get there just before the 7pm seating to minimize waiting. A few other Aikido folks rode that bus, too, including one man who consulted the GPS on his phone. I looked at mine as well, not wanting to again blindly follow. We made it there without a wrong turn. Dinner, alas, did not begin promptly. When the staff finally invited us to sit, I chose a seat at the end of one of two extremely long tables in case I decided to leave early. The exquisitely prepared and beautifully plated food, most of which I could eat, restored my energy and joie de vivre to the point that I decided to return to the dorm with three others, rather than alone. In the thick of the jazz festival crowds, one woman disappeared. She later texted someone in the group that she’d decided to go back by herself. As an introvert, I rarely exchange numbers with people I’ve just met because it implies a willingness to frequently check-in via text, something I don’t care for. But perhaps I need to reevaluate that habit, in light of the fact that, with the exception of Aikido classes, Zen centers and Swiss trains, much of the world is not punctual. I can either be perpetually pissed off by that reality or learn to take it in stride, if not use it to my advantage. If an event or gathering is running late and my energy fades, I can respect myself by leaving early and respect others, too, by texting them that I’ve gone, rather than vanishing like a ghost. I can also thumb my nose at my own habit of punctuality and, via text notifications, choose to arrive once a roving group has settled somewhere or dinner is about to be served, so I can save my energy. Hopefully I will remember that in the future, so time can be on my side.