I have arrived at the place I swore I never would, standing on the platform of a station I promised myself I’d never get off at. And even though older friends warned me, and in recent years I’ve seen it starting to happen around me, I still didn’t *really* believe it – I thought it was all an unnecessary charade. For years, I naively and confidently assumed that my life simply wouldn’t fall into the same middle-class narrative that sounds like nails on a blackboard. But here I am. I have officially arrived at peak I’m-too-busy-to-see-you-until-October-2019.
Seeing friends has become a logistical minefield; arranging plans comes with all the agony of trying to park in central London. They are busy, I get it. They have jobs and lives and plans. But once I was intrinsic to those lives and plans. We saw each other because that’s what we did. It was a given – pubs, brunches, coffee, walks, dinners. We were each other’s lives.
Now I’m a bit older, that’s all changed. For starters, often you’re not just scheduling to see one person but two. Partners show up and add all sorts of chaos, claiming dates and weekends for events with people you’ve never even met. Your friends’ partners have families and friends and needs, and they’ve basically friend-blocked you until August. Like trying to get Beyoncé tickets, you’re left wondering, “Damn, how did they get in there so quickly?”
And so you start to arrange dinner between six of you. Dates are thrown around like confetti – all hope and good meaning to begin with, but useless and discarded as it seems more and more likely you’ll have to be content conducting this friendship on WhatsApp. Because everyone is booked up already. And when I think too hard on it, that actually becomes an unsettling notion. Everyone uses every bit of time they have and they fill it with something and I’m not sure why. Yes, it’s hard to get balance. My friend called the other day to say she’s been neglecting her fiancé, but how, she wondered out loud, could she make time for everyone equally – her friends, her family and her new business venture? But I also think, in our era of hyper-connectivity and hyper-loneliness, we have got collectively very nervous about empty spaces in diaries or time unallocated to a person or a plan.
The sound of the door knocking is always a worry – a local campaign group, religious group, someone trying to sell you something, never the potential of a friend ‘just seeing if you were in’
Obviously, the arrival of children throws all this to the wind, but for those of us without, have we become scared of being by ourselves in a world that both makes us feel forever in a crowded lift but also always slightly outside of the conversation other people are having, watching lives from a filter, not ever really feeling in the centre of our own? I’m currently poring over the pages of a book called Alone Time. A New York Times journalist visits cities and examines the experience of doing so by herself. Apparently, more people are doing this than ever, but she still writes about it with a tone of fascination – as if it’s an entirely alien project to not have plans with other people, to not have plans at all. Have we forgotten how to let time settle, as if dust in sunlight, and simply see where it falls?
And so now it’s summer and friends have weddings and holidays and family visits, and I’m trying not to take it personally when my close friends give me a look of, “Well, you should have booked earlier,” as if I was trying to rent a beach hut in Brighton on a bank holiday. My natural aversion to planning of any kind is increasingly problematic and means I resent the idea that I have to be on a waiting list – that life can’t be about spontaneous decisions and last-minute texts and an openness to adventure that isn’t compatible with weekend plans booked months and months in advance.
In many ways, I wish I lived in small place. Or, I wish it was like how it so often is on TV, where someone just pops by, knocks on the door, sees if you’re in your house in that moment (and not available for brunch in 90 days time via Doodle). I wish you could have someone over for a cup of tea or a glass of wine for an hour or so before they went on their way. Living in (south) London means that many friends live an hour away – and, anyway, they don’t seem to have left any evening free just to pop by. The sound of the door knocking is always a worry – a local campaign group, religious group, someone trying to sell you something, never the potential of a friend “just seeing if you were in”.
We fill up our lives like we fill up our homes with framed photographs and our Instagrams with filtered pictures – “Look how full our lives are,” we try to tell one another. And we believe a full life is a happy one – people, experiences, connections. But what are we letting slip through the gaps? I don’t resent friends for their busy lives, but I miss the way we used to let life lead us a bit more. Afternoons tipped over into evenings; dinners turned into discos; coffee became lunch. I miss the flow and surprise that free time allows to blossom. We’re often told not to wish our lives away, but maybe we shouldn’t plan them away, either.