The Geography of Busyness


In the early 1930’s in Fort Lee, New Jersey, my grandmother took singing lessons.  It didn’t last long; one day the instructor took my great-grandmother aside and said, “Mrs. Hook, you are wasting your money.” My grandmother was sent down the street to tap-dancing lessons instead, and everyone was happier for it.

Also, they didn’t feel too busy.

Sunday I ran into a fellow homeschooling mom.  “Why do I always feel so busy?” she asked.  “We’re not doing too many activities.”  She has only one student at home anymore, now a high school senior, and they moderate the extra-curriculars.  It shouldn’t be a crazy time of life.

I shook my head.  “I don’t know.”

But I think I do know.  I think it’s all the driving.


Here’s what our week looks like right now:

  1. Daily mass.
  2. School at home.
  3. 1 piano lesson on Tuesdays.
  4. 1 violin lesson on Thursdays.
  5. Boys go mountain biking or hunting or some such on various afternoons / evenings.

(No, I’m not teaching RE this year, so that buys us a lot of time.)

For all these things, we have to drive.  What if instead of being Catholic I were Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal or Lutheran?  I could walk to church.  Two blocks. Let’s imagine my daughter then took her piano lesson with that flavor music director, instead of our Catholic one.  She could walk to and from piano.  Let’s triple-imagine: What if instead of violin at a publicly-funded school downtown, my other daughter had her classes at the school on our corner — one block away?

Now let’s get super crazy.  What if instead of trying to figure out how to meet up with homeschooling friends from across the city for Little Flowers, all we had to do was pick which house (or church) in our hypothetically-shared neighborhood we’d host it at?  What if the nice new family with four girls that I want to meet up with for a playdate lived . . . not twenty minutes away, by car, but twenty minutes on foot, right in my subdivision?  What if my friend who’s miscarrying lived down the street instead of down the highway?  How about my mother-in-law? And what if our good friends who live a mile away down a busy road were connected by a decent sidewalk?


There are two things going on.  One is the way we live: Picky.  We drive farther to get to the grocery store we prefer; we’d rather see distant friends who better match our personality, than socialize with near neighbors.  And I tried being Lutheran, for nearly 90 minutes in 1998; it didn’t take.  Nearly all our neighbors have the religion problem, too, it’s not just Catholics who are choosy about their churches.

The other is structural.  No sidewalks — that’s a physical structure that’s missing.  But also the way our car-centered life changes our expectations: We consider it normal to drive ten or twenty miles for everyday activities, farther for weekly or special events — and then wonder why it feels like we’re living in the car.

The cost is physical — having to make special time to exercise, having to cram in meals between outings.  The cost is also social.  Up front we win, picking and choosing the best of friends and hobbies from around town.  In the long run we lose; we’re socially isolated from our next door neighbors,with all the decay and loss that brings.

I don’t like it.  I also don’t have a sense of how to change it, or even of really wanting to make the sacrifices that would be required to change it.  But there it is.  Why I’m too busy and my great-grandmother was not.


It’s Tuesday, so I bet you’re looking for 3.5 Takes.  Here’s Larry D., our host, entertaining you with the awesomely awesome Savage Chickens.  And 2.5 More:

Have a great week!


6 thoughts on “The Geography of Busyness

  1. This is so true! And I apologize for not living closer. I know my boys wish you all were within walking distance. (But in my defense I’m going to say I’m sparring you the feeling of having 2 extra kids all the time…hehe) The vast expanse of our society’s physical geography in personal lives is something I realized was different than other cultures. In Korea I realized how close knit, both emotionally but also geographically, they are. The size of the country is comparable to a few states… our country dwarfs it on a global level. When our society grows and expands we spread out…. in Korea they don’t have that advantage. And they grew fast…so it is not uncommon to see towering skyscrapers and it they be purely residential. It is also extremely hard to find someone who doesn’t use public transportation on a daily if not weekly basis. And I must say the public trans in Seoul in way easier to navigate, even without knowing the language, than it is in DC. But that might be because the average metropolitan Korean is more willing to help and are 90% more friendly than the average metropolitan American.

  2. I’ll blame it on my neighbors over-pricing their houses. I think I also remember someone suggesting you “pick a good school district” or something. :-).

    Funny about Korea: I felt the same way seeing the slides and hearing the stories about my stepmother’s family in the Philippines. (Longtime historic Manila residents). Of course they probably look here and consider the driving small price to pay for the other advantages we have. No perfect place. But geography really does influence culture, I think.

  3. And then there’s the other side of the coin for those of us who just can’t bring ourselves to do so much driving: isolation and loneliness and the lack of support structure. My kids aren’t taking swimming lessons because I can’t find any that are closer than 20 minutes away and that’s just too far. We don’t socialize much with my various in-laws because they live half and hour to an hour away. We aren’t a part of a homeschooling group because all the meetings are about an hour away and usually at a time that doesn’t work for us. And so on and so on….

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