In Praise of Jet Lag

Art by KK Kozik.

It’s what we dread — the fatigue and irritability, the insomnia and poor concentration, the sense that we’re simply not ourselves. We endure it as we must, asserting that the destination will be worth it.

But perhaps jet lag serves a function. When we zoom across time zones, we’re doing something remarkable. The intellect wishes to zoom without remarking. The body refuses. The body, harmonized with the always-rhythmic natural world, insists its rhythms be honored. It will not yield gracefully. The body wakes us hungry at two a.m., sleeps at the concert we crossed an ocean to hear. You’re not yourself, it reminds us. Prepare to be someone else.

Like all transitions, jet lag is a time of porous vulnerability, in which we occupy a zone of altered consciousness, similar to fever, or pregnancy, or the Tibetan concept of bardo, the state of existence between two lives. If jet lag had a god, it would be Janus, two-headed god of the doorway, one head looking back to the wristwatch, one head looking forward to the hotel lobby clock.

How indolently I’ve traipsed through the world’s city parks, because if I stayed in my hotel — if I so much as dared to sit on my bed to remove my shoes — I’d fall asleep and delay the sync. And how brainlessly I’ve wandered the world’s great museums, not even troubling to lean toward the wall to read the untranslated didactics.

The enrichment I gained was emotional, not intellectual. I’d leave aerated, saturated, sensitized to rosemary on the sea breeze, to frequencies of red and violet and ochre.

Further, jet lag brings insights into our destination, because we are awake and wandering when we’d normally be snug in the locked box of sleep. Here are some memories I can claim simply because I was in the right place at the wrong time: In Japan, lifting my head from my hammock to see three monks with surfboards run past, tear off their saffron robes, and plunge into the sea. Sleeping on an unfinished roof in a São Paulo favela beneath a sky bewitched and bollocksed — the Southern Cross replacing the Big Dipper, Orion turning a cartwheel — and being awakened by a crowing rooster. All my life, cartoon roosters have crowed at the dawn, and here — here! — for the first time, I hear it, this rooster, this dawn, this girl called me. In Morocco, abandoning my attempt at sleep and making my way to the hotel’s “nonstop gym” — bathroom-sized, just a lone treadmill, occupied by a small boy (the maid’s son?) curled in slumber, sheeted with a hotel towel. How, while I gazed at him, the Muslim call to prayer came from outside, how the boy’s long eyelashes flicked, how I backed out and padded to my room and crawled into my foreign bed, how I slept and slept and slept.

Of course in all these places I eventually adjusted, my body’s rhythms harmonizing again with Mother Nature’s, and I dined at the dinner hour, stayed awake through the concert’s encore. But looking back, those offpeak, offkilter visions are some of my most strongly etched souvenirs.

If there were a remedy to dispense with jet lag, would I take it? Sure thing. In the same way that I’d take one that blocked fevers. In the same way I’d have been tempted to frog leap the hardest weeks of pregnancy. But until that elixir is elixired, what can we do but jet and then lag, wait for our demanding body to sync with the lobby clock, sync with the brain it lifts like a flower on its stem. We might as well marvel as we pass through the two-headed doorway, a door through which we must go, both because we have no way around it and because we must keep moving, because if we lean against the doorjamb, we’ll fall asleep.

Beth Ann Fennelly teaches poetry and nonfiction writing at the University of Mississippi. Her first book of poetry, Open House, won the 2001 Kenyon Review Prize and the Great Lakes College Association New Writers Award, and was a Book Sense Top Ten Poetry Pick. It was reissued by W.W. Norton in 2009. Her second poetry collection, Tender Hooks, and her third, Unmentionables, were published by W.W. Norton in 2004 and 2008. She also published a book of nonfiction, Great with Child: Letters to a Young Mother (Norton), in 2006. The Tilted World, the novel she has cowritten with her husband, Tom Franklin, was published in 2013.


  1. Great article and very well written! makes me want to travel now.

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