I suppose it’s an American thing, this need to be busy all the time. It would be neither appropriate nor attractive for me to spend my days contemplating my navel, but the world around me seems to be filled with people who not only bow down to the press of business, but worship it – they are forever on to the next thing, or “too busy” to have read a book, listened to the sad story of a colleague, or returned a phone call from a friend. We put our cell phones on the table at restaurants, placing a barrier between ourselves and full attention to our companions. We surf the net while watching TV. We risk death in order to answer texts while driving. It is a badge of honor, this busy-ness, but it is very bad for me. I am aware every day of the tension between keeping up with the pace around me and keeping a sacred space of quiet in my soul that allows me to dream, to reflect, and to inhabit my own, actual life.
I am having a problem with patience, and I think it’s because I always feel that I should be moving faster, keeping up with the Joneses who sleep four hours a night, work 12 hours a day, and fit in a workout, clean their gutters and attend school board meetings. Conversation with these people (some of whom are me) sounds like this: “I’m so busy, we’re just so busy, I just don’t have time to ___ anymore, the week flew by…”. Although my goal is to be in the present moment, and to live fully in that moment, I can’t turn my back on my mind for a second (don’t even try to sort that out) without rushing ahead to the next thing, or the things after that. Well, sometimes it isn’t things ahead on the agenda, but those that require a lateral move – did the guys remember to turn on the water under the pasta, is Rob done with the treadmill so I can take my turn, should I keep cutting up avocado or check on the rice? It is very, very rare that I am actually just doing whatever I am doing; my soul, my nerves and my imagination suffer for it.
My father often said that we “shouldn’t wish time away,” and while that is truer for me than ever, I struggle. When my inability to stay where I am is entirely confined to my own thoughts, when I cannot finish the article I’m reading because I’m distracted by the possibility of new e-mails, the idea of a cup of tea, or my dry cuticles, I cheat myself. I cheapen my experiences, I flit, I have trouble engaging fully with the book, the stalk of celery, the pile of laundry. I confess that I knowingly make the whole thing worse by multitasking in ways that would impress Ringling Brothers: deep conditioning my hair, listening to podcasts, folding laundry and checking periodically on the sauce bubbling on the stove. I will not savor the feeling of running my fingers through my hair under water to part it from the silky oils, I will not really hear or internalize the words of the podcast, I will not pause to sniff a freshly laundered napkin before folding it lovingly in quarters, and I will not appreciate the magical alchemy of sauce thickening as it cooks. I will simply have Gotten Things Done.
The 800-pound gorilla of irony here is that I often believe that I am rushing things, and people, so that I can be done with everything on my to-do list and have time to relax without guilt. In other words, I am barely skimming the surface of the people and activities that actually are my life in order that I can save time to enjoy “life.” Think about that, because an awful lot of us live that way, and it’s really pretty nutty. Do we have two lives, the one we are getting through, and the special one that awaits at the end of the drudgery? (That, by the way, is a rhetorical question. Unless you are Sybil, the answer should be “no”).
I lost it at the shoe store the other day, with my mother. My mother who, I might add, is not very well, and had come out in the freezing cold to buy birthday shoes and clothes for my son. I was frustrated because the people working at the store were (in my opinion) both slow and inefficient, and by the time one of them got around to helping us, I was seething. I misunderstood something, my mother repeated it to me, and I said to her (in front of both child and clerk) “I’m not deaf!” I was ungrateful, unkind, and when I apologized to her (I’m not a monster, you know) I had to acknowledge that there wasn’t even really any reason for my rudeness, except that I was wound up by my sense that things weren’t moving fast enough. We had no schedule, I was with two people I love, there was no threat or crisis; I was really just reacting to my sense that things, and people should go faster. Last night I spoke to her on the phone, and found myself telling her that we could go to lunch today, but that it “had to be someplace fast.” She responded that she understood how busy I was, but that when I said things like that, or rushed her, it made her feel that I was trying to get away from her. How many times do I make that mistake before I figure out that I will not always have a mother, that I’m lucky to have one at all, at this point in my life, and that nothing I’m doing, nothing is more important than giving her my full attention when we’re together.
I have also had a recurring argument with my husband about the fact that I tend to jump in and cut him off in conversation. My position is that “I’ve always talked that way; people just talk that way,” and his position is that it’s rude and makes him lose his train of thought and, often, his ability to make a point. What he doesn’t know (well, didn’t know) is that I grow impatient in conversations all the time, with him, with my parents, with colleagues and friends…I can barely wait for them to get through thinking and cut to the chase, mentally tapping my foot as they pause. What the hell kind of “deep thinker” am I, if I can’t stand to let anyone take the time to develop a well-rounded and sincere sentence? What happened to the capacity I had in high school and college for the drawn out, philosophical exchanges from which I came away with a sharpened wit and a wiser heart?
I suspect that this is a “baby steps” thing; however I got here, whether it’s because of external pressure, internal imbalance or some toxic interplay between the two, it is unlikely that I will become less fragmented by sheer force of will. I will start, I think, by finding some moments of pure, unadulterated and un-busy “living in the moment” to think about when I am tempted to rush or multitask. Just as I know that I feel better when I eat healthy foods, and can sometimes remind myself that eating three cookies will make me wretched, I may be able to summon these moments of crystalline presence when tempted to make the world spin faster.
I will remember:
My Grammy Graham teaching my brother how to tie his shoes, telling him the same things over and over, watching him try, assessing the error and explaining, starting him again. Complete absorption and focus, success without a raised voice or a tear shed.
Lying on the bed with Sam when he was brand new, looking, just looking at all of the tiny, beautiful parts of him and wondering what I had done to deserve that kind of unmitigated joy. There was nothing else, and I could have stayed there forever.
Kneading bread, listening to music, moving in time, lost in the rhythm and singing when I remembered the words, feeling the muscles working in my arms and the dough sucking up the flour and springing up to meet me.
Sitting on the beach at St. George Island, breathing with the waves, aware of gulls overhead, Sam puttering in the sand, oyster boats passing in the distance, not thinking, just being.
St. George Island Beach: Author’s Own