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The Busy Trap

I am so excited about this article I just read at the New York Times because it captures so beautifully what I was trying to write a while back about busyness. Feeling a bit of déjà vu right about now? Maybe instead of going through all the effort of writing a blog I should just wait for someone at the NYT to write out my thoughts better than I ever could and then report them to you in easily digestible quote format? Hmm, worth considering.

I am honestly tempted just to quote the whole damn thing, but since you’re probably really busy, I’ll just skip right to the points that make me want to hug the author and take him out for a leisurely drink.

It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint…. Notice it isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs  who tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.

I understand this need to feel busy, to stay occupied and be ‘productive’. At the end of each day, I find myself mentally taking account to make sure I can log at least a few things into the ‘being productive’ column, whether or not those things truly needed me that day. In our culture, especially in North America, the concept that hard work is the path to a rewarding life underlies so much of what we do and teach that it’s no wonder so many of us feel this pressure. Meanwhile, relatively little emphasis is placed on the value of simply revelling in the pleasures of life.

Since completing school and settling into my job, I have struggled at times with my new found non-busyness. I know that sounds ridiculous, and that’s because it is slightly ridiculous. I have a full life and yet there it is – this quiet, nagging worry about wasting my precious time, about falling behind.

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day…. I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.

I am learning to give simple pleasures a higher value in my mental ledger where before they didn’t even get recorded. Not (just) because I’m looking for excuses to enjoy my idleness, but because they add value to my life. In the last couple of years I have had some of the best vacations of my life. It started with our honeymoon in Hawaii two years ago where, after the exhaustion of the wedding, I allowed myself the luxury of doing whatever the hell I wanted, whenever the hell I wanted, and discovered how amazing it is to sip wine in the middle of the day and then have a nap. I credited the bliss of that trip to the unique life situation, but then two more trips followed with more of the same. At 28, I finally learned to vacation.

I am slowly learning to bring that joy of idleness to my everyday life and quiet the nagging voice in my head that keeps saying only countable things count.

Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.

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Feeling big

One of my so-called problems in life is that I am terrible at recognizing my own significant moments, be they of the simple-things-that-occur-in-everyday-life kind or the seriously-momentous-occasion kind. Things rarely feel ‘big’ to me. At least not in that movie-like way I’ve come expect where the shot focuses in and dramatic music plays to let you know you should pause on shoving chocolate-covered raisins into your mouth for this part and actually pay attention.

Hey life, where is my dramatic soundtrack? This is how I’ve learned to recognize significance in interpersonal relations, dammit!

Even when there IS a soundtrack and I’ve explicitly been told this is a Big Moment (like my own wedding) I still can’t quite do it to be honest. In those moments, I am drowning in my own synapses, too busy processing my surroundings and my baggage to focus on what the unidentifiable mess that is my feelings is trying to tell me. I’m basically the opposite of a person who wears their heart on their sleeve; I usually package mine up in twelve layers of burlap and leave it hidden under the bed.

Which I suppose is the problem – before a moment can feel big it has to feel, period.

My problem is sorting out that mess in the moment. Maybe it’s the scientist in me, but if I can’t accurately define, calculate or categorize something, I tend to ignore it. After all, it can’t possibly give me any information worth trusting right? But a bit of experience in research has taught me that you can usually get pretty damn close to the right answer with your prior knowledge, a bit of information about the current circumstances, and some educated guesses.

I’m beginning to realize the same is true for emotions. You don’t have to analyze every detail of that mess of emotions in the moment – doing so would swallow you whole – but chances are the fuzzy shape alone tells you something worth paying attention to.

All this is to say, this December has felt big. I’ve had the opportunity to spend a lot of quality time with friends and family – opportunities I’m beginning to realize are becoming fewer and farther between – and I’ve consciously let myself pay attention to those gut reactions a little more. I’ve noticed their presence and allowed them to stir the conversation. At times it felt overwhelming – like when my friends were talking about domestic violence and I had to step into the bathroom to breathe for a minute – but it meant I was emotionally present a lot more than I normally am. And that felt kind of big.

My unexpected love affair

I had a love affair last week. It was sudden, unexpected, and completely unlike me. It briefly turned me into the kind of person I wish I could be on a daily basis.

I had myself a love affair with Barcelona.

Usually whenever I arrive in a new city, I am initially overwhelmed by everything – the language, navigating around, finding food – everything feels so difficult when I’m already beaten down by travel. I usually check into hotels with tears clouding my eyes. This pattern is so predictable that I braced myself for it to hit… but then it just never did. I would like to say this is because I’ve gotten better at travel – and I will say that, because I probably have – but I think the reality is that Barcelona is simply easy. It is easy to get around, it is easy to find good food, and it is easy to find beautiful things to see.

That first ‘morning’ (I hadn’t actually seen a bed since Vancouver so I use that term loosely), after dropping off my luggage at the front-counter of the hotel, I took the metro to Guell Park. It is, in a word, mesmerizing. I love mosaics, and once upon a time used to make them, and this was a magical, Dr. Seuss-like park made of them.  I’ll let the pictures do the rest of the talking.

I continued on, following whatever whims struck me, and soon found myself on a hilltop patio overlooking the entirety of Barcelona, drinking a glass of white wine and savouring a huge plate of olives and hummus. It was glorious; I was fully smitten and I had only been in the city for 5 hours.

My days of sightseeing in Barcelona turned into some of the best days of the summer. No, of the year.

I was a different version of myself, a more relaxed one. I followed my gut rather than my head. I let myself get lost among the narrow streets. I didn’t set foot in one museum or gallery – places I rarely enjoy but force myself to go to because I feel like I’m supposed to. I skipped entirely over buying useless gifts for other people that would just end up in a donation pile eventually, and instead splurged on a couple of nice things for John and myself.* I ate when I was hungry and whatever I was hungry for – be it ice cream or a giant chocolate croissant. One day my lunch was just a big glass of sangria on the beach, because it seemed like exactly the right thing at the time. And it was.

Every night of the week, I ate a long, wine-filled meal at some restaurant I stumbled onto. Though I was alone, I was never once tempted to take out a book or a phone like I normally would; I just enjoyed my food and my surroundings. I ordered without much concern over the prices or even the ingredients; most times I would sit up at the bar of tapas and just point to things that looked good. Often they were not at all what I expected – they were better. Like the “potato” that turned out to be goat cheese. Amazing goat cheese. Sent from heaven. I would say that everything I put into my mouth in Barcelona is in the top 20% of things I’ve eaten in my life (granted I’m from Finland, so I got a slow start in the culinary department).

I want to credit my entire sublime experience to the loveliness of the city, but as I sat there savouring a glass of cava on my last night, it dawned on me that it wasn’t just Barcelona I enjoyed – it was Barcelona by myself. It has been an intense summer and I don’t think I quite realized how badly I needed time to myself until I had it. No one to please, no one to make conversation with, no one to compromise with. Not even John.

And to top it off, I actually started to feel a bit like the 30 year old (minus 6 weeks) that I supposedly am.

* Including a leather purse and this skirt from Desigual (a clothing line from Barcelona).