When a smell of freshly turned earth or the fiddle in an 80s country song plays on the radio, I sometimes travel back to long drives with my mom and sister. Across highways and sailing past cotton fields and mesquite trees, I remember distant storms and in my ears, an Alabama tune plays, “Sometimes her morning coffee’s way too strong, and sometimes what she says, she says all wrong.”
I spent hours on these trips simply staring out the window. I used my time to think and create stories, a whole helluva lot of them. They were never written down. The same thing happened at bedtime as I lay awake waiting for sleep to overtake me. Boredom did not scare me. What looked like idleness from afar was my mind burning through dreamt up novels, screenplays, bits of essays. I remember being initially aghast when I heard the old saying, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” Doing nothing on the outside meant stories on the inside.
I understand the fear of loafing more now. Afterall, I mother two boys for whom idleness leads to mischievous acts of rebellion and general mayhem. However, inactivity and especially boredom appear to be a precursor to creativity, and I must admit a project undertaken by children in the midst of ennui might be called destruction of the creative kind.
As for the rest of us, can you imagine putting up with boredom now? Anywhere a dull moment intrudes — standing in a line, sitting in a doctor’s office or waiting for a meeting — we feel compelled to pull out the ever lurking smart phone. I am guilty of this habit, and any number of teachers can be found casually swiping a screen during professional development sessions. My high school students can’t even make it through a class period without checking their phones. Heck, according to research conducted by Dr. Jean M. Twenge, it’s the first thing they look at in the mornings which is easy since it was the last thing they saw, clutching it in their hands as they fell asleep.
Then there’s the other crowd. The busy bodies and the do-gooders who would be aghast that I used to stand at the screen door, nose pushed to the wire mesh, inhaling the scent of rain and imagining my next story or the end of the world or whether Cocoa Pebbles or Cocoa Krispies made the best cereal milk. Such lackadaisical considerations are utter blasphemy to these productive types. They work and slave and craft, and when they’re not doing that they are documenting the results of their labors on their phones — the bane of the dreamer and the dutiful alike. At the very least, they scribble lists and strategize the next enterprise. You see, we cannot just have a toddler’s birthday with cake and balloons, we have to have a festival complete with elaborate costumes, party games perfected through Pinterest, martial arts demo teams, and snow cone trucks.
Of course, I have a theory as to the cause of all this time either spent on our phones or planning the next extravaganza. We just don’t know what to do with all our extra time created by our ever evolving technologies. We complain that we don’t have time, but think about what you do on a day-to-day basis that actually hinges on physical survival. Do you grow or kill your own food? Some folks have a garden, but it’s supplemental at best. If you shop for your meal or pick it up, you save enormous amounts of time. That’s one area totally revolutionized, and the technology is such that with each passing decade, we touch less and less of the physical stuff that makes life possible. Shelter, clothing, sanitation, and on and on it goes. We practically have nothing to do that we aren’t just making up or living out in the virtual world, and we blindly accept that it’s all a good thing.
Granted, I don’t want to return to the manual labors required of our ancestors, but refusing to acknowledge that something of the tangible and the vital is lost by our endless technological revolutions shows a lack of understanding of what it means to be human. The more we live in our minds and make life “easy,” the more we seem to lose ourselves through interactive screens and endless “projects.” No, I’m not saying any of this is inherently bad. I personally love reading on the internet! And, the Marthas of the world have their place and often make it more enjoyable and more beautiful. On the other hand, I dare say that the deplorables, those most hated of the working class, know especially what I mean even if they can’t put it into words. The farther man is from the tools and the sources of our existence, the more we feel adrift. Until a short while ago on the timeline of human history, we were barely surviving. If it wasn’t an epidemic or famine, it was war and genocide. Now we suddenly live like the inhabitants of the Axiom encountered by WALL-E, everything provided and plenty of distractions, so we miss the point. I’m not sure why it doesn’t occur to most folks that there may be a bit of a lag as we adjust to our new circumstances.
Oh, but I started talking about country music and cereal milk and boredom and windows. On that note, grant me some mercy while I stare into space a bit more, and I promise to use a little less of that time imagining how to poke fun at all the party planners.