I was stuck in midair, on my way to a funeral I had prepared for my whole life but never thought would happen. (When someone lives that long, it’s like a trick; you just go on thinking she’s going to live forever.) It was the first time I had flown in years and the space was smaller than I remembered: a screen just inches from my face, and with each movement, I elbowed my neighbor. From my purse, I pulled what I thought was the most recent copy of The New Yorker because I had been anxious to read that article about John Green being a teen whisperer, but realized that I had grabbed the wrong issue when I left the house in a hurry and the dark that morning. So instead I flipped to a review of a new book (Overwhelmed Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time) concerning our culture’s obsession with busyness. And I have to admit that I identified with the content, the “busier than thou” attitude and “the glorification of busy” that pervade our lives and Facebook feeds. It’s everywhere. And it’s true. We are too busy. We fill our time with to-dos and obligations and activities; in our calendars, there’s scarcely space to breathe.
I’ve been there (most people have, I think); I’ve picked my kids up at aftercare, pulled on their soccer shorts and shin guards and laced up their cleats on the school’s bathroom floor. My husband and I have met in parking lots, traded keys and kids. Then another costume change and on to the basketball court to round out a thirteen-hour day. We’ve performed ballet recitals with fevers and swollen glands, a Christmas show with strep throat. One night I completely forgot to give my daughter dinner before Girl Scouts. (Or was it First Communion practice?) And so we stopped at a 7-11 for some Combos. Yes. Combos.
I don’t glorify that kind of busy; I don’t even want it. But, sitting there, fastened to an airplane seat, unable to get up and go, I realized that I was guilty of a different kind of “busy.”
And here it is: I am at rest when I am in motion. It’s genetic, really. A recessive trait that I have only seen in my maternal grandmother’s side. But my mother got it, and so did I. It centers around an inability to sit still, an insistent urge to do and do. For my grandmother, it was cleaning. When I was young, I assumed that she was a neat-freak. We joked about how much she loved to clean, the way she looked forward to the piles of laundry and the carpets in need of vacuuming. But that was never the case. It was the doing that she loved. The fingerprints on the mirror disappeared with a swipe of her paper toweled-palm. For my mother, it’s cooking. She thinks of what’s for dinner days before. She runs to the store to buy vegetables for the gazpacho. Then she runs back because she forgot the tomato juice. After the chopping and measuring, she stirs. She stirs and stirs. (And she won’t let you stir, even if it’s your gazpacho. She’ll take the wooden spoon right from your hand.) The chilling overnight is torture for her.
For me, it’s working (which strikes me as a slightly less beneficial affliction than cleaning or cooking). The writing kind of work, the lesson-planning kind of work, the grading-papers kind of work. I get up too early in the mornings to make my days longer, to make it all fit. In the evenings, after the kids are bathed and the day is almost done, I can’t watch a movie without doing something else. As soon as my butt hits the couch, I pop back up to work on something. (The World Cup is on while I type this. I-believed-that-we-would-win!) When we finally sit together, my husband sometimes puts his hand on my leg not to be romantic but to stop me from moving.
It sounds funny, I know. But lately, I feel like it’s not. There are days I rush my toddler off to nap so that I can write, and I sometimes cringe when I hear that he’s awake. When my five-year-old asks me if I remember the story she’s recounting, I say, “yes,” even though I couldn’t have been listening with my mind in seven different places. When my eight-year-old goes through a month-long sleep disturbance pattern, I remind her almost nightly that I need to get up early and run.
Right. Because guilt is going to help her sleep.
And, truly, I’m the one who’s guilty. Of pushing them aside to make the most of my minutes. Of not stopping to watch. Or to listen. Or to breathe.
At some level, we (both the busier-than-thous and the busybodies) have attached a sense of worth to all of this busyness. Our lives have more value if we’re busier, if we’re utilizing every inch of every day. And what it comes down to, what all of this comes down to, I think, is a misinterpretation of “full.” So I have to ask myself: do I want my day to contain as much as possible, or possess a rich quality?
What struck me most about seeing my grandmother in her casket was her stillness.
Before she was two, my middle child earned the nickname “Janey Waney Wiggle Worm” from her teacher. She’s got it, too.
I don’t want her to have a calendar that’s full. Or a day that’s full. I want her to have a life that’s full.