Here’s what I should be doing: finishing the editing of that insurance broker’s human resources manual so I can finally get paid by my client and pay off some of my line of credit. Failing that, I should be organizing the filing cabinet, replacing that washer in the leaking kitchen sink, updating my resume. At the very least I should be picking up milk and bread from the grocery store.
Here’s what I am doing: I’m with my daughter, who I’ve talked into skipping out of school for the day (“It’ll give the other children a chance to catch up” – Dick Van Dyke’s classic line from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), watching a full length cartoon film, The Triplets of Belleville, at a local second-run movie theatre. We’re eating popcorn and laughing ourselves senseless.
I blame my father, of course, for this display of unbridled idleness. It was he who first introduced me to the joys of pilfering a few hours, a few days a year from the lock box of routine. About three or four times in every school year, he would abandon his little radio repair shop in Clacton-on-Sea, and we would take the commuter train into London and spend the day walking aimlessly around the city. I remember museums filled with cloud chambers and astrolabes and carved wooden masks. I remember lush botanical gardens and bright sunlit squares filled with picnickers and towering statues caked with bird guano. I remember a curry house with red vinyl booths behind curtains of coloured glass beads. It was as exotic to me as a palace. It was the first time I ever tasted yogurt or smelled incense. I began to suspect that my taciturn and practical father had a secret side to his personality. I don’t think anything I ever learned in school was of more lasting value to me.
I should be careful, here, to define my terms. It’s not simply the act of setting aside some time to take read a book to a child or cook and eat a leisurely dinner. These are every day events, or should be. I am not talking about scheduled vacations or long weekends at the lake with the family. Nor am I talking about the sort of mindfulness that the Buddhists rightly tell us should inform our every waking moment, our every action from peeling potatoes to building heavy machinery. I am talking about the sort of wretched indolence that can swallow up a whole day or, if your lucky and bold, several days at a time. It is aristocratic and wasteful and subversive and sublime. It thumbs its nose at the Puritan work ethic that lies in the dark, sticky recesses of our North American consciousness like mercury in molars.
To engage in this sort of “shirk ethic” much more frequently than one enjoys, say, single malt scotch or foie gras is, of course, to risk a certain existential queasiness. It is simply too rich for our blood. No matter how much you enjoy lobster, you don’t want to eat it breakfast, lunch and dinner. The path of idleness-gluttony is a short cut to lives that are boring, uninspired, unfulfilled and well, unemployed.
Be aware, though, that to systematically ignore the voice of our inner-layabout, to slavishly adhere to a schedule, no matter how much we may love what we do, is to deny ourselves some of the real magic of life.
I think it was Samuel Beckett who said “Routine is the cancer of existence”; let’s spend some time looking for the cure.