Busy

I am thinking about the plague of busyness upon America, and so, of course, I do a little Internet research.

I find that, according to an article on atlantic.com, “The Myth that Americans are Busier Than Ever,” economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by the middle of this century, privileged folk in progressive countries would have tons of leisure time.  We’d be letting technology do more and more of the work, and enjoying the time to explore, pursue, and decide in our own rights. But the Atlantic says that, as author Brigid Schulte (Overwhelmed–I put this title on my ‘look for’ list) points out, the OPPOSITE is true. We are more starved for free time than ever before–even more starved for time than we were before labor laws and unions re-shaped our working landscapes.

I find that Americans are often too busy to even stop for a simple bowl of breakfast cereal in the morning, according to the Business Insider. The disappearing milk-and-cereal practice is causing chaos in the cereal industry.  It responds by creating more breakfast bars and snack items, foods that busy people can grab and eat on the go.

I find that, according to visualeconomics.creditloan.com, which furnishes charts that show which activities fill our days, ‘Leisure & Sports’ comprise 4.71 per cent of our weekdays.  READING doesn’t even make the leisure list as a valued activity–it must be one of those ‘Other’ enterprises.  The chart says we do those ‘Other’ things only for .23 per cent of our days.

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Two books have set me thinking along these lines.

One is Jane Smiley’s Some Luck, the first in a trilogy about a United States family, the Langdons. It begins in Iowa, 1920, when Walter and Rosanna get married.  Each chapter covers a year, and the book takes us up to 1953.

Imagine the changes that took place during those years, society and technology-wise; imagine the shifting and re-arranging of thought and expectation and practice that people of Walter and Rosanna’s generation had to do.

This example struck me:  the Langdons have six children.  The first five are born at home, most with help from women relatives and/or a visiting doctor.  Henry, though, the last of the five home births, comes early and suddenly, and Rosanna gives birth by herself early one day, in the downstairs bedroom.  The wind blows through the open window, a wind bearing snow and blowing dirt. She gathers the baby in close, feeds him and rests him, and finally, when she is recovered from the exhaustions of birth, she gets up and gets about her necessary business.  A fine surprise awaits the rest of the family when they come home from the fields and from school.

For her last child, though, for the birth of Claire Anna, Rosanna goes to the hospital. She is in her late 30’s; the birth drains her, and at first, she is delighted to lay in a crisp, clean hospital bed and let white-uniformed staff members bustle around her.

Then Rosanna’s mother comes to visit, and Rosanna rings for a nurse so she can show off the baby.

And the nurse says, “No.” There’s a schedule, she explains–this young nurse, maybe 22 or 23 years old, telling this mother of six how to be a mother.  Babies will be brought out only every four hours, and it’s not time for the four hour feeding yet.

And the hospital, she implies, is not keen on germy visitors handling the newborns anyway.

Rosanna thinks for a while. She and her mother make arrangements with her father, in town and idling while the women take care of women things. When the baby is brought to her at 11:00 AM, Rosanna is dressed, and her father is outside waiting in the warm car. The women bustle the baby into warm outerwear and leave.  The young nurse runs after them. “You can’t do this!” she yells. “This is against regulations.”

But Rosanna, an experienced mama, knows just what she can and cannot do.

But generations who come after her do not. We don’t know anything about birthing babies; we let the experts tell us what to do, when and how to do it. We may voice a tiny question here and there, but for the most part, we give over the authority to the ‘experts,’ the ones with the technology, the ones with the knowledge. We let someone else tell us what to do, when to do it: how to live our lives.

*************
I had worked my way down a stack of books to Some Luck, which I had scored for two bucks at HalfPrice Books’ big book sale.  Before that, for a couple of years, I kept seeing Smiley’s latest books in the trilogy, and I would think, Oh, I’ve got to find the first one!  And then I would forget about it until I, once again, saw the later books on a rack somewhere.  I wrote down Some Luck in the notebook I carry with me, and I pulled it out at the book sale, and I thought, when I plucked up a copy, Oh, yes. Finally!

Then I took it home and put it at the bottom of my ‘to read’ stack, and I grimly worked my way through the books on top, enjoying some, slogging through others.  And finally I reached Some Luck.

I was maybe a quarter way through, getting to know the Langdons, reading in a business-like, efficient way, when a sudden thought occurred to me. I should read this book, I thought, as if it is my ONLY book.  I should read it like there are no other books waiting to be read.

I should read it, and think about what it’s telling me, and just savor the telling.

And so I did, and that changed the way I experienced the reading.  For the first time in a long time, I submerged instead of floating.

And I found myself grabbing the book at odd times–when I finished my breakfast, for instance, and had ten minutes before I had to go to work. I snuck it into the bath with me and read five pages before I showered. I got a few pages in between dinner and dishes, and of course I took it to bed with me at night.

I relegated email and minesweeper to tight little corners of the day, and I allowed reading a book to fill the moments those electronic past-times had previously commanded. And, oh, I enjoyed that book.  And oh, I enjoyed the nooks and corners of stolen reading time.

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There is a lesson there, I thought to myself, about the way I’m using my time.  And I realized that I was buying into the whole, “So busy!” line of goods. So busy, as in Who’s got time, really, to sit and read a book these days?  I get me my news on the run, on my smart phone. I check my Twitter feed.

Maybe I click and read a whole article, but books?  They’re what I read when I finally let my head hit the pillow at night…and usually, I’m asleep before I’ve absorbed two paragraphs.

But I LOVE reading. Why am I letting some outside forces tell me I’m too busy to do it?

And I decide I’m going to be more like Rosanna Langdon. I am going to decide for myself what to do and when to do it. I’ll decide for myself, and I will take the consequences, too.

*************

And then I wander through the stacks of our lovely local library while my son James is scouring the movie shelves, considering titles we might all enjoy watching during a week of shared vacation. (Since Jim leans toward sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, Mark likes spy thrillers and history, and I am drawn to dramas and lit flicks and chick flicks, the pursuit of a mutually engaging film often takes him some time.)

I don’t know what I’m looking for at the library; I don’t even really know if I’m looking for anything at all: after all, I have that stack of books at home, waiting patiently to be read. And then the library magic happens, and, in the 372.00’s of the august Dewey decimal system, a book flies off the shelf and demands that I take it home.

It is Slow Reading in a Hurried Age, by David Mikics. It tells me not to learn speed reading techniques so I can cram more reading into the tiny slivers of free time I might have available.  It tells me to slow down and savor. It tells me to make time for the books that are important. It tells me to seek out books that make me stretch and give me insights and churgle my rusting thought-muscles into slow but accelerating action.

“In reaction against the breathless pace of our computer-driven world,” Mikics writes, “writers on social trends have begun to extol the virtues of a more meditative, involved approach to many parts of our lives, and reading is no exception.”

That is exactly what I have been grappling with, the nebulous, half-formed thought that’s been struggling to materialize.  I settle into Mikics’ book. I set aside some evening reading time to work with his concepts every night. Mikics thinks there is a new territory created by the interaction of a reader and a book, a dialogue, a created pocket of meaning. I remember a grad school prof urging us to keep day-books, journals in which we could interact act with our texts. I remember thinking that sounded like a lovely idea, but I was a young wife and mom, a teacher, and a grad student, and you know what I said to myself, of course. I said, “Who’s got time?” and I didn’t carve out the niche in which I could do that.

But, now, I go back to the concept of day book, of white, pristine, snow-fields–fields I can be the first to trample with my thoughts and reactions to a trusted writer’s inciteful words.

And I look at Mikics’ rules.

The first one is, “Be patient.” And he talks about dedicating ourselves to the book we are reading.

That, I think, is the same as regarding the book in hand as the ONLY book.  That’s the first essential step to a good and thorough and thoroughly enjoyable read.

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And so I finish Some Luck, and I feel, for the first time in years, that leaving-regret when I put the book down. I wish the story wasn’t finished; I wish one of my favorite characters hadn’t died (although time and age, time and age: of course, it was inevitable.)

And it’s nice to feel this ping of sadness at leaving this Smiley-created world, instead of the temporary smugness (That’s done! Next!) that precludes any real value, any true enjoyment.

I know, of course, that I can track down Early Warning and re-join the Langdon saga–and I will, I surely will.

But first I am going to savor the rest of Mikics’ thoughts on reading slowly.  And I am going to meet the fool in Richard Russo’s early (1993) novel, so I can catch up, later, with him as Everybody’s Fool in today’s bestseller. I might even pick up a frothy beach read–one called The Girls of August appropriately beckons.  Whatever I read, though, I am giving it my full attention, making it a priority, reacting with, instead of racing through, its pages.

Because I can. I am the decider, after all–no authority really tells me how to spend my minutes and my hours and my days. I choose that.  And now, in this time and in this place, I choose to read. And I choose to read deeply and thoughtfully, slowly and savoringly.  I’ll be patient. I’ll ask questions.

I may emerge from the reading surprised and elated, and I may be sad that the reading is over. I’ll record my thoughts and explore my reactions. I know that in the process, I will stretch and grow and find room in my mind for new ideas and perspectives.

Clamor at bay, I dedicate myself to this: a slow sustained commitment to slow sustained reading.

I let go of the dock, and I submerge.

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