We’ve run out of coffee so I went out with Gerry this morning (it’s Saturday, he’s going to the market) to get a cappuccino. As I walked back a thought struck me about stress, about reacting and contemplating. I’m in a reactive phase right now, I’m a pinball pinged around from one task to the next. The fact that all of those things are interesting and make me happy is irrelevant. What struck me in a cloud of coffee fumes in the elevator was the bipolarity of life.
There are periods when a lot happens, when life rushes by as stream of things to do and days disappear without you even really knowing how. Later, when you find yourself in a slightly quieter phase and look back at these periods they take on a golden shimmer, you remember them as life being lived fully, the rawness of it, the back-against-the-wall-coming-out-fighting, it all seems a lot better later on. They become periods of action and laughter and stress and tears.
But how we spend our days is how we spend our lives, as Annie Dillard writes, so why are the periods of busyness the ones I enjoy the most?
What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern.
“It’s a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time”, that’s what it means to be busy. It protects us from the big picture.
Then there are periods when the stream dries out, the wind stops blowing and time rolls on like tumbleweed. These are occasional contemplative phases, weeks and months when the cogwheels jam and work is slow. There is time to think, to contemplate, to read, to look behind you and to look ahead. Sometimes these are sad periods, sometimes they are soft and philosophical. After a while of slowness my mind starts gnawing on itself, I worry, invent bad things, I become anxious and then I’m gratefully plunged back into a period when everything happens at once and there is enough going on for me to stop ruminating.
It’s feast and famine, it’s sowing and harvest and the quiet winter months. Perhaps this is simply the bi-polarity of life. Perhaps this is only my life, or the life of the self-employed. What I need to remember is that a period of action is normally followed by a period of inactivity. Then the cycle starts again and I remind myself how lucky I am to be alive.
A happy life must be to a great extent a quiet life, for it is only in an atmosphere of quiet that true joy can live. – Bertrand Russell on boredom.