In your ship's path are sirens

I thought I was no longer considered one of those "busy" people. Yet a friend told me recently the reason she sent me The Busy Trap article was because I am, and the fact that so many forwarded it to me should serve as a referendum. 

Hmmm. That's disappointing. I thought people had sent it to me because 1) I talk about that topic a lot on my blog and 2) I have done a lot to try to escape the busy trap, and have been somewhat successful?

In an article in Slate Hanna Rosin responded to The Busy Trap this way: "..the same thought keeps coming back to me: I don’t want to be busy. I don’t want all my friends to start their messages to me with the sentence 'I know you’re really busy but …' Anyone have any advice?"

To me the biggest shift in terms of free time getting sucked up is the cable modem. Before then, when you went online it was a thing. Okay, I'm going to dial up now and check email or do some research. You didn't surf endlessly-- you were tying up the phone line, for one, and it was shaky and you sometimes got kicked off. Now you're always always on. With smartphones, even worse. (A friend a year or so ago mocked me for talking about how much time I waste "checking" email. With a smartphone, she said, you don't check. It's just always always there.)

Remember how Kreider talked about busy-ness as a "hedge against emptiness", a way to draw attention away from a fundamental sense of meaningless about how you spend your time? It's become obvious to me that busy-ness obscures emptiness. If you feel empty, you will try to fill that space. That is, I suppose, if you view emptiness in a negative light. We all know those parasitic empty people with no emotional resources to give who take endlessly from others--time, attention, money, whatever it is, they're all related, some are just symbolic (those rich people who never have their wallet, or are always the first to take a dollar back). But emptiness can be viewed in a different way, if we let it. The choreographer Twyla Tharp talks about her love of the empty, white room where she goes to create new dances, like the blank page for a writer, the empty canvas for a painter. In Zen Buddhism emptiness is something to be sought after. "When we have emptiness," says Shunryu  Suzuki, "We are always prepared for watching the flashing."

Some say you'll feel that you're life is fuller -- that you're living "in abundance" -- the more you give away. The emptier you are, the fuller you are. If you can give, you must have enough. There are lots of stories of people who've decided to give something away every day for a month or a year, or the man who gave away $5 bills for his birthday, reporting that they felt happier and more fulfilled as they did so. 

One day when I was asked to pick up Wally from school because he had pink eye, we had time to waste before we could see the doc. We were hanging around midtown when I remembered this "oasis" in the city I read about. It's on 31st street, right across from Penn Station, inside a church. You go in and there's this little peaceful courtyard in the middle, across from the chapel. Wally threw coins into a fountain, then we sat on a stone bench looking at plants growing there and the statues of saints. 

We had to push past that initial resistance, that "let's go now" impulse of children when they find they have run out of things to do somewhere to get to the point where you realize there is always so much to do anywhere. If nothing else, you can watch, listen, think. You can do what Annie Dillard did when stalking muskrats, "slow down, center down, empty". You can let yourself feel the good kind of empty, not the kind that needs to be instantly filled with activity, stimulation, even anxiety. Not the kind that seeks out contsant attention from others, sometimes tension with others, struggle, anything but quiet. 

Quiet, solitude, time, blank pages on the calendar, or even hours, minutes -- these are things we say we want, right? So what's interesting is to observe what we do when we get them. Check email? Make a phone call? Text someone back? Rush off to the next thing?

Or wait. Allow time to pass. Like Annie Dillard stalking muskrats, I realized last summer stalking peaceful moments you have to be just as vigilant, just as disciplined and capable of restraint. The universe conspires to overwhelm you with birthday parties, Family Jams, friends in town, butterflies on the High Line, sunset drum circles -- it is always holding out those treasures. 

The cover of that BigApple Parent magazine caught my eye the other day. In between these two teasers on the cover:

After-School Activities Resource Guide


160+ Family Events (see our calendar, p.32)

was this one: SLOW DOWN! How to Manage Kids' Schedules. 

And just in case the mixed message isn't obvious enough, along the bottom a there's a headline for a "Where-to Guide" to berry picking. So here are ALL THESE WONDERFUL THINGS YOU SHOULD BE DOING WITH YOUR KIDS and, just in case you're dizzy now, here's some advice for slowing down and cutting back. I even feel bombarded these days with advertisements about meditation, decluttering and simplifying. And although I know the interviews for preschool and test-prep coaching for four-year-olds (we're in the leadup to the Hunter College Elementary School testing process for parents of kids Wally's age) are worse in New York than the rest of the country, I really refuse to believe that the busy-ness is any worse here than anywhere else. If it were, why are my friends way out in the boondocks equally incapable of answering emails, letters, phone calls, equally stressed and pulled and limited when it comes to trying to make plans to meet? Wouldn't those far from the carnival song of the city be sitting in rocking chairs on their porch saying, "Ya'll come back real soon now, ya hare?" But they're not. They've got puppet shows and gardening class and karate just like everyone else.

It's hard to resist, like some siren figure in a Greek myth, the shining and glistening promise of so much fun and happiness, acceptance by peers, as "mean mom" Denise Schipani refers to it, the rules laid out for parents by the "'This is how it's done' police". How it's done is you choose from among these after-school activities, cram as many as you can in. You attend as many family events as possible. You schlep around to pick berries. And if you don't, it's only because you already have a birthday party and christening scheduled for those days. 

Thinking about Tim Kreider's lifestyle -- work less, make less money, enjoy your life more -- it's the same as promoted in the book Your Money or Your Life. All the people I know who work late hours, whenever they bemoan their lack of time, and I ask if there's any way they could work fewer hours, leave at 5 or 6 most days and be done, they say they could do it, maybe, but not without a pay cut. There's the trade. Your money or your life. Almost everyone I know who read The Busy Trap said they agreed with it, yet I don't know if any of them (us?) are doing anything to change. 

Much as we say we long for it, we devalue time to live our lives. We reward people who have it all (the Anne-Marie Slaughterhouse article notwithstanding, or, let it stand. By most reasonable measures she really does have it all - Princeton professor, devoted mom?) We worship people who juggle and do smoke and mirror tricks, making up illusions out of time. Anne Morrow Lindbergh talks about how any excuse is valid -- a hair appointment, work, a social obligation -- to say you can't meet someone but to say it's because you want time alone is considered an insult, outrageous. Even before all our present-day distractions, Ms. Lindbergh struggled with many, including even the radio, which she pointed out replaced daydreams and solitude for housewives. Here she clarifies the struggle in Gift from the Sea:

"The problem is not merely one of Woman and Career, Woman and the Home, Woman and Independence. It is more basically: how to remain whole in the midst of the distractions of life; how to remain balanced, no matter what centrifugal forces tend to pull one off center; how to remain strong, no matter what shocks come in at the periphery and tend to crack the hub of the wheel.” 

As I've mentioned before here, behind so many of the pulls and distractions we feel and siren calls we hear, there is money to be made by someone -- the organizer of the activity, the seller of the recent invention you absolutely need (never mind humans have done without it for a couple hundred thousand years). And to have the money to pay for the things you don't need, you have to work. Since you're always going to need more, you'll alway need to work more. The treasure offered is tempting, it's packaged to be. And completely misleading. "Advertising exists only to purvey what people don't need," says Jerry Mander, author of Four Arguments Against Television (really, it's a terrible title, the book is so much more incredible than the dry title suggests). He goes on: " In fact, advertising intervenes between people and their (real) needs, it separates them from direct fulfillment and urges them to believe that satisfaction can only be obtained through commodities." We're indoctrinated from birth to believe in its value, and will be targeted until we die -- cradle to grave, it's been an official marketing term for a while. 

In the aggregate, unfiltered, unabated, these distractions whether in the form of activities or commodities or the rush to get an advantage for your children, exact a heavy price. The sirens, remember, lured sailors to shipwreck. 

Some of the activities lure us away from quiet contemplative time are fun and low cost, but it is still our responsibility to decide which ones to agree to, when to let days stretch out, imagination take over, emptiness--the good kind--pour in. When it does, creativity can begin. 

Creativity requires the blank page, the white room. Because you are full to overflowing with ideas and connections -- you've absorbed art, culture, music, life dreams weird personalities strange interactions odd group dynamics -- but at a certain point you insisted on quiet and distance to interpret it, to transform it into something original, something worthwhile. 

On the way out of the church Wally was fiddling around with these little tin cans. Normally, I would have tugged him away, in a rush, annoyed as his dilly-dallying. Can we move three steps in a row please without stopping or dropping something or almost getting your hand caught in the door? This day, our schedule having been interrupted, the doctor's appointment still a ways off, we had time. So I went over to see what he had. They were these little cans covered with heart-decorated paper. They said "Gift of Love" on them.

"What are they?" Wally asked, as I read the sign above the basket of cans.

"They're for poor people. People without enough money."

I took a few, handing two to Wally. "We fill them with coins then bring them back."

"Cause we have enough money," he said, clacking the two tin cans together and skipping out. 

"Yes," I said, feeling so full in that moment, but lighter than air, too, waltzing into the New York morning with Wally, carrying those empty cans. 

title: The Odyssey, Homer


  1. Finally got my hands on Gift from the Sea's the exact quote about excuses.

    “How inexplicable it seems. Anything else will be accepted as a better excuse. If one sets aside time for a business appointment, a trip to the hairdresser, a social engagement or a shopping expedition, that time is accepted as inviolable. But if one says: I cannot come because that is my hour to be alone, one is considered rude, egotistical or strange.”
    ― Anne Morrow Lindbergh


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