Acedia and Me (Thank you, Ms. Norris)

“If you want something done, give it to the busy person,” goes the saying attributed to various sources from Benjamin Franklin to Lucille Ball. I have been thinking about this claim quite a bit recently since I am the least busy person that I know right now.  Add single parenthood and a baby to graduate school , you have the perfect recipe for a wonderful if busy life. Garnish was the yo-yo relationship with my family. A tenure track position and a move to a new town with a young child in tow does not make life any less busy. Of course, I am not discounting the value of a reliable, good income. I could afford to outsource the least desirable chores of my life such as housekeeping and snow removal. Then came the decision to home-educate my son while working towards tenure. Which is a whole another book. I have no idea why I did not write that book. There is a market for it. Oh, wait! I know why. I was busy writing for tenure. All in all, those years were a blur with occasional pauses in the woods or on the couch with my son. When he was not busy writing. Given the ‘busyness’ of my adult life up until recently, I have on more than one occasion dreamed of being  idle.

Fast forward  to now – my first sabbatical.  After a long time, I have had time to catch up on my sleep. The said baby is a budding young man of twelve and I no longer have to wait for him to sleep so I can begin my work day. This fall semester (my summer due to an unusual teaching schedule this year) was filled with all sorts of adventures – travel, a cross-country road trip, an ambitious home remodel, and the growing pains of learning to live with another adult after decades. Finally, all that being done, we have found our rhythm as a family. But depending on the day, the hour or the minute, the idea of the next few months of freedom from paid work feels like a gift or a curse.

I am grateful for this time. Time for sleep, yoga, gardening, cooking complicated recipes, exploring different restaurants in a new city, taking a walk with my beloved in the middle of the day if we feel like it, and looking at the ocean in all its glory from my backyard. But unbeknownst to me, a strange listlessness has crept in. To be honest, I am feeling rather uninspired. Sounds pretty bad, I know, but even worse to live it. I still have occasional flashes of the excitement I used to feel about theory and my passion for ideas. Crafting a new paper, a new idea, making connections, but it is not the same. Now all I seem to have left is just a twinge of envy at other people who remind me of how I used to feel. At this point, I would even settle for a full blown jealousy attack.

The most charitable explanation is that I needed this space for rest and rejuvenation after a very demanding few years. I lost my father four years ago. I miss him everyday and my notion of home got blown away with his death. I recovered from a fairly serious health issue. I almost lost and reunited with the love of my life. Finally, everything seems to be coming together and I worry about my tendency to break the butter pot. Ha ha, that is so Tamil. Imagine you are churning butter in a clay pot and right about the time when the butter is starting to form, you throw the pot down on the ground and break it. The butter is all gone. With all your labor. And the pot too. Churning butter by hand is quite laborious. My grand aunt used to do it everyday when I was little. A lot of boredom but purposeful effort. Not as easy as picking your choice of butter  – Irish, organic, salted, unsalted, sweet cream, off the supermarket shelf. No effortful life is supermarket butter.

Based on the recommendation of a dear old friend who I reconnected with after twenty years (procrastination is a wonderful tool to rediscover lost friends), I have been reading ‘Acedia and Me’ by poet Kathleen Norris. A delicious book. Suddenly, it is all beginning to make sense. Suddenly, I am one of those monks clawing the wall to see if the sun has moved. Norris  writes, “when we are most tempted to feel bored, apathetic, and despondent over the meaninglessness of life we are on the verge of discovering our true self in relation to God.” I do not believe in god but I believe in good writing and good writers who have an acute vision for everyday life. And I would much rather believe that I am on the verge of a discovery than being a lazy-ass. I am ready to try. I think writing what I feel like is one way to do it because writing is proxy for thinking.

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