When I was a kid, stuck in the family caravan in the Trossachs on yet another rainy weekend I’d get fed up of reading or drawing or staring out the window, and complain to my parents of boredom.
I can remember my mother answering briskly “If you’re bored it’s because you’re boring!” Her response seemed a bit harsh but it makes me chuckle now, and I can see that it held a grain of truth.
This winter lockdown period has been, for many of us, a dull cycle of repetition. With so little to break our daily and weekly routines, the recent heavy snowfall (unusual for Orkney) and a long spell of bright cold days has been the most wildly exciting thing that’s happened to our household for months.
With our activities so curtailed during this series of lockdowns I suspect many of us have been feeling more acutely the circularity of days and weeks, the repetition of mundane tasks, the dull sameness of it all. I’ve also been feeling a kind of disconnect between my own quiet, circumscribed, relatively comfortable life, and the sheer scale of the converging crises of pandemic, climate change, social inequality and environmental destruction unfolding around the world. I don’t think I’m alone in this.
It’s a strange and unsettling mix of boredom and dread. But one thing that writing The Clearing taught me was that when something makes you feel uncomfortable and restless, that’s exactly when you need to pay attention.
Because boredom is actually quite interesting when you examine it. There’s a kind of creeping numbness, a deadening effect, a passivity in boredom that I think needs to be questioned, understood and challenged. In boredom and repetition you can feel the elasticity of time – it seems to both slow down and speed up simultaneously (How long will this Zoom meeting drag on for, urgh! My god, it’s Friday already?) How do we sense duration? How long is now?
I’m working, slowly, on what I hope will be my next book. I think I’m writing about water, at least that how it started, but I realise that really I’m writing about time. And it turns out that I’m exploring this through drawing too, in the deliberately time-consuming methods I am using. I think I’m drawing water, but really I’m drawing time. It’s as if each drawing becomes a receptacle of time. I slowly fill it up, mark by mark, layer by layer.
So I’ve been thinking a lot about time, boredom, and that 4am feeling of dread. As usual, books have come to my aid. So I thought I might share with you some of what I’ve been reading this last couple of weeks, in case they might help you too.
I’ve just blown all my Christmas book tokens ordering some hefty philosophical tomes on ‘Process Philosophy’ to help me to think about time. But I’ll admit it’s been a good while since I tackled some meaty reading like this, so while I wait for the books to arrive I’ve been warming up with re-read of a little paperback I’ve had on my bookshelf for a while: “Life Lessons from Bergson” by Michael Foley.
If you haven’t the stomach or inclination for plugging through the original texts (and I don’t blame you!) I recommend this digestible but thought-provoking little book that lays out some of the key ideas of Process Philosophy. Foley explains it like this:
“The cosmos is a vast unity of interpenetrating and interdependent processes, a gigantic mega process made up of maxi processes composed of mini processes – all the way down to the weird heart of matter and all the way out to the weird far end of our madly expanding universe. And interacting with this is the equally weird mega process of human consciousness, made up in turn of interpenetrating processes.”
This is an important insight, he says, because “it can seem like every day is the same, stale repetition crushes our joy and makes us feel like we are half dead, scarcely alive,” but “the revelation that everything is process dispels this illusion of monotony.”
The idea is not in itself a new one. Back in ancient Greece, Heraclitus observed “Everything is fire and flow”. Buddhist philosophers like Nagarjuna have said much the same. Nothing is fixed or final and nothing ever repeats in exactly the same way. If we are really paying attention, therefore, how can we ever become bored? Life is one long, dizzying tumble down a rollercoaster of unfolding and unrepeatable processes!
Henri Bergson puts it like this: “Reality no longer appears essentially static, but affirms itself dynamically, as continuity and variation. What was immobile and frozen in our perception is warmed and set in motion. Everything comes to life around us, everything is revitalised within us. A great impulse sweeps forward beings and things. We feel ourselves uplifted, borne along, carried away. We are more fully alive and this increase of life brings with it the conviction that grave philosophical enigmas can be resolved and even perhaps that they may not be raised, since they arise from a frozen version of the real and are only the translations, in terms of thought, of a certain artificial weakening of our vitality”
Is it sheer synchronicity, or following up your hunches, that means you find the right book at the right time? Because hard on the heels of this I read Jenny Odell’s wonderful book “How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy”
In a world where social media and rolling 24-hour news cycles increasingly capture our attention, Odell argues that we cannot, indeed should not, retreat entirely, but that we do need to find ways to disconnect and be more conscious about where we choose to direct our attention. Why?
“In my capacity as an artist” writes Odell, “I have always thought about attention, but it’s only now that I fully understand where a life of sustained attention leads. In short, it leads to awareness, not only of how lucky I am to be alive, but to ongoing patterns of cultural and ecological devastation around me – and the inescapable part that I play in it, should I choose to recognise it or not. In other words, simple awareness is the seed of responsibility.”
And here’s a feeling I certainly recognise:“By spending too much time on social media and chained to the news cycle, you are marinating yourself in the conventional wisdom, in other peoples’ reality: for others not yourself. You are creating a cacophony in which it is impossible to hear your own voice, whether it’s yourself you’re thinking about or anything else” However, Odell doesn’t advocate complete rejection or retreat. You don’t need to delete your Facebook account. It wouldn’t work anyway, because “there is no escaping the political fabric of the world…The world needs my participation now more than ever.” But, she says, “we need to be able to do both: contemplate and participate, to leave and always come back, where we are needed.”
She says we should give due value to those boringly repetitive maintenance tasks that recur day after day, week after week, because it is this cyclical work that sustains life itself: “The life force is concerned with cyclicality, care, and regeneration.” It’s no coincidence, she says, that these tasks are undervalued, as they are generally considered feminine. Odell explains how birdwatching has taught her both attention and patience. Animals are good teachers, she suggests. They “don’t see progress, they just see recurrence, day after day, week after week. And through them,” Odell says “I am able to inhabit that perspective too.” Just keep turning up, paying attention, and taking care.
So, that’s boredom dealt with. How about that looming dread?
Here comes Rebecca Tamas’ book of essays “Strangers: Essays on the Human and Nonhuman” to the rescue. In the face of sometimes overwhelmingly bleak news, especially around climate change, Tamas challenges us to confront the shrug of helplessness and the creeping numbness that can so easily take hold.
She makes a clear and useful distinction between the numb passivity of climate despair and the acute pain of climate grief: “The grief is the fuel to try and change the conditions in which we find ourselves. Grief may be the worst suffering a person can experience, and in its agony, we see the cost of doing nothing. If we have any wisdom we will try and heed the knowledge that such profound pain gives us”
She argues that those of us yet to bear the full brunt of climate change have a responsibility towards those whose lives are already being upended, not to allow ourselves the easy option of despair, but to fully inhabit our grief: “Being numb will not help us, hating ourselves without action will not change things; despairing will (for those of us in the West) excuse our responsibilities to the global South, and the suffering they are experiencing because of the actions of our nations.”
“Grieving for the environment means, as Aldo Leopold explains in A Sand County Almanac “living in a world of wounds’. It means rejecting total despair, but it also means giving up on any romanticised visions one might have had of an unblemished, pure natural world, where the human can turn to the nonhuman for relief and easy comfort.”
I hope you’ve been finding some good book companions to help you figure out how to navigate the times we find ourselves in, and perhaps the ones I’ve mentioned above might be of interest.
And speaking of books, the BIG NEWS coming up next for me is that the paperback of The Clearing is due to be relased on March 4th! You can pre-order it (or buy the gorgeous hardback version) at the link below.
The exceeding brightness of this early sun
Makes me conceive how dark I have become,
And re-illumines things that used to turn
To gold in broadest blue, and be a part
Of a turning spirit in an earlier self.
That, too, returns from out the winter’s air,
Like an hallucination come to daze
The corner of the eye. Our element,
Cold is our element and winter’s air
Brings voices as of lions coming down.
Oh! Rabbi, rabbi, fend my soul for me
And true savant of this dark nature be.
[Wallace Stevens, Collected Poems, Faber and Faber]