14th of July 2016, Jerusalem
I am sitting on a bench, in the park in Jerusalem, watching mothers pushing children on swings while eating Cornetto ice cream, alone.
This is too extravagant for me. I don’t remember the last time I just sat like that in the park, alone, slowly leaking the cream from the top of the cone. Eating ice cream at home, yes; watching cream leak over children’s arms as they try to eat their cold sticks in a hurry, yes. Sitting alone and doing nothing but leaking ice-cream, no.
I can’t do nothing. It is an art I have not conquered. As long as I remember, I always kept myself busy, always had things to do. As children, when my sisters and I complained to our father of boredom, he would reply: “Should I order you a brass band?” which would imply “go and find something to do”. As an adult, I never get bored. My notebooks are filled with lists upon lists upon lists, with numerous tasks, duties & chores. My mind was taught to be so busy, a few years ago I took a course in medication to learn to relax.
I had just arrived in Israel the previous night. It is afternoon, hot. I met with my son earlier at breakfast and afterwards had the whole day to myself with no specific agenda until the evening. It is one of those rare occasions when I don’t have to rush to perform tasks I set myself. In fact, I have not much to do except spontaneous things that come to mind at a particular moment. I had a leisurely drink in the dining room with my notebook. Painted nails with the gel nail polish I brought with me. Made phone calls, getting in touch with all the people on my list to speak to. Connected to some strangers also staying at the hotel. Still with plenty of time till the evening, I went out into the heat. The park was just around the corner from the hotel, very handy. I bought myself an ice-cream from the kiosk at the entrance. A Middle-Eastern-looking salesman, who spoke decent English, enquired whether I spoke Russian. Indeed! I made my way down the garden path and settled on the bench not too close to the kids’ playground and not near the trash bins, conveniently placed next to some benches. I took out my notebook and a pen, sat comfortably with my back against the seat, crossed leg over leg, slowly unwrapped the Cornetto and began the process of indulging. The little kids passing by were openly staring at me. Perhaps, they also wanted an ice-cream.
My creative writing teacher, Claire Gaskin, tells her students to allocate time every day to do nothing. Does she suggest that we be lazy or idle? Of course not. It is just that to become a good writer, one need to learn to be still, to learn to observe and take in. In a constant need to do things we turn into robots with our feelings and experiences buttons switched off, mechanically performing tasks and chores. One day in class we were studying ‘Ardea’, a novella by Freya Matthews. In the words of the main heroine she feels full of life to just “sit on the porch and just gaze and gaze. At the sky. At the clouds. At the birds that come to the birdbaths…… to look at the trees, at which ones are flowering, who’s pollinating the flowers, who’s eating the pollinators”. However, “it’s not enough just to observe the world. One also has to sing it. To sing back, to answer the song (Freya Mathews, Ardea, p.38).
The art of doing nothing is about listening. To yourself mostly and to the world. Some would call it meditation. Mindfulness has become a fashionable word over the last few years, a technique taught to focus one’s attention on a specific thought, or a feeling, or a process. In our hectic contemporary world, we forget how to experience life rather than keeping it in perpetual motion. We forget how to listen. Too many sounds surround us. Not easy to distinguish that one special sound that speaks to you only.
The art of doing nothing is about silencing your body, holding the breath, quieting the brain cells. That opens up ears. Breathing in and breathing out. Focusing on breath only. That is hard, because little parts in the brain keep doing their running. They don’t know how to stop. This process reminds me of a squirrel placed on a wheel. It wants to stop, it is exhausted, but the moment its paws make the slightest move, the wheel starts turning and the squirrel’s feet are running on their own.
It is difficult to stop the movement in our heads and, perhaps, we should not. While the wheels in the brain are turning we are alive. But maybe, we can slow down to a soft, gentle walk among the trees, enjoying the scenery, the smells, and the warmth of sun. Listening to the trees. What are they saying? Or feeling? Hugging a tree. How old is it? What is it trying to tell you? Was it here before you were born? And flowers. Wild. Is there a specific order of them growing in the grass or do they randomly appear in different places? A little dog is walking in front of its owner on a leash. It comes close to smell your friendliness. You don’t mind even though you are afraid of dogs. And then you are left alone on the park’s bicycle path. Here is a bench. Have a seat. Settle comfortably with your back rested, close your eyes and smell life.