BREAKING NEWS: It's beautiful to be idle
More than once I’ve appeared in a dream with Sherlock Holmes, and I’m always just there in his office, a silent and unnoticed witness to his pacing and musing (much like the way Harry and Dumbledore visit old memories in the Pensieve). The setting is as you’d expect: darkly wooden, the smell of pipe-smoke, fragments of explanation or exclamation being cast in Watson’s general direction, the accents British and proper. Is it frustrating to stand there full of unasked questions? Of course, though you must know how nice it is to share such a private space with my favorite detective.
Last night I woke up differently, but also because of Sherlock Holmes: I had fallen asleep reading A Case of Identity – don’t get me STARTED on how professionally unethical he is in this one, redeemed in part by this lovely line: “It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important” – and somewhere around 3am I must have rolled over, my book falling to the floor waking me up with the slightest of thuds.
So I did what I do: turned on a soft light, played some quiet music, noticed the red-to-yellow-to-green from the traffic light outside play off one of the walls in my little kitchen while I waited for the kettle to boil, and made my way back to bed. I read a bit about the eclipse, finished a podcast about the eclipse, somehow found my way into an article about Walt Whitman’s continual revisions of Leaves of Grass, and wound up – at long last – with Sherlock Holmes.
There’s something irreplaceably beautiful about the middle of the night or the early morning. Yes, it’s quiet, and yes, there’s a peace to it (or often not: the turbulent, interrupting, sleepless mind can also be quite tormenting or difficult), but however it’s cast, you’re now awake when the world is not. And so there’s always the slightest sense of trespass, perhaps, where you’re treading on time that has categorically been roped off – it shouldn’t really belong to you, you shouldn’t be open-eyed with the lights on, but here you are with it, a loner in the middle of the night, so do as you like.
And what glorious moments they can be. I use them to write, sometimes, or to run. I used to swim in them, and did so some mornings in Greece, but haven’t been in a pool for a while. Occasionally I’ll check-in with my perpetually differently time-zoned parents, and sometimes I just stick to my bed and my books. I used to take the chance to send emails, but I prefer less phone and computer time these days. When I was in Austin, I used to lie there and listen to the distant trains. I’ve been doing crosswords recently, too, and the other morning I took a few quizzes where I did things like name assassinated presidents or find countries that start with the letter “E” on a map or match a specific character to a specific book or a number others involving different flags and capitals. Sometimes I have this Tigger-esque bounciness, ready to chat and play a bit, and other times I’ve got more of Kanga’s calm docility. This morning is was certainly the latter.
One of the joys of my copy of Sherlock Holmes’s complete works is the Introduction, a lovely bit of writing by Christopher Morley. I’ve read it a few times now, because it talks about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and how he wrote what he did, my favorite part being the quote you see above. In essence, it was those idle (professionally failing, even?) gaps in Conan Doyle’s day that gave him room and space to forge his legacy, creating one of literature’s most famous and enduring characters – one I occasionally dream about, apparently. In a world that now blindly worships the concept of “busyness” and equates full calendars with accomplishment, there’s something nice about knowing how holed that logic is. So much magic can happen in those in-between moments, and so many of those in-between moments are brushed aside, diminished as empty or vacant.
The other day I was walking past a shop that had a television in the window showing one of those patently damaging 24-hour news channels, I forget which. Amidst the scrolling text at the bottom was the bolded, “BREAKING NEWS: DON’T PANIC,” the story being about the de-escalated North Korean threat towards Guam. If I could offer the absolute counter-example to the quiet moments I’ve spent this entire post describing, it would be every single thing about that. The forced urgency. The manipulation of calmness into something fraudulently important. The almost unbelievable earnestness with which someone could seriously stare into your face (albeit, from behind a camera) and assertively tell you not to worry about something you almost certainly weren’t considering as you were strolling to your new favorite bagel shop. And really, how can we genuinely overlook the nearly Orwellian “BREAKING NEWS: DON’T PANIC” edict? But, such is the way we are now fed, and such is the way we now consume.
The sadly tacit recognition among these networks, as with social media, too, is that in-between moments are done with. That we must take them and turn them into something – anything – else. And is there a more addicting proposition? One, I must admit, that lures me in time and time again. And really lures me in, guiltily guiltily.
This is not so much a castigation of the way things are, but more of a personal defense of idle moments. The mid-night nothingness. The long, aimless walks that somehow find their own course and destination. The chance to sit – phoneless and across the table from someone equally phoneless – and chatter away. I don’t know. This is starting to sound quite preachy, and that’s not what I want.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Leave it to Mary Oliver to (1) more musically describe what I’m trying to (it is a type of prayer, isn’t it?) and, (2) have a decently powerful invocation of mortality that really underscores the importance of it all. The last two lines of this poem – I’ve left them out – are her most quoted, but it’s these that really catch me. Idle and blessed, yes please.
I’m sitting outside and am about to put on my special glasses and watch the eclipse. From where I am right now, there are dozens of people on either side of the street doing the same thing: glasses on, looking up, mouths slightly agape, words predictable: oh wow wow and amazingggg and sooooooo coooooool and things like that. One woman has her pinhole-box out and is really getting people excited: take a look! Take a look! I'm sure there will be some BREAKING NEWS about all that happened today, but to me the real story is the absolute opposite: for a few fixed and fleeting and beautiful moon-staring minutes, the country seems to be celebrating idleness.
And to that I'd ask, as Mary Oliver does: Tell me, what else should I have done?