I love reading. If you know me, you know that I am one of those people who believes that one of the cornerstones of every home – my interior design strategy, if you’d like to get fancy about it all – ought to involve bookshelves and of course, books. In fact, the bookshelves are negotiable, because you can get creative about using other “stuff” to function as “holders and presenters” of books.
I am not one of those people who believe in buying books for decoration alone, however. Books are meant to be read, discussed, given away after several glasses of wine and a passionate discussion about the theme covered in a beloved text, re-read and referred to when the main memory fails and only a waft of recollection remains, along with a clear visual of the design of the book cover, if not the title of the book itself.
I tell you this as a precursor to how I stumble across quotes. In books. And the quote that quite literally stopped me in my tracks on Saturday and that may change my life if it keeps weaseling its way into my brain is this:
“Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” ― Socrates
One minute I was thoroughly enjoying Michael Finkel’s tale of Christopher Knight’s 20+ years living alone in the woods in his book, “The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit “, and then I was pondering the barrenness of a busy life.
Barrenness. Busy, Life.
Powerful words. And ones that I instantly knew to be true. I can say this as someone who seems to have created an extraordinarily busy life.
I am constantly coming up with new ideas and instead of letting them be, I turn them into projects, push them into the world, force them to live and breathe, and sometimes they survive long enough to continue without me when I abandon them for the next interesting idea. I run four very different “businesses” (all under my name, but all carefully branded with vastly different audiences and offerings) in Austria alone, another in the UK, and a dormant company in South Africa. I organize several events every week to bring people together or to market new projects. I volunteer. I have a couple of retained projects that take up time. I write a few blogs, am learning (endlessly learning) three instruments, speak to my sister every day, deal with family dramas in South Africa and Austria, and have a variety of other hobbies like gardening and sauce-making and sewing that get whatever attention I have at the time.
Oh. And I’m married. To the most amazing and infinitely tolerant man. Who ought to have been at the top of the list with the tag “spending time with my husband”, but who instead seems to appear at the end of this long list of busy “things to do” that I have created for myself. Priorities, right?
The question is: is the busy-ness fulfilling?
Well, that was the question I asked myself.
Sometimes it’s nice to be busy. It’s a bit of a status symbol in today’s busy world. It gives me options –if I don’t like A, not to worry because I can fall back on B or C, and if it all goes to hell in a handcart, that’s okay because I can find ways to be busy again.
In reality, though, as soon as I saw the word “barren” in the same sentence as “busy life”, my tired brain did a little leap.
Because in reality, being busy doesn’t make me happy, although it’s stimulating and exciting and energizing.
Given the choice of being busy or…
…sitting beside the river with a book, my sun hat and a cup of tea, watching the people go by, either alone or with my husband, sharing a bit of eye contact and dipping into my book or exchanging a sentence or two…
Well. I’d choose the latter. Every single time.
Given the choice of trying to market and manage 5-6 businesses, multiple projects and life or…
…choosing only one business, one side project, one hobby and giving them each attention but not so much attention that I spend my waking hours making lists of things to do…
Well, I’d choose the latter, if only I was brave enough to whittle things down.
Becoming aware of the barrenness of a busy life
Perhaps this quote is the much-needed kick-up-the-backside that I’ve needed.
For years I’ve talked about focus, and when my dad died, I decided that I would streamline my life, my work, my plans. This lasted for about two months where I evaluated all my interests in a semi-crisis state! And even more recently, I was thinking about this in terms of social media accounts – what right-minded individual needs 20+ social media accounts that they seldom use?!
Coming across the wise words of Socrates has certainly made me think, but this time, I have decided to act. I’m working on a plan. I hope to update you soon.
In the meanwhile
How’s your life looking? Barren and busy? Just full enough to be fulfilled?
I hope it’s the latter. And if not, I hope that this quote gets you thinking, too.
Have you ever heard of Lorraine Hansberry? No? Me neither, until earlier today.
I was listening to one of my current favourite narrators, Adjoa Andoh, read “The Devil That Danced on the Water: A Daughter’s Memoir” by Aminatta Forna. The book is not what I was expecting when I clicked “buy”: admittedly, I purchased it not because of the author, but because of the narrator, and although it’s non-fiction, I’ve enjoyed it.
Aside from gaining a better understanding of Sierra Leone’s history from the perspective of the author, today I learned that Lorraine Vivian Hansberry was the first black female author to have a play performed on Broadway. On March 11, 1959, her play “A Raisin in the Sun” appeared on stage, and at the time became that youngest American playwright (at 29) and only the fifth woman to receive the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play.
Forna included a quote from the book in “The Devil That Danced on the Water”, and it struck a chord with me.
“It isn’t a circle—it is simply a long line—as in geometry, you know, one that reaches into infinity. And because we cannot see the end—we also cannot see how it changes. And it is very odd that those who see the changes—who dream, who will not give up—are called idealists…and those who see only the circle we call them the “realists”!”
— Asagai to Beneatha, Act III. In Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun. With an introduction by Robert Nemiroff. NY: Vintage, 2004.
Asagai says this Beneatha after she loses faith in the idea of progress (in the context of the book). She says:
“And where does it end?
An end to misery! To stupidity! Don’t you see there isn’t any real progress, Asagai, there is only one large circle that we march in, around and around, each of us with our own little picture in front of us – our own little mirage that we think is the future.”
— Beneatha to Asagai, Act III. In Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun. With an introduction by Robert Nemiroff. NY: Vintage, 2004.
There are certainly days where I think that there’s no point. There is no point in talking about gender equality, or social justice, or trying to make racists see that we’re all just human, or in contemplating the world in which we live and trying to make it a little better through whatever means I have, because ultimately humans are stupid. We seem unable to learn lessons from our all-too-bloody history. In spite of our clever scientists and extraordinary body of learning, the masses – regardless of colour and often regardless of wealth and education – remain ignorant. As a species, we do seem to go around in circles, going down the path of peace and progress, then regressing into a period of war and regression.
But now, when that depressing cloud of negativity hovers, I can simply think of Asagai’s quote, and in particular, this:
“And because we cannot see the end—we also cannot see how it changes.”
I feel reassured that, although we can’t see the end, it’s still worth doing what seems to be the right thing for “people and planet”, even if on the surface, it doesn’t seem to make a difference.
Here’s to being an idealist.
And yes, I’ve now bought the play and look forward to reading it tonight in bed!
I’m a big supporter of literacy projects, whatever the language, and whilst oral storytelling imparts a number of literacy skills, the ability to actually read is fundamental, and often something that readers take for granted.
With literacy in mind, I thought I’d share something that I read on the BBC today, a story about a woman named Florence Cheptoo who lives in an isolated rural village near Chesongoch, in Kenya. As a child – especially a girl-child living in a rural location – education wasn’t considered particularly important, which meant that at the age of 60, Mrs Cheptoo had managed to raise a family, run a subsistence farm and be a contributing part of the “global village”, all without being able to read.
This all changed when, at the age of 60, her granddaughter brought home books from her school’s lending library, and Mrs Cheptoo realised that she couldn’t help her read. Teachers began adult literacy programmes, and for the first time in her life, Mrs Cheptoo can do things that many of us take for granted, like:
- Learn more about the medicine she takes
- Read newspaper headlines and find out about the world beyond her village
- Read maps
- Sign contracts with her own name
- See if she was being cheated in written contracts, or with payments
- Read the Bible and read storybooks for the first time
- Read her grandchildren’s school reports
Reading about what this woman has done in her life without being able to read, and what she has the potential to do now that she can, is something that’s both inspiring and re-affirming.
In some parts of the world, we seem to have gone straight from no education or limited formal education, resulting in people who can live happy lives, but who can’t read, which means that they miss out on many of the benefits of self-learning that reading brings – being able to read about whether your politician is a corrupt so-and-so, for example, of whether your child is lying about the contents of a teacher’s letter.
On some level I can’t help but wonder whether the technological revolution is all a bit useless in places where people don’t have the ability to read.
Perhaps, along with all the technology exports we also need to think about how to bring reading skills to the masses. Because it’s tough to navigate Google or buy something online or take an online course if you’re not sure how to read or write – a shame for people wanting to take part in the consumer market, and possibly devastating for the people and companies investing in commercial and altruistic products and who want to reach the vast markets in areas where literacy hasn’t previously been valued.