The Privilege of Being Busy

This Week’s Bit of String: Haunted by to-do lists

When I worked in a care home, we had a particularly restless but bedbound dementia patient. She constantly asked, ‘Where have we gotta go? What have we gotta get out and do?’ And sometimes she’d say, ‘Can I just stop here a bit?’

We were told she’d been a highly reputable nurse to newborn babies. No doubt she devoted countless long shifts to her calling. She had no family of her own apart from a sister wandering the nursing home halls, stealing biscuits to feed her stuffed toy cat.

No matter how many times we reassured our resident that she didn’t have to go anywhere, she repeated her questions. She was haunted by the ghosts of her busy working life.

Today we don’t need dementia to be haunted–we have social media. Facebook pings ‘Event’ reminders, other mums depict homemade concoctions on Pinterest, and other writers’ word counts race upward on Twitter.

None of this is inherently bad. I, too, indulge in public boasts after particularly hard work: Busy Brags. I’m also ready to ‘Like’ your Busy Brags. As a writer, I’m interested in the minutiae of daily life as well as the big events, so I enjoy hearing what people get up to in a day.

Busy = Lucky

What I have to make sure not to do, however, is act as though I’m busier than everyone else.

Some kids (and adults) work ridiculously long hours in sweatshops. Some people work multiple jobs to ensure they can pay medical bills. Yet most of the Busy Brags I see in my social media bubble are about the nightmarish turmoil of preparing birthday celebrations for small offspring, or rushing back to work after an adventurous holiday. And I totally get that. But we’ve chosen this. So brag away, but don’t complain.

Cooking homemade meals and going on active holidays are choices. Even going to the gym regularly is a choice, albeit a healthy one, and writing is a choice even though it feels like a necessary response to what ranges from a nagging voice to rampant hunger. We may be utter grouches when we don’t have time to write, or exercise, but those are still privileges and most of us have enough moments of leisure, however small, that we can choose to prioritise things differently if we really want to.

Busy = Important

Fun fact: guinea pigs don’t yawn just to get oxygen to their furry wee brains when they’re sleepy. They yawn to show their teeth and scare off rivals or predators. Similarly, our society has transformed tiredness into a badge of honour. Whoever’s the most tired must have done the most work, and is therefore the most indispensable.

Watch out: fierce! Our guinea pigs, George and Fred.

I think most of us love being busy, and not just because we can brag about it on social media. To occupy our time means to take possession of it, that middle syllable of occupy coming from the same Latin word for grasp or seize, as in Carpe Diem. By filling Time’s wearying, wily moments, we feel we’ve mastered it in some way.

And of course we like quantifiable achievements so we can list in no uncertain terms how we’ve occupied, invaded, placed a firm stake in a day. Steps or miles run. Loads of laundry completed, meals packed into the freezer. Words typed. For me, I like being able to tick these off on a list. My day job is similarly oriented around clear targets: accounts billed, calls taken, cases resolved. Hours of sleep foregone.

Busy = Easy

These achievements are exciting and addictive. But am I the only one who has developed a fear, almost an aversion, to the incredibly important things that aren’t quantifiable? Spending proper time with people, caring for struggling loved ones. More than anything in the world I want to be there every second for my family when they’re hurting. But when I’m juggling office targets and word counts and submission deadlines and fitness goals the rest of the time, it’s hard to shut off that achievement addiction when a genuine crisis, something you really have to pour time into, comes up.

Moments meant to be cradled, not seized

The kind of Busy we brag about on social media is easy. It can even be a cop out. Writers will be familiar with the memes and jokes about how clean our houses get when we have writers block, because housework is straightforward and simpler than wrestling an unwieldy plot. But tricky as finding resolution for our characters can be, that’s still many times easier than getting friends and family through real-life drama. And entertaining readers sometimes comes more naturally than entertaining our own kids.

Looking back to our patient who had been a nurse, I wonder if on some level she was aware of how repetitive she was. Maybe her questions were her way of asserting her value in a somewhat demeaning situation; a reminder that she once had gone places and done things. Sadly, she never made a single reference to the babies and children she’d looked after, as if only the business remained and not the lives.

If the final stages of my life give me any choice in the matter, I’d like it the other way around. Is it possible to achieve relentlessly but not desperately?

To Speak or Not to Speak

This Week’s Bit of String: Crying at the Office

On Wednesday I woke from a nightmare just in time to get ready for work. I stayed in bed for a minute, horror seeping through me. But then the lesser stresses of sorting myself and my family for the morning urged me along, and the milder worries of roadwork delays distracted me from my greater panic.

At the office, an email awaited telling me how wrong my calculations were on a complex project that was new to my team. I’d had to find my way with only basic guidelines. The message, with several iterations in bold about how my work was incorrect, stung me and I fled to the bathroom. I could not stop crying.

Ridiculous, I thought. What an overreaction to a critical yet instructive email. That’s when I remembered my nightmare, and my surroundings began to resemble it. The wood grain of the door like 1980s bedroom panelling. The footsteps outside. Then I was really crying.

How could something from three hours ago distress me so much, when I’d been perfectly fine in between? Why didn’t I run out and get one of my lovely colleagues to help?

See Something, Say Something

On Monday I’d read an article about Terry Crews and his fight to be believed regarding a sexual assault he suffered. He continually faces speculation: “Why didn’t you use those big muscles to defend yourself?” “You’re not still upset about that, are you?”

It’s not unlike what Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford dealt with when she testified about her alleged assault from years earlier. “Why are you speaking up now?” “If it was so awful, why didn’t you report it to the police then?”

I’ve had my own experiences, at a younger age and with more trusted loved ones and without breaking away in time. It’s still not something I choose to talk about. The only reason I do now is to answer these questions—first, by flipping them around.

Crouching figure with the subtitle "Illumination"
Papercut art during Window Wanderland in Easton, Bristol

Would you tell someone? Honestly? When you cry, do you like people to watch? Do you want to be witnessed in pain, undressed, or helpless? When you suffer humiliation or betrayal, do you stride up to someone and let them know it happened, be it someone you admire or a stranger in authority? Congratulations if you answered yes to any of those questions. But I doubt many people are truly equipped to do so, especially as a child.

I can’t think of any other crisis after which we mercilessly interrogate the person who survived it. War veterans who hold down jobs and raise kids and reveal decades later the horrors they saw when fighting on the beaches or liberating concentration camps—I certainly hope they’re not greeted with, “Why didn’t you tell us this before? Why should we believe you now?”

When someone dies, we don’t issue their loved ones detailed instructions on how to respond. Have you cried enough? Have you lost your appetite and fasted?  You’re not going to step out of the house without wearing black, are you?

I know sexual assault is a crime and must be reported to protect others. But that perspective is lacking when you’re little. Furthermore, how does society reconcile its accusations of “Wait, that’s what you were wearing? Don’t you think you must have led him on?” with “How could you not tell? Didn’t you realise he’d hurt someone else?” When survivors are shamed for their clothing or behaviour, the incident is implied to be a one-off and there’s no one else to protect.

Calling for Help

It’s not just questions we face when coming forward. After we tell, there are executive decisions made over our heads, of which facility to send us to for “recovery,” of which people we’re now too damaged to be allowed near. And the assumptions that we’ll never be quite right, sometimes viewing us as so tainted by our experiences people presume we’d perpetrate them on younger children. And the vulnerability marking us as targets for other perpetrators.

If someone’s first response to me is, “Did you call for help?” the effect lingers, even if they recover with the standard offering “It wasn’t your fault.” By examining my actions first, they’re assessing my responsibility.

I understand where they’re coming from. They’re actually analysing themselves, wondering, “Would I scream?” When we hear a story, we imagine ourselves as the victim, not the aggressor, because most of us aren’t sexual assaulters. And when someone who hasn’t been through sexual assault hears from someone who has, they’re probably trying to reassure themselves they’d find a way out. When I read stories about genocide, I instinctively wonder, “How would I cope with this? Would I find a way to protect my family?” If I meet a Rohingya or Srebrenica or Rwanda survivor though, I’m not going to blurt, “Couldn’t you have just run away?”

The reasons people might not fight or call for help during a sexual assault are, I surmise, similar to reasons an entire group of people under threat of genocide don’t manage to escape. There’s trust in authority. We are happy to believe we don’t need help; we want to believe we can reason or charm our way through. Then perhaps there’s humiliation, as our rights or clothing are stripped away. There may be carefully planted ideas that no one is available to help. There may be shame and allusion to religious standards. Elizabeth Smart, once a victim of kidnapping and abuse, describes the effects of fear and shame really well. This article about her also has a great quote from survivor Natascha Kampusch on the subject.

Given our knowledge of history, surely it’s indisputable that hell-bent, harmful people exist. Say there’s a needy, greedy perpetrator versus a victim who’s either unsuspecting or has been hurt so many times they think the deserve it. In these cases, the former’s will to exert control overpowers the latter’s will to resist.

In my nightmare early Wednesday morning I went through it all over again, helpless and stuck. But instead of silently regrouping as I did in real life, in my dream I went to find my mother. She was sound asleep, and I crawled up next to her and made myself whisper what had happened. Because my subconscious knows, now, what you’re supposed to do. What everyone says you should have done. But I was desperately hoping she wouldn’t hear.

This was partly to protect her, partly to protect him, partly to preserve my reputation, partly to keep my secret which was the last semblance of control the trauma left me. Those are the reasons.

It’s like when I was hiding in the office bathroom. I sort of wanted someone to notice I was gone and offer a kind word—but I didn’t want them to see me crying. I mean, would you?

And then when the waterworks finally stopped, I went back to my desk and did a tonne of work without any wish to revisit it. I mean, wouldn’t you?

If you’ve had to face similar questions, or if you feel this has helped answer some you might occasionally pose, please do share.

Picture Book Lessons

This Week’s Bit of String: The D-Word

Once upon a time, my brother and sisters and I loved visiting my grandparents in their house of forty years. The AM radio constantly played vintage hits, and yummy smells wafted from the kitchen. There was always a bowl of popcorn in the lounge, between two puffy armchairs, and there was an extra rocking chair, quite small, for us children to take turns in. And while we did, Grammy read to us.

Apparently November was Picture Book Month, which caused me to reflect on my personal favourite, a tiny paperback at Grammy’s called Noisy Nora (Scholastic Book Services edition, 1973). It’s written by Rosemary Wells, who also created Max and Ruby, later making a mint off them, I expect.

Noisy Nora featured cute pictures of an anthropomorphised mouse family, amongst whom Nora was the [seemingly] neglected middle child. The story unfolds in rhyme. Nora attempts to entertain herself while her parents are busy with her siblings, but everything she tries [perhaps intentionally] attracts this refrain of not-so-positive attention:

‘Quiet!’ said her father.
‘Hush!’ said her mum.
‘Nora,’ said her sister, ‘why are you so dumb?’

Now, at this last line, my grandmother would hesitate as if she didn’t want to say the word dumb. So I would shout it in a rare act of rebellion—back then dumb was like a swear to us.

Pages from Noisy Nora
The repeated rebukes of Noisy Nora

Looking back now, I’m sure Grammy didn’t really have a problem with that word.

Evidence A: She once marched off to find a dictionary and read the official definition of contraception when my youngest sister asked.

Evidence B: Grammy told me when I was sixteen and my father (the youngest of her six children) had lost his temper and made me cry, ‘You know, we made some mistakes as parents. He acts this way sometimes because we didn’t help him do what you’re doing now. So go on and let it out.’

I suspect she gave me the job of shouting, ‘DUMB!’ because she knew I needed to let that out. The same way she taught us to make faces and say, ‘Blech!’ when our mother had to give us Robitussin. I asked my mother, more recently, if that had bothered her.

‘Not at all,’ she said, ‘because it made taking medicine more fun for you. That’s why she did it.’

A spoonful of self-expression makes the medicine go down.

Another page from Noisy Nora, as she says: 'I'm Leaving! And I'm never coming back!'
The climactic moment when Nora will make them all sorry.

My Grammy had also been one of ten children herself, in a farming family that had to split up during the Depression to ensure everyone got fed. She loved her brothers and sisters dearly, but maybe she understood about sibling rivalry. I wish I knew whether she thought about her own childhood at all when reading Noisy Nora to me.

Noisy Nora showed me the powerful release just one word can bring. A little story, even populated by mice, could reflect my reality, and it didn’t need to have dragons or princes to be exciting and fun.

What other lessons have we learned from picture books that impact us as writers?

Building Imagination: The book that got me reading (because I was so desperate, at the age of 3, not to wait until someone was available to read it to me) was a picture book version of The Wizard of Oz. Books like that transport characters to extraordinary worlds—even though they’re perfectly ordinary kids. They step into wardrobes, or try playing a board game found in the park, and suddenly anything can happen. Stepping into these worlds is the exact reason we perfectly ordinary writers pick up a pencil and begin a story.

Provoking Sympathy: Picture books make obstacles look exciting, encouraging children to consider new situations they haven’t personally faced. For kids, it doesn’t matter whether a character is a princess or an orphan, black like the ukulele-wielding boy who takes down Abiyoyo or Chinese like the woman who pursues her dumpling into the underworld, an elephant like Babar or a mouse like Nora. They still care what happens, and as writers—and, well, as human beings—that’s nice to revisit.

Fostering Rebellion: Many popular children’s book characters get vindicated, no matter what mistakes they make. Max returns from Where The Wild Things Are to find his dinner ready for him, after all. Curious George and Amelia Bedelia always find ways to save the day after nearly ruining it. These teach us that it’s okay for characters to be flawed; they can still be heroes. I’m pretty sure a lot of us writers find those types of characters even more appealing now that we’re grown up.

The conclusion of Noisy Nora
Nora’s absence teaches her family a lesson, and she is welcomed heartily back from the wilds of the broom closet, despite her awful noise.

Recognising Patterns: Our very earliest picture books—Goodnight Moon, the work of Dr Seuss—introduce to us a sense of rhythm and rhyme, making reading beautiful and musical. Those are important qualities to maintain even when writing prose as an adult. Consider also series such as Madeline and Curious George, in which each book starts the same to reintroduce the protagonist: (‘Twelve little girls in two straight lines…’) These help us develop an understanding of backstory and appreciation for consistency.

Encouraging Expression: Books like Noisy Nora showed me it was okay to have occasional misgivings about sharing attention with my brother and sisters. I would never have used the word dumb at that age, but I could say it through a character. Perhaps that act of ventriloquism helped instigate my love of writing, but I suspect it sprung also from what sheer fun this and other picture books were, and are.

What were your favourite picture books? How do you think they influenced you later in life?