Well, it’s week four … or is it week five? Either way, I have yet to start writing that novel. Nor have I baked bread. Helpful souls keep posting lists of big books or classic movies that might fill my empty hours while a single thin thriller has sat half-read on my nightstand for a month.
I am one of the lucky ones; I am working. My self-employed husband is hustling, and our teenage son, who would rather be gourmet cooking or learning to drive, emerges regularly from the basement to rant about the frustrations of distance learning. He recently told his father it was easier for him because he was used to working at home, to which my husband replied through gritted teeth: “Not with three people in the house.”
Our days have become a blur of deadlines and video conferences, dog walking, cooking and house cleaning, ever more house cleaning, interrupted by trips to the grocery store planned as though Loblaws were a beachhead in Normandy. We have begun to feel like some preindustrial family workshop where everybody pitches in to create a bit of product and a lot of survival. It’s not unhappy, but it certainly doesn’t include spare time.
After the sick and their caregivers, the people with whom I truly sympathize in this period of isolation are those stuck at home with young children. No daycare, no playgrounds, no play dates. But at least the tots have the reassuring comfort of a daily schedule … if Tiger Mom is in charge. Working parents with preschoolers tell me they are lucky to sneak in two hours of office time a day. The old jokes about work-life balance have been weirdly inverted, and single parents face particularly cruel punchlines.
And yet, when we the busy turn to social media – 280 characters is about the most our fractured attention spans can fathom – all we find are crusty sourdough loaves and demanding exercise routines. The pandemic is exacerbating many divides, not least of them the one between the overwhelmed and the underemployed.
Before any of this happened, leisure was the great North American fantasy, more desirable yet more elusive than anything, perhaps even wealth. Certainly, money doesn’t seem to guarantee leisure, any more than it can buy the proverbial happiness; it can take work to accumulate wealth, and mainly the rich just seem to acquire more things to look after. Where’s the remote for the fourth TV set? Who has time to make those bookings for Barcelona? We’d all agreed that those 1960s predictions of a future where excessive leisure was a major social problem are one big joke … until now.
And yet I wonder if the new yogis, budding pastry chefs and enthusiastic book-clubbers are really experiencing leisure as they humblebrag about their at-home achievements or seek out some more Netflix recommendations. Actors, waiters, hairdressers, chiropractors, dental hygienists, flight attendants, retail workers – they haven’t achieved leisure. They have had idleness thrust upon them. I suspect it feels different; unemployment is a great time-waster, leaving the worker who has been abandoned by the job market sleeping late, watching soap operas and eating junk food. Time itself is a bugbear for all of us – busy, idle or somewhere in between. After all, time is the one sure thing that stands between a human being and death.
My favourite guilty pleasure, snatched on a Saturday evening as a few moments of real leisure interrupt the weekend chores, is a glass of white wine and a decorating magazine. Their publishers like to call the content “aspirational.” I prefer the term “time porn.” Inside their glorious houses, the happy owners often pose barefoot, as though, now that those expensive renovations are completed, they might never have to leave a state of perfect at-homeness. Today, the rest of us know better.
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