Counting Clouds and Staying Up Late: Musings on Freedom and Being Busy

This weekend is my three-month France-iversary; I can’t believe how quickly the time is flying by. When I was thinking back over my first three months, I remembered something that a friend from my old job told me: “It takes three months to decompress from life.” He told me that back in February, and I laughed it off and basically told him that he was crazy, that I’d be lounging by an ancient fountain built by a Medici with a glass of wine in hand as soon as I hit French soil, not a care in the world. And this prediction came partially true; as soon as I landed in France I immediately took my jetlagged self out for a glass of wine at a place that just so happened to be located next to a fountain. (Probably not built by a Medici, but lovely just the same.)

But the “not a care in the world” part of that statement is absolutely not true, because I still remember exactly what I was thinking as I sat there on that first day, alone, with my glass of wine: “What. The fuck. Have I done?” Mixed with a little bit of “Now what do I do?” and “I wonder what everyone’s doing back in San Francisco?” And then, slightly panicked, “What time is it in San Francisco?” I’m ashamed to admit it, but I think there was also even a stray “I need to start emailing contacts tomorrow for freelance work” in that first-day thought bubble. Yep, on my first day of my year of not working in France, I thought about work. My new agenda-less life had me in a panic.

Then, last week, I read this article in the New York Times called “The Busy Trap” and it hit me in the gut, because even though my first three months here have been absolutely incredible, better than I ever dreamed, I’ve still been the same old upstanding and responsible me. Up at 8 for 9 am yoga every day. Hustling freelance assignments. Researching and writing said freelance assignments. Checking things off my Paris to-do list like a woman possessed, and feeling guilty for not having checked more off. Giving my days structure. So I can get things done.  If I weren’t me, I’d want to punch me in the face.

But I haven’t been getting everything done. I didn’t just come here to fulfill a dream to live in Paris; I also came here to (I’m saying it out loud which means I’m now sort of accountable, but here goes) write a book. About my mom and I guess sort of about me as it relates to her. I’ve never written anything that long and honestly I have no real clue how to write a book other than to just sit down and do it. But because I’ve busied myself with the tasks reminiscent of my old money-making, Monday-through-Friday way of life, I haven’t written as much I’d like on it. I haven’t “had time.” Which is a really jackass-ian thing for a person who doesn’t have a job to say.

So two weeks ago, I started a little experiment. It will sound crazy to everyone for different reasons; the people in the Busy Trap will think one thing, those who have mastered the art of leisure will think it’s crazy that it took me so long to do it. But here goes: I write when the inspiration hits, which is usually between 11 pm and 3 am. So goodbye 9 am yoga, hello afternoon yoga or a run through the Tuileries. Freelance assignments will get done when I do them – they no longer get priority. I see the things on my Paris to-do list when I’m not writing, eating, or exercising away the food I’ve eaten. Basically, I do whatever I want, when I want to do it. Writing is my first priority; the rest falls into place around it.  And because I hit a writing wall after about 3 or 4 hours, all this takes about 6.5 hours a day.

Saturday, I sat in the square at Place de la Bastille watching the people go by for about 30 minutes, which doesn’t sound like much until you consider that I didn’t check my phone, I didn’t take out anything to read, I didn’t have any other stimuli; I simply sat on a bench and watched people. Today, I took a break from writing in the park and stared at the clouds and into a babbling fountain for probably about 40 minutes.  It was fantastic.

I realize that my 2012 life is a luxury most people never have. I have freedom like I’ve never had it before and I’m so grateful for it. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about my mom; how I wish I could thank her for what she’s giving me right now, how I wish I could call her and tell her about the pastry I ate or the shoes I bought (75 percent off – she’d be so proud) or what the enormous Paris sky looks like when a storm’s coming in. She would love it. Every second of it.

Two hours before I found out my mom was dead, I was sitting in my office, looking at my vacation calendar for the coming year, plotting out my days off with my new company and how I’d now get to go visit my mom more, now that we’d all worked so relentlessly and our company had finally been bought and I had shiny new vacation days to burn and more opportunity to take them. But it was too late.

I won’t lie, not being busy makes me feel exactly like that article said: like I’m not very important. I hate to admit that, but it’s true. Every day, though, I become a little bit better at doing nothing, or as the Italians called it in (dare I even bring up this polarizing movie) Eat Pray Love, dolce far niente. The space of nothingness time has given me a whole new idea for how to frame and write my book; I’ve had an idea for a business, and two other ideas for writing projects — and I actually have time to think about these things, unlike before, when I was working, when ideas made it into my brain but got pushed out immediately because there was too much else to focus on.

I said before that I knew in my gut that moving to the other side of the world was the right thing to do, even though I couldn’t (and still can’t completely) articulate why. The writer of the Times story says this, which makes a lot of sense: “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness.” Maybe one of the lessons of my time here is to teach me that it’s okay to do nothing every once in a while, for a few minutes or for a whole year. Maybe I need to learn to be okay with a little emptiness.

I suppose the moral of all this is that we should all stop feeling bad when we do nothing. After all, think about what you might solve with a little space. And if you have nothing to solve, just start counting clouds. I bet something good will come to you.

Happy 4th of July, everyone. Go get your freedom on.