The Burden of Leisure

The first few weeks in a new city are always disorienting: the daze of jetlag, the adaptation of one’s body to the sensations of a new environment, and the mysterious relationship between map and actual place, which is all the more confusing when you have already explored the city on the internet and every street seems a deja-vu because you have walked it on Google street view. What’s even more disorienting is that the drizzly climate here in Scotland tricks me into flashbacks of my childhood in Amsterdam: the gray sky reflected in a duck pond reminds me of Dutch summer, and the smell of dog pee on damp nettles reminds me of certain corners in the Oosterpark.

In short, I’ve been feeling as if I’m suspended in time and place. I don’t know where I am, who I am, or what I’m supposed to be doing. For the past two weeks, every morning I have been waking up with the terrifying feeling that I have to reinvent myself from scratch.

I’m sitting in a cafe near Dina and Miki’s school, trying to combat my morning blues. Now that I finally have the leisure I’ve wanted for years – I just quit my job and scheduled the next three months for enjoying Scotland and resuming all the projects I laid aside because I was too busy – it paralyzes me, of course. When my routines and responsibilities fall away, it takes enormous efforts to motivate myself. At busy times, I complain I don't have time to write and think, but when my time is open and I am no longer spurred on by deadlines, calendars, and obligations everything suddenly seems pointless.

But, maybe, it’s just a matter of getting a cup of coffee into my bloodstream. Sometimes, that’s all I need against morning blues. We all have our drugs to keep us going…

Last week, at the Edinburgh fringe festival, we watched a one-woman cabaret show about the performer’s writer’s block.  (What did I expect with discount tickets…) Apparently, she had had a successful show at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe festival (as proof, she circulated an awards statue among the audience) and was now paralyzed by her own “success.” In a one-hour monologue she reflects on how she had nothing important left to say and how she considered retiring from cabaret (at age 26). It was terribly awkward because the whole show confirmed her premise: if she had indeed nothing to say, why were we listening to her whine about it for an hour. In between the navel gazing, she showed a few glimpses of real comic talent, which made me want to shake her up and tell her - as I want to tell myself now - to get over herself and have fun. Because when you start looking for meaningfulness, as I am doing this morning with my sleepy, empty, jetlagged, un-caffeinated head, you find absolutely nothing. 
 

Footnote:

 Our apartment in Edinburgh, in a stately early-19th century Georgian building in “New Town,” still has the antique calling system for the servants. In the kitchen, which is hidden at the end of a corridor in the back of the house, a panel on the wall displays switches that are activated when a corresponding buzzer is pressed wherever service is required. Although the apartment unfortunately didn’t come with servants, I feel encouraged by a technology and interior architecture dedicated to the facilitation of  perfect leisure.  It shows it can be done: to satisfy a life – no, not just a life, but a whole class of human beings – with meaningful idleness…

And here I am: already in despair during my first week without obligations.