Exercises in Tedium.

As a graduate student, I took a poetry course on Keats and Wordsworth, contemporaries in the Romantic period. I knew I wanted to write my thesis on high modernist poetry and poetics, but I was keen to learn more about its forebears and referents — especially since much of modernist poetry positions itself as the aftermath, the detritus, the scattered shambles of a world order that the Romantics seemed so confident would outlive us all.

The course was a slog; the professor horrifying. Whereas the rest of the faculty treated us like adults and were generally lax and even collegial about tardy papers and the like, this professor strode in and began lecturing at 3:00 on the dot with scarcely an introduction. He was a hawkish type, with silver-gray hair and a severity not unlike Severus Snape when you first meet him in Harry Potter. Mr. Magpie claims that as a child, he could tell how angry his dad was by how many fingers he was using when he shook his hand at him in disapproval. One finger was a mild reprimand. All four fingers — “a knife hand,” as he puts it — was a five alarm fire. Let me tell you that this professor lived in a perpetual state of knife-hand fury. On the first day of class, as we collectively performed a line-by-line analysis of one of Wordsworth’s poems, taking turns reading stanzas and then unpacking them in what felt like the longest and tensest two hours of my life, one of my classmates lackadaisically admitted that she had a different version of the book than had been assigned, and so her page numbers were off, and could anyone let her know which stanza we were on?

The air left the room.

I busied myself nervously with my bundle of Le Pens and gridded notebook, looking up only to note that the professor’s eyes had narrowed to pin points. With the unnerving calm of a man about to implode, he suggested that if she hadn’t found it important enough to find the proper text, that perhaps she was in the wrong place.

Place, delivered with a smoldering stare. It was almost as if he needed to bite down on that word to keep himself from unleashing the wrath of god.

Noted, I thought, mentally clearing my schedule to make time for whatever assignment he had on deck — and oh my God. His assignments. I remember most clearly because of the exquisite boredom I suffered at its hands reading multiple draft versions of this drab poem in order to analyze its evolution. I recall thinking on multiple occasions during this and other exercises that Keats must be why most people dislike or dismiss poetry. His language is flowery; his sentiments predictably effusive about the natural world; his syntax in turn disagreeably formal and artificially contorted to accommodate rhyme or scheme.

Earth has not any thing to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;

…are you asleep yet?

“Dull of soul” would I be were I to spend another minute with these couplets.

And yet.

Age rounds the edges, doesn’t it? I look back at this grueling assignment and the no-nonsense professor who issued it with something like reverence. Ah, yes. Just paying my dues. Just doing things the long and hard way because that’s the way you’ve got to do them. Don’t kids have to do things like this anymore? In my day…

And so there is an admittedly irritating sense of nostalgia-streaked smugness when I think back on those experiences.

But there is something else, too.

Tedium. When was the last time I was bored sick? When was the last time I had to wait (a long time) for something? (Aside from awaiting micro’s arrival, which was a different kind of agony altogether.) I mean, when was the last time I was asked to sit and stare at something without any say in it?

The notion intrigues me because I am straining to teach my toddler the concept of waiting. I’m sure this has long been a challenge for parents the world over, as toddlers have no concept of time and an absurd appetite for immediate gratification. But as mini grows up with Prime Now delivering groceries within two hours and the ability to skip a scene or a clip on YouTube with the flick of a finger, I wonder whether my children will struggle with waiting, with boredom, in a way I never did simply because technology had not yet developed mechanisms for on-demand anything. Do you remember thumbing through Delia’s or J. Crew catalogs, placing an order, and then receiving it some fourteen days later? Or — better yet — filling out one of those Scholastic Books forms on the recycled gray paper and then being surprised a month or so later when the books actually arrived? Or having to wait the two minutes for a video cassette to fully rewind before returning it to Blockbuster? Or the irritating dial and screech of 90s-era Internet? Waiting was a part of life. And the attendant boredom, too.

I find myself looking down at mini while we are commuting back from school on the Subway and taking bizarre pleasure in noting that she has nothing to occupy her in her stroller but her own curiosity and imagination. “This is good,” I think.

I feel the same way about Church. I do trot out activities to occupy her in the pew because there are other, prayerful souls to consider in close proximity. But there are many moments where she hangs cat-like off the back of the pew, or stares glassily at the tall people around her, or otherwise signals that she is not entertained by her surroundings. Again — “Good,” I think.

Right?

It is good for children to sit in quiet boredom, hands unoccupied? Isn’t it? Or is this an inheritance from my own childhood that I am passing along simply because it was part of the fabric of my life? (Isn’t there a saying about idle hands and the devil…?)

But no. Boredom, tedium can be blessings. I am convinced as I think back on especially my Keats/Wordsworth experience that boredom tilled the soil of my already active imagination, planting in it images and references that ripple through my consciousness now quietly and without detection. I did not care for the poetry, but reading it was another step into the wideness of language and metaphor, and the possibility of discriminating between the good and the bad therein. That is to say: as I sat and stared at the overwrought tapestry of Romanticism, I developed a prehensility with my own budding interests in literature. I was 23, but I had not yet cultivated a sense of discernment in my literary tastes. Everything was good, it seemed to me. Who was I to judge the quality of a book? And how? I only knew that I reacted pleasantly to some books and trudged through others, but I presumed those responses to be the jejune knee-jerk of a dim-witted child. When provoked as to whether I liked something or other, I would default to the positive, presuming any colorlessness in my actual interaction with the book to be illegitimate or juvenile. It was not truly until the arduousness of graduate school that I developed the intellectual confidence to say: “This feels good to me, and this is why.” And so staring at four barely-different versions of Keats’ poem forced me to say: “This does not feel good. And this is why…”

And so when I see mini glazing over en accidie, am I wrong to think of her boredom as a long-term analeptic? That these moments of nothingness will serve in the long run as prompts to create, to wonder, to muse?

I hope so.

Because we will be continuing in these exercises of intermittent tedium until further notice.

Post Scripts.

+I have long been obsessed with this fur-trimmed Saks Potts coat. That is all.

+Constraint and the unseen doula. (Or, what I learned from one of the best classes I took at UVA.)

+I just adore this dress.

+Who is in your personal canon? Rest assured neither Keats nor Wordsworth make mine.

+Love these little (inexpensive) knit rompers for babies!

+My plaid top is on sale!

+TheRealReal is such a great place to score gently-used Burberry coats for little ones.

+Just bought mini her first oxford.

+A great every day boot for a little girl.

+What I want to be wearing RN.

+Two blue sweaters I’m eyeing: this and this (both under $50!)

+I absolutely adore these napkins. (Helloooo woman of substance!)

+OOO these shearling-trim Sperry boots are adorable! (And on sale!)

+I wore these earrings SO much last summer and they are absurdly discounted right now!

+More great life lessons here and here.

6 Comments

  1. I love this piece and the thoughts within it — I agree with you and both of the other commenters that some boredom is good and necessary to develop our creativity and imagination! I think back to childhood and the moments I spent on my own were some of my most cherished — walks in the woods, listening to the radio & discovering new music, naming all of my stuffed animals using my French dictionary (haha!) … I could go on, but I won’t — just know that I feel you!

    xx

  2. I am an only child, so my perspective is a bit different, but I was frequently bored as a child (no siblings to play with!). I’m so glad that I experienced so much boredom because I think it taught me a) how to entertain myself/play independently and b) to be much more thoughtful/introspective. Even now I think being bored occasionally is good for us!

    1. So interesting — hadn’t thought about it from an only child perspective, but that makes complete sense. I am sure you are both resourceful and comfortable with quiet/silence as an adult in ways that are super helpful! xx

  3. Actually, studies show that “boredom” (and allowing our children to experience it) creates room for their imaginations to work! Which leads to better problem-solving skills and longer attention spans. Working with preschoolers now, I see a severe lack of both of these — they only want constant stimulation and entertainment. You’re doing exactly the right thing for her — onward, mama!

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