By all accounts our first child has been an incredibly ‘easy’ baby (I’m now frantically knocking on wood for daring to type that). I guess she is a technically a toddler at eighteen months of age. We have a very short list of areas that Merriam really gives us challenge. One of those areas though is travel because she just does NOT like to sleep in the car. We of course live in a remote area so long drives are just a part of life. My wife Sora is a magician at keeping Merriam entertained while we drive, she even bought her an old television remote at the secondhand store to play with and help her learn numbers and letters. There does inevitably come that time though when we have to try to get Merriam to nap on the road. Sora goes to work with all kinds of tricks and once this process starts, I better not make a peep from the driver’s seat. Once she actually goes to sleep, I am on double probation from any activities that could produce noise. So, time after time, I find myself driving in complete silence. No talking with Sora, no music, no podcasts, no outrageous talk radio, even mindlessly pulling pretzels from plastic is frowned upon. I just drive, and I am bored.
There is always initial frustration with this feeling. Seems wasteful to me that Sora and I could use this time to chat casually or talk over something of importance we have been trying to find time for. I always have one or two podcasts I have been eagerly anticipating. There is no shortage of goings-on in the world of late I try to stay up on. But there I am, jailed from all of that. I huff and accept my fate. I turn to the scenery when road conditions allow. We are fortunate to often be driving through some pretty incredible landscapes. I usually have a thought or two about how I should not be complaining about taking in these views. Then through the hum of tires I suddenly find myself rolling through thoughts that have nothing to do with my surroundings. Somehow, I am now reflecting on something I have read, mulling over a workout an athlete ran recently, or critiquing a botched hunt of mine from last season. From this fertile ground ideas start to grow. I just drive, but now I am creating.
On my last drive of this sort, I had a moment of awareness in the silence; nearly all my new ideas lately had come on these drives. Could it be? Something I had been so annoyed about was actually a positive? I started to brainstorm other times that I had come up with fresh thoughts of late. I did soon identify some others….running (without music or podcasts), during long hours glassing while big game hunting, hiking, splitting wood. All of these are mundane and or repetitive activities carried out in quiet environments. They are, essentially, boring. Boredom was fueling my creativity, seemingly more than any other factor. This is of course not groundbreaking in the least. The link between boredom and creativity is thoroughly examined in the world of psychology and there is much out there to read on this. Still, realizing the unmistakable clarity of this correlation in my own life did offer an element of surprise.
Most of us probably remember as kids, disdaining boredom. It was the WORST. We wanted to be entertained, captivated, engaged with. We still do. We do not seek boredom any more as adults as we did as kids. In fact, when a boring opportunity presents itself, we tend to run away from it like wildfire. We quickly grab our phones and click on our favorite social media icon, check the news feed, or roll back through messages. If we think we could be headed for a lengthy stretch of boredom, we opt for more serious measures like podcasts or binge wathcing our favorite show. The only difference between our relationship with boredom as kids and as adults is it is a hell of a lot easier fix now. We can instantly escape that unsettling feeling, rather than having to rely on our parents or teachers to present another activity. But what happened when we were kids if adults did not remedy our boredom or were not around to do so? Well, probably a fair amount of whining but eventually we came up with a new use of our time! No guarantees that new activity would be safe or productive or even legal, but we did eventually find something. We got creative.
When I was ten years old, my parents both worked so in the summer I would be home during the day with my older high school and college aged siblings coming and going throughout the day. I was never alone for more than a few hours at a time but was often left for shorter periods. My parents were notorious to do listers. My friends were scared to come over because they would be put to work. I learned young to work fast though. I would knock out the items on my list as fast as I could to free up time each day to play as I chose. One day my mom left a shorter list than usual, and I was free and clear early in the day. I went outside to ride my bike and ran into my buddy Johnny from a few houses down. We first sought out some of our other friends to play basketball or kick the can, a favorite game in our neighborhood. Nobody else was free to play so we were soon…..bored. After the usual ‘I don’t know, what do you want to do’ game, the idea finally came to me. ‘Let’s build a fort!’ Johnny quickly replied, ‘we have a fort.’ True, we did, but I was talking about a whole other level of fort building. I presented my plan to dig and entire under ground fort. My concept was simple, but admittedly ambitious. We would dig six feet wide, six feet across, six feet down. Then we would construct a roof of wood and bam, we would be living in the earth. We had time, it didn’t need to be done all in one day, but this day offered us a great chance to get a good start. We peddled for my garage as fast as we could and dug out every sort of shovel that could be found.
We chose the very back of our yard for our dwelling, in a sort of unused area next to our compost pile but out of the lawn which I knew was off limits. We went to work. For a couple of ten-year-old kids we made strong progress. We were over a foot down across our measured length and width in no time, this was going to be AWESOME. I remember my brother coming home from football practice or something and shouting out to us from the back deck, inquiring as to what the hell we were doing. ‘Just building a fort!’ He shrugged his shoulders and disappeared back into the house. We kept working, our minds whizzing as we talked about our future adventures that would be launched from our underground lair. Then Johnny’s shovel hit something firm. He struck it again and asked me what I thought it was. ‘Just a big root’, we had already cut through plenty of them. I told him to jump on the shovel with both feet, he did, and the shovel cut through. As he pried our root up out of the dirt with his shovel both of us quickly realized this did not look like most roots. It was not a root at all, but a thick cable of some sort.
A quick assessment of the situation led us to an easy decision to break for lunch. We retreated inside, got some food, and hunkered down hoping nothing would come of our cable-root confusion. Time passed, we ate, and we were just about to venture back to the work site when the doorbell rang. A quick look out the window revealed a very official looking man in a company shirt with a name tag. Uh oh. We froze and my brother came up from downstairs to answer the door. We were peering over the couch to the landing below, fingers crossed, eavesdropping. We heard clearly ‘has anyone here been digging in the backyard today?’ Our hearts rose to our throats. My brother said he thought his little brother had been making a fort, and then yelled for me to come to the door. I walked down the stairs like a sentenced man. Who knew what awaited us now? Didn’t take much of an interrogation until we were all out back looking at the already seemingly infamous cable root. ‘Yep, that’s it’ said our cable guy.
By this point he had explained that cable television had been cut off for about a quarter of the Treasure Valley and it was traced to a line interruption precisely behind our house. He turned to us after confirming the damage, ‘do you know how many old ladies missed their soap operas because of you two? This is really serious….’ Tears were welling up in my eyes when my teenage brother cut him off. ‘They are kids, come back and talk to my parents when they are home if there is more to sort out.’ I’ll never forget my brother putting an end to Mr. Cable Guy laying it on us but it was a brief reprieve. I then waited in anguish for my parents to get home from work while a couple more cable guys arrived to repair the cable root. There had been talk of payment and I was old enough to know a sure way to upset my parents was to do something that cost them money. We were not a wealthy family. My heart sunk from my throat clear to my stomach. My parents came home, and my brother and I relayed the story. There were phone calls with the cable company the next day but fortunately my parents didn’t have to pay anything. It was all chalked up to a stern warning. My parents were not hard on me about it, they simply explained if we wanted to dig like that we needed to ask permission. My dad even showed me where we might be more likely to run into cables and pipes in the ground, areas to avoid. My mom was an early childhood educator, creativity was NOT to be stifled.
I think about that whole experience now and wonder, are kids ever bored enough to try something like that? I mean, you must admit if we had not severed television service for 50,000 people that fort could have been epic. I will go to my grave believing in the merits of my idea. Most my creative ambitions did not have nearly as dramatic a demise as the cable root fort. We invented games constantly, we built other forts and bike ramps like crazy, and I experimented in the kitchen from a very early age (ask my siblings about ketchup brownies). All this came of having nothing to do. But what kid would even get there today? They can just go to a screen at the onset of the frustration phase of boredom. They never get to the good part, the fertile ground of creative thought part. Opportunities for boredom are just as prevalent as ever, but it is just so easily remedied now that we rarely get to reap the benefits. We get all the detriment of being bored, the frustration, the annoyance, and the temporary feelings of isolation. However, we end it before our mind gets set free by clearing the constant flow of information and stimulus to which it has grown so accustomed. We rarely get to the good part! Disclaimer here that should be obvious, but boredom is far from the only fertile ground for creativity. Certainly, inspiration can be found in some of that noise we constantly take in. The art of others can undoubtedly stoke our own creative furnace. However, it is not that type of innovative fuel that seems lacking of late.
I have written and spoken much about seeking connection, and this concept is just a next step of that. Take it further than seeking connection with others and activities and the land and your food. Seek boredom! Get in a slow conversation over coffee with an aging relative. Go for trail runs by yourself with no headphones. Garden in silence. Hand chop garlic and onions. Walk up a mountain with only your breath and foot strikes in your ears. Sit, just sit, and watch and listen. Do all of it without a screen to keep your eyes affixed or a voice from far away in your ears. Do it often. Make time for it, be intentional about it. Go find boredom, and if you sit in it long enough you will probably find much more.