Things That Are Highly Underrated
“Things That are Highly Underrated,” she wrote at the top of the page, the heading for her list, which began as follows: “1. Solitude.”
No matter who it was, people made her feel backed into a corner, like a smoky-eyed possum whose only defense was a hiss. Not that she couldn’t function among people, but the relief she felt in solitude kept her tucked away at home, as it might that very marsupial in its den.
At times she regretted the impossibility of shared solitude—an oxymoron of the popular will—that is to say, solitude, its lax rules, schedules, goals; its nag-less anarchy, free-form choices, guiltless consequences; its silence and sounds and joys—by definition, could be had only when lonely. Insert a second person into the scene and instantly everything was lost: the mushy plop of cooked spaghetti falling off the fork back into the pot; or the crisp snap of fresh broccoli translated for salad; or the unending, unctuous whisper of the distant freeway, interrupted by a moan of wind blowing the reed of an unlatched window—all drop from hearing range, and there you are, tense, deaf to the world and having to talk.
Shared solitude. She had heard of relationships where this happened—“I can be in the same room with him and not realize he’s there; we can be silent together; it’s that good.” But she had never known such a thing herself. Inevitably, she would have to put on her face, try to be entertaining, keep things tidy. The self-consciousness was unbearable. Even with other women —especially with other women— the stress of exposed imperfections, dirt or disarray, or the humility of her ambitions revealed by the shameful out-datedness of it all, her home; in fact, she was lonely with women, those in whom the female ego had been mistaken for self and allowed to be passed off as authentic—oh, the frauds!
2. Global warming
Global is the wrong word. She had to start with the particular, her particulars, that singular, idiosyncratic space she occupied on the planet, her self. So here comes Google—too soon for her—going from global to the particular with amazing speed, satellite-mapping the world—zip...zoom: her country; zip...zoom: her state; zip...zoom: her region; zip zip zip, her city, street, front yard. If and when they can, they will come inside too: “Here is her living room, dining room, kitchen, bedroom...want a closer look? She is there—see?—sitting in bath water. This is what she is doing: reading a subversive book; let us read along with her...” If they can imagine it, they will find a way to do it. They will make brain maps for public viewing, scanning her head, producing MRI-like, remote diagnostics; take readings—heart rate, brain waves, cholesterol—checking for disease. What will it find, this invasion? For one, her allergy to cold. While the planet is warming out there in heart-breaking disarray and loss, the locus of her concern is to stay warm—so bring it on, that heat. Cold brings hives, itching, and, given a sudden dunk in ice water, anaphylactic shock. She is not in solidarity with the polar bears. The less ice the better.
No, bodily warming is her thing. Therefore, she must do all she can to keep the hives and itching at bay. She recycles as little as possible, for example. This, because to recycle would mean an extra trip in the cold, dragging the recycling barrel down to the street with reddened, whelkish fingers.
She hesitated here: This item could as well be listed as Lingering. Loitering. Lentissimo flourishes of heart or body or spirit. To dawdle, to spend time in idleness, undisturbed, unperturbed, just fiddling in the moment—well, it was heaven, but so disdained by most. You didn’t want to try it in public; such is contemptible and suspect. Laws are on the books. Furthermore, it had occurred to her the main event, whatever it was—a painting, essay, win, reward, edifice, book, triumph, knockout, orgasm—was not main at all, but consequential, a result all the better felt, enjoyed, executed, delivered, achieved by a leisurely attention to the present along the way, absent of hurry or haste or heedless rushing—all the ways of anxious scrambling typical of the impatient and the greedy. A taut torpor of anticipation is among her best enjoyments. She thinks of this every time the clichéd contemporary idea of passion is acted out in movies. It is always the same—lovers extricate themselves from neckties, shirts, blouses, slips, pants, as if stinging bees, or crawly, cootie bits of mites or fleas or worms or ants were swarming unbearably between fabric and skin. Hadn’t they ever heard of a “slow boat to China,” another cliché but one preferable to Hollywood lust, with its failure to comprehend process? That Zen-less depiction became for her an analogy for all such means-denying, end-worshipping. After all, who is happiest—the chef or the eater; the painter or the collector; the writer or the reader; the architect or the mortgage-holder; the composer—or violinist, or flutist, or pianist—or the audience; the patient lover or the quickly spent?
On her office wall, this poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins:
GLORY be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
What is more beautiful, she asked, rhetorically—the surface of a pure, flawless piece of plastic, or the surface of an antique, copper tea kettle? Perfection must be flawed, or it begs a doubt of its authenticity, its depth of commitment, its truth, its life, its singularity. It was a conclusion she came to naturally: she was freckled, after all, with blue eyes so lightly colored they were nearly white; wherever sun had ever baked, she was delicately dappled, except for one dime-sized lentigo at the crease of her thigh, a spot most commonly known as a birth mark, a “flaw” she flaunted in her bikini in the days before she had turned into a homebody.
Contentment is underrated? She thought so. Of course, she meant it as opposed to greed. After all, wasn’t greed doctrinaire in the United States of America? Wasn’t avarice not avarice, not hoggish gluttony, not sociopathology, but, instead, instinct? Wasn’t greed an intrinsic piece of the soul, according to the highest values of this particular culture? Whether it was for name, rank, or riches, the flock sanctioned it, while the few gloried in its achievements. How? How did they achieve? By shunning contentment, as cage--habituated turkeys might an open gate to freedom. Of course the greedy would think it the other way around and their ideology the more liberating than choosing to opt out of the race. She disagreed. She had spent the morning contentedly puttering in the garden, while her counterpart—driven, time-starved, striving, stalking, sweating, plotting, scheming—conspired to send the resumé of a rival to an out-of-state company in hopes of disappearing the rival from competition.
Ah, yes—contentment. She was content with so many things in her life: Her dial-up connection; the absence of tweets, Facebook “Friends,” a blog, a Blackberry; she was content without a functioning dishwasher—used it for storage; didn’t need stainless steel appliances, liked her black refrigerator just fine; didn’t want strangers cleaning up after her, but, rather, cleaned up when she felt like it and enjoyed it when she did. She was happy to drive in the slow lane.
She understood such was related to Dawdling, or perhaps the consequence of it. People who make lists and conscientiously check them off avoid the consequences of procrastination are unfamiliar with its benefits. If they were to try it, they might discover that the goals, plans, tasks, errands they service, as though life would be otherwise dysfunctional without them, take care of themselves.