Taking Space Within the Culture of "Busy"

This summer I went blueberry picking. I’ve been talking about going for a couple of years now, but it never seemed to come together–one year the season ended sooner than usual, another year schedules couldn’t align, another I simply forgot until it was too late. But this year, I researched blueberry farms in May, sent emails to my dear ones in June, and found a Sunday in mid-August to pile into a car and get out of the bustle of Chicago to go blueberry picking in Benton Harbor, Michigan.

As we made the two hour drive, my friends and I of course took the opportunity to talk and laugh, share what we’d been up to since we last came together. Nick had been working 60 hour weeks as an electrical engineer, volunteering with Englewood high school students, trying to find time to practice his saxophone; Allie had been pulling long hours in her architectural firm, networking for possible job opportunities on the East coast, tending her garden; Kamran had been flying to various conferences, doing research for a book, training for a half marathon; Raia had been advocating for Irish immigrants, taking care of her parents, moving in with her boyfriend; and me, I’d been working at a little bakery, teaching humanities classes at city colleges, trying to run, walk, and meditate myself through a broken heart. In short, we’d all been “busy.”

In the past couple of years, a lot has been written on the emphasis we as a society seem to be placing on the “busy” life. In the West, at least, this term has become not just an adjective to describe being engaged in an activity or an indication that one is not at leisure; it’s now part of a larger culture of expectations, desire, even morality. Multitasking is a mandatory skill for most jobs. Being busy is often conversationally used as a way to bragg about one’s interesting life. Those who do not appear “busy” run the risk of being judged as unmotivated or lazy.

Personally, I have a love/hate relationship with the packed life I live. I find energy in the focus and efficiency that sometimes emerges when my time is at a premium. I find that it becomes easier to, as a friend of mine likes to evangelize, “Say no to say yes” (in other words, say no to experiences that feel like an obligation in order to say yes to experiences that promise enrichment) when my leisure is limited. And if I’m honest, I do derive a certain satisfaction from the idea of myself as a busy person, the idea that if I’m busy enough, I somehow earn the right to belong to a larger community of hard working, intriguing, worthwhile people.

However, if you’re committed to a life of reflection, the busy life can also hold many dangers: becoming so caught up in the flurry of activity that connecting to loved ones becomes another item on your to-do list, that connecting with yourself, your own lived experience never even makes it onto your to-do list, realizing that the last several weeks live in your memory as a blur after a cursory glance at the calendar. Feeling overwhelmed can become the normal state of affairs, which doesn’t leave much space for living in a way that accommodates the appreciation of beauty, cultivation of presence, or growth.

Once my friends and I made it to the blueberry farm, we clamored out of the car, visited with the owner of farm, collected our pails, and headed out into rows and rows of blueberry bushes. As we walked towards the field, we chattered excitedly, commenting how good it was to be out of the city, how we were already thinking about the pies and muffins we would bake, how we couldn’t believe we were really there. Then, something interesting happened: this group of people, which I’d so deliberately chosen and taken pains to align my schedule with in order to share this experience…separated.

Once we found ourselves amongst the blueberry bushes, we split up without a word. We each wandered off by ourselves, none of us close enough to see or hear anyone else, and we set about the task of plucking the blueberries a few at a time and dropping them into our six pounds buckets without a word. At first, I remember feeling a momentary shock of panic–is it okay that we’re not experiencing this “together”? why didn’t I arrange a time to meet back at the farmhouse? how long will it take to fill this huge bucket with tiny blueberries? what if everyone finishes before me, and I inconvenience them by making them wait? what if we have a hard time finding everyone when it’s time to leave? was it a good idea to leave my cell phone in the car after all?

Just then, the clouds shifted to soften the sun’s rays, a light wind blew, and my attention shifted from the abstract to the concrete. I took a deep breath and remembered (again) the pleasure that can exist in feeling fresh air move through my lungs, in living inside my body, in actively engaging with the present moment, rather than losing myself into a disembodied brain whirring with the worries of the future, assessments of the past. And just like that, the fretful ticker tape in my mind was frozen by a cool breeze and the tingling sensation at the nape of my neck. Just like that, five busy people had cleared a Sunday in August to be alone together on a farm in Michigan, to create spaciousness within the chaos of daily life for both each other and themselves.

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