It was Saturday afternoon, and my husband was out with our nine-year-old. The weather was grey and windy, but at least it wasn’t raining…yet. I knocked on the teenager’s door and, granted permission, I entered her cave.
My daughter was sitting cross-legged on her bed with headphones on and a sketchbook and pen in her hands.
“I’m going for a walk on the heath, do you want to come?” I asked.
She hesitated for a moment, then nodded.
“OK, as long as I don’t have to talk,” she said and pointed to her headphones.
“Fine,” I said, no more inclined to engage in conversation with a mono-syllable teenager, than she was listening to a lengthy monologue performed by her middle-aged mother.
Dressed in warm jackets and scarfs and wearing wellies, we set out. It’s about a ten-minute walk from our house to the heath, and once we arrived, it was surprisingly empty of people – and dogs. I soon realised why. It was muddy, very muddy.
Rather than being put off by the sludge-covered grounds, however, my daughter revelled in it. Walking steadily across the heath, she didn’t even try to avoid the worst parts of the ground, but waded straight through it, a grin gradually developing across her face.
You’re never too old for muddy puddles.
Since last week, I’ve been itching to return to the heath, but constant rain and strong winds put me off, as did that infernal to-do list on my desk.
But this morning I told myself, ‘sod the to-do list,’ I’m going for a walk. Luckily, it didn’t rain, but the ground was just as muddy as last week, if not more so. Walking slowly, with no purpose other than to walk, I ambled across the heath, away from the phone-carrying dog walkers and their charges, away from the sound of cars, and people’s chattering.
I waded happily through the ankle-deep sludge, delighting in the sucking sensation of my boots releasing themselves from the mud as I lifted my feet. As I carried on, my boots covered in mud, a thought came to me: for all my past achievements, it seems the purpose of my life right now is to step in muddy puddles, and I don’t mean that in a figurative sense.
Perhaps I’m influenced by a book I’ve recently read, which extolls the importance of not working.
“No sooner is a child born today than her nervous system is engulfed by an unremitting stream of stimuli beaming from an array of electronic devices,” writes Josh Cohen in Not Working: Why We Have to Stop. As a result, “the space for inactivity and stillness, for time spent without immediate purpose, is being closed.”
For much of my adult life, I’ve been haunted by the question, ‘what’s my purpose?’ Driven by a Weberian sense of protestant work ethic, instilled in my from an early age by society, I told myself I had to be productive, creative, ambitious. Consequently, I measured my life according to my achievements. The problem was, I rarely if ever stopped to ask myself if what I was doing was something I wanted to do.
If illness – a stroke in my 30s and pulmonary embolism in my 40s – hadn’t intervened, I probably would have continued my unquestioning quest for purpose through productivity.
Forget my PhD, my published articles, and my work experience; my greatest achievement to date is finally learning to listen to my body and waking up to the importance of ‘being’ as opposed to ‘doing’.
“To stop in the intransitive sense – to say no not to doing this or that but to doing anything, to just stop – is an assertion of autonomy, an invisible act of resistance against the tyranny of action.” (J. Cohen)
I don’t make new year’s resolutions, but if I were to, it would be to jump in as many muddy puddles as I possibly can this year.