Idle hands are the devil’s workshop, so the old saying goes. These days the devil is a hot commodity and he’s really smoking because a lot of us, except health care workers, first responders and other essential employees are, mostly idle.
Kenko, a 13th century, Japanese Buddhist monk and writer, thought a lot about idleness. I suspect he had time on his hands, being a monk and all, so much so that he wrote a series of reflections he called “Essays in Idleness.” Idleness when translated from the Japanese is rendered, “having nothing better to do.”
Two hundred and seventy years later, we’re also “having nothing better to do” than riding out the pandemic as best we can.
Kenko describes many of my recent days when he writes, “What a strange demented feeling it gives me when I realize I have spent whole days before this inkstone (like my pen and pad or computer) with nothing better to do, jotting down at random what nonsensical thoughts have entered my head.” That says it for me. For these days, no matter what I happen to be about, it’s safe to say I have “nothing better to do.”
My first nonsensical thought today is seeing myself for first time in my life wearing surgical gloves to go to the supermarket and shop. Of course, it is prudent, but I felt extremely self-conscious, like a rooster with socks on, or how people might think I was kinky. Except when selecting merchandise, I kept my hands close at my sides to reduce their visibility. My wife and I went early, at seven, as the market accommodated seniors at that time. I qualify as a senior; actually, I’m overqualified.
In front of the supermarket I saw that a washing stand had been installed. If idleness is the devil’s workshop, cleanliness is next to godliness. The store was ok that I was idle, but not that I might be dirty.
The store was adequately stocked for our needs. While we normally shop more casually, selecting things at random, depending on how we felt at the moment, today was different. Our behavior was definitely overdetermined. We knew exactly what we wanted; it was all written down –– we each had a list and we knew just where to go to get things. This reduced our shopping time exponentially. It’s well known that efficiency is increased by being purposeful and we were in and out of the market in no time. I had mixed feelings about it though.These days, just getting out of the house and going somewhere is a big deal, even exciting, and it lifts my spirits. Still the swift in and out did not lend to the normal social interactions that are part of shopping in a small town.
I also saw no one I knew. It may have been that it was so early, but not seeing familiar faces was disappointing. It reminded me that idle hands are also lonely ones. When we got to the checkout counter I saw they’d installed a clear plastic window between the cashier and the customer, the kind you might see in a bank. If any thought of social distancing had escaped my mind the window served as a reminder. Happily, it was easy to talk to the cashier by putting my head slightly to one side giving a measure of humanity to the most perfunctory part of the shopping experience. We knew the cashier from previous trips and talked with her some. She said that there were a lot of people talking about the virus, and some saying how the government had planted it. Some offered that it was the Chinese. I asked why they thought this. She was not sure. She thought this talk was kind of nutty and we chatted for a minute about conspiracy theories. Talbot County residents can get suspicious of things they’re unsure about.
Driving back home the roads were lightly traveled, mostly trucks as I could see. I assumed they were tradesmen who were still being called on to practice their craft, an encouraging thought.
Driving past the recycle station I noticed how the bins fairly bulged with recyclables, not the sight I’d typically see on a Thursday. What to make of it, I thought?
A friend takes our garbage to the dump weekly. He told me that, at the dump the other day, cars and trucks were backed up to the road, something he’d never seen before. We concluded that the “nothing better to do” folks decided to clean their houses, big time. What with churches being closed but dumps open, taking out the junk has begun to eclipse, “bringing in the sheaves.”
My wife, Jo, is more scrupulous about household matters than I am. She had designed hygienic practices when bringing groceries in the house and getting them put away. She instituted a system by which we disinfected packages, washed veggies and then placed the cloth shopping bags outside for a few days to ensure nature would disinfect them. I worked closely with her except for onions. I was willing to wash most veggies, but I drew the line at onions. I don’t know why, but I can’t imagine God made onions to be washed, since he already knew people were going to peel them, anyway. Still, I pray that no COVID-19 virus finds onions a hospitable landing site.
When I find that I’m living in reduced circumstances and I must revisit how I do things, little things assume a whole new character; in fact, it feels sometimes as if I’m doing for the first time, what I’ve done forever.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.