January. The long morning-after. A time of mad diets, tentative declarations of sobriety, and a communal wish to be anywhere but here and now. January does something evil to those of us in a cold climate: it’s so bad, so unrelentingly bleak, that it begins to feel like a judgement from on high. A smackdown. We regret the raggedy bare-knuckled kareoke portion of the work Christmas party. We feel sad about the end of the festive cheeses. Everyone is dutifully sorry for the things they did. (Some are not; the perenially godless stay in the pub).
What can you do about it, though? For years I took the complacent, brooding hatred approach to winter, which is to continue eating the cheeses while railing helplessly against our misfortune to be human, and therefore awake to the ravages of time. Other people ward off the darkness with 5am jogging regimes. What they’re doing there is getting up in the middle of the night to run around in the snow. Help them, they need help.
This year I was obviously keen to join in with the prevailing mood of repentence, because I found myself downloading the least feel-good app imaginable, QualityTime (clue: the name is passive-aggressive). It tracks your phone usage and then shows this to you in handy charts at the end of the day. Look – it twinkles at you – all these hours you lost forever looking at memes.
There in the cold hard stats were the 4am trundles through Reddit and Imgur. The forty minute morning Facebook and email check. One day my phone usage added up to three hours twenty minutes.
I got this app because I had a notion. I felt there was something that needed fixing. I’d been reading all the new year magazine article buzzwords like intentional living and being in the moment and I’ll admit, they’d turned my head. I had watched some excellent Ted talks about choice and wisdom and had to conclude that I had too much of the former and none of the latter. Clearly, because, three hours twenty minutes? A day? I checked the news on my phone, and messaged friends, but that was a matter of minutes. The rest of those three hours, I was mindlessly consuming photos and videos, scrolling through pages of funny tweets, and watching YouTube playlists when I should have been asleep. I had instant access to everything I could ever want, presented to me in structures designed to be addictive, on a shiny, pleasing, portable device.
The irony of all this choice was how small it made the experience of living.
At thirty-two, I am of course able to remember what it was like to live without a smart phone – or even a Nokia 3310 – and I very much enjoy bringing it up with people only slightly younger than I am, as if I’m some sort of wizened old biddy (‘let me tell you about the nineties, sonny’).
What I remember most dearly now are the years of my life in which daydreaming loomed large. When I was eighteen I volunteered in a school in India, and lived in much less materially comfortable circumstances than I do now. The accommodation had no phone, no TV or internet. Me and my roomie listened to cassettes on an old stereo and we read books, or we talked. Sometimes we discovered bugs and killed them (that would be one of the more exciting nights). We went to sleep around 7pm. But then again, we were teenagers living in a different culture, out in the world, figuring stuff out, and it was incredible. One night we ate mango (a treat) while we watched the sun setting over Kanchenjunga mountain, and I was absolutely free from any sense of an audience, any desire to ‘post’ about this for other people to see and comment on. Instagram wouldn’t be invented for another six years. This freedom was so integral to our lives, we couldn’t even have named it.
I remember teenage boredom as a great rite of passage. It was understood that fifteen year olds need to lie on the living room floor with their head phones in, gazing up to the ceiling in infinite, unfathomable sorrow. For hours.
I remembered the deep sense of peace that sometimes grew out of long periods of nothingness – this is the romance of the road trip. Fierce concentration, when I was studying for my finals at university, that I could make last for a few hours at a time.
Now there’s three hours of my day in which I am checked out of the present moment entirely; and when I’m not on my phone, there’s always a slight nagging at the back of my mind, an annoying inner alarm, telling me to check my notifications, just in case.
The idea of walking around distracted – unsatisfied – while undoubtedly living in a time and place boasting the greatest material affluence that humans have ever experienced is, well, it’s a January feeling for sure. I wish to repent.
The winter-weary part of me resisted the idea of giving up any of my phone time, at first. After all, people only really enjoy being in the moment if the moment is sunlit and warm, and on a beach in the Caribbean, with maybe a coconut shell of watermelon smoothie with a little cocktail umbrella in it. Right? The way to get through January was simple: distract, distract, distract. I gave up drinking, smoking and listening to rock and roll records in 2015. Could I not keep just one lovely, oh so lovely, unhealthy coping mechanism?
The better part of me, that tries to cope without unhealthy mechanisms, and watch Ted talks without distractions, was pretty determined nonetheless. I’d remembered the boredom, those days of thinking and longing and daydreaming, when the internet wasn’t there. The resourcefulness and creativity borne of necessity (everyone must remember their parents telling them ‘only boring people get bored’). Now I’d remembered, I wanted those kinds of days back. I wanted an evening away from my phone, an evening of contented silence, tucked up on the sofa, absorbed in a book.
I thought of the deep dark cold of winter. Without distraction, what could the most horrible season of the year be like?
A cosy kitchen full of the smells of food. The intense loveliness of an orange, eaten in one messy sitting, for breakfast. Early, dark mornings reading in bed with a hot water bottle, before the birds have woken up. Humdrum days, saving our energies, dreaming of summer, learning to wait. A thinking time and a resting time.
Call it a February resolution (so much easier to make than a January one). I’ll still be updating my Instagram with all and any cats that I happen to see, of course, but I’m also going to let myself get bored now and then. I’m going to try having less choice and more time. Perhaps there is something about winter, and boredom, and all the nothingy kinds of days, that we really need.