Not all those who wander are lost.J.R.R. Tolkien
I had to pick up the car at the service station today. When I got there, the technician said they still needed about 10–15 minutes.
This being a pandemic, and it being a small garage, there’s no waiting area where I could sit. If it were warm outside, I might have sat on a bench and used the time to write. But in 30° weather I wasn’t going to sit still on a bench and expose my hands.
In the past, I might have been upset and annoyed about the delay; wasting energy in resistance about how it was disrupting my morning.
Instead, I embraced the situation. This was what the universe gave me today, and I accepted the gift of extra time to wander. I took a walk up the block as I window shopped through the quaint streets of Scarsdale Village.
When I reached the small independent bookstore in the village I stopped to look more closely through the window, then examined the cart of books left outside the store.
I picked up a few that looked interesting and flipped through the pages, and took pictures of the books I want to remember for when I am ready for my next book.
This is a ritual I used to do fairly regularly, in the B.C. (Before Covid) Era. Passing by a bookstore I might wander in, not to buy anything specific but merely to peruse the books and see what caught my interest.
Perhaps I’d spend an hour, sometimes more. There were days I got lost in a corner of the big Barnes and Noble in New York City’s Union Square as I skimmed through the pages of a particularly captivating book.
I might leave some of these journeys with a new book in hand; other times I left with a bunch of pictures of books to add to my reading list.
A Waste of Time?
On occasions when I fell particularly deep down the rabbit hole, I used to berate myself for wasting time.
Today’s experience brought perspective and illuminated for me that these moments are not a waste of time at all. My short detour to and at the book store lasted only about 20 minutes, and it may have been one of the most “productive” 20 minutes I’ve had in a while.
Sometimes productivity is measure by inputs, not outputs.
My short journey at the bookstore nourished something within me that hasn’t been nourished since the start of the pandemic.
Pandemic shopping brought an end to browsing, lingering, and wandering. If you go in at all, you go in with a laser focus: get in and get out.
We are not the better for it.
Efficiency Isn’t the Goal
It may be more efficient to know what you want as you go in, make a beeline for it and get out. Or, even more efficient to order it online or for curbside pickup.
But this is not more effective. We lose something when we live this way. It’s an intangible, inexpressible quality of life, often articulated as serendipity or synchronicity.
The mind needs time to wander and explore, it needs space to process things under the surface, to do the deep work of unfocused attention that is the lifeblood of creativity.
Efficiency has its place, but if it becomes the driver of our actions then we become like machines, and we will hasten our replacement by machines.
Being a Human Being
One of the things that defines us as human beings is our creativity. And creativity requires pauses, rest, and non-linear moments. It requires the wandering and exploring that lead to moments of serendipity.
Pausing to peruse the books, even for just a few minutes, filled the well from which creativity springs and lifted my spirits even on a grey winter’s day.
It helped me remember I’m a human being, not just a human doing.