On the “Busy Trap”

Say, for a moment, that you can read everyone’s minds. Before we get too excited, let’s disentangle ourselves from the myriad ways this skill might come in handy and instead, zero in on one. We may be the most educated, interconnected band of humans to walk the planet yet, but we are not doing right by each other. To prove it, take your newfound telepathic talent, set off on a stroll down the street, and ask your neighbors what’s most important to them.

Chances are, the word “family” is going to roll off several tongues.

Mind-blowing, isn’t it? Not really. We organize our lives around the grand societal pillar that family has become in so many cultures, so it isn’t news that Mom and Grandpa are important. Rather, it’s how we then go on to treat these relatives after professing them as such.

We are the generation of busy. We are on the go nonstop, tossing sleep and peace of mind out the window without taking stock of what their loss means. “Busy” has become, as Tim Kreider puts it in The “Busy” Trap, the “default response” for your average greeting. But, while busyness may masquerade as a surface issue, or simply a convention of the time, destined to slowly fade from use, like drive-in movie theatres or bell-bottomed jeans, its roots are deep.

After all, what does “busy” mean? Merriam-Webster dictionary calls it “involved in often constant activity,” which we can boil down to “out of time.” Decrypting that code phrase, you understand it to mean that there was time, it just wasn’t spent on you.

There’s where our interpretation of busyness is distorted. It’s this “you,” or really we, that lies at the heart of the busyness crisis, because just as often as someone is too wrapped up in work to deal with us, we too fail to find time for them. No one bullies us into taking the lead in that group project. Earth will not fizzle into nothingness if we don’t sign up for that 5k, or don’t make dinner from scratch. Like Kreider points out, “it’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed,” which begs us to wonder why, if we can take on more work, can’t we also rid ourselves of it?

We have spent too much time toying with this “why” and postulating “hows”. It’s what I’m doing right now, and maybe you are too, and certainly what Kreider’s article has taken a stab at. What we aren’t talking about is what our “busy” means for our loved ones. Look outside yourself, busy person.

The truth is that as much as being swamped is a “copout” for friends, Mekita Rivas notes that it has become equally commonplace “when doling out reasons for […] neglecting loved ones.” The National Council on Aging has placed family members at fault in 60% of elderly neglect incidents, which is not to say that each of us is the agent of our elders’ distress, but it should be a jab into our subconsciouses. As much as we find the busy excuse to be “a direct slap in the face,” it is equally so to those we release it upon – a category which we have lumped our relatives into. Most of us would affirm the statement “family is important.” Most of us, however, would not be able to avow that we had never postponed a dinner with Dad, rushed through a phone call to finish AP Chemistry homework, or canceled a casual family get-together because work came up.

“Life is too short to be busy” may be Tim Kreider’s way of topping an apparently unsolvable social dilemma with rainbow sprinkles and leaving it be. Or, it might have merit – just not the kind you’re expecting. It’s one thing when the life you’re talking about is your own; it’s something else when that ticking clock belongs to another person. I’ll never be too busy to regret what I missed when I’m no longer here to miss it. So this weekend, I’m going to brunch with my grandmother. Everything else will wait.

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Dear Leana

Dear Leana,

This is not to say that you did something wrong, but I think you killed my brother. I’m not sure yet, but once I am, and once you are holding this in your hand, it will hopefully read with firmer conviction.

Again, this is still up in the air.

I’m curious about what happened to you. We saw each other on one of June’s stickiest, most unreasonable days to date. I walked into town for ice cream, because to suffer in the heat is more endurable when you shake up what activity you pair it with. You biked across the street in front of me with some purple flowers in your pocket. I was a speck, a little, moist sack of air with a chocolate cone; you did not see me.

In retrospect, that was the last time I saw you.

So when did we last lay eyes on each other? Interact? Note, here, that I mean to emphasize the mutual nature of ‘we’. Could it, perhaps, have been in one of the four classes that we have shared in the past few years of schooling? Well, that would make sense. One room, discussions bouncing off the walls, partnerships…It really does go on.

Or! An even grander possibility: the Science Team. You are a member, or you were, and so am I. What better place to connect to someone on a more personal level than a (sparsely-populated) room of kids who all share your exact same interest. What better environment to engage in the social norm of “making friends”? Think on that, Leana.

Think on it.

Well, actually, I could be wrong. If we had ever interacted, I would cue your intake of air at my admission of mistake now. I’m hoping you might be starting to get the gist of what I’m telling you.

Jonny was a good kid. He took tough classes but still smiled. Sincerity radiated from his palms like a firework spitting lithium salts at the sky.

On a Tuesday last February I was chewing my pencap and reading over the history of Hannibal when Jonny brought you home. You stayed for the afternoon. You didn’t say hello.

Most days afterwards were borishly identical to that Tuesday.

You were the rudest person I had ever met. That, in itself, is a false statement, because never did I have the displeasure of making your acquaintance.

But I don’t blame you for that.

Several months of The Identical Tuesdays blended together before I caught Jonny fumbling with the latch to his bedroom window at two one morning. He never knew, but I caught him. Just like I did with the you-know-whats in an old framed picture from Little League. Just like I did every morning that he slumped over the kitchen table, looking at his cereal as if it were about to fly out of his bowl and bite his nose.

That I blame you for.

So my truth is that I know what you did. But I still want to know where you went after my brother turned up in the street, ribs broken, no more air in his lungs. Had you been in that car?

Did he save you from what happened to him? Tell me.

What I know is that, before you came home that first Tuesday and chatted with my mother and scraped balls of cookie dough out of the tub in the refrigerator, Jonny had nowhere to be at midnight. And after you, he did.

After you, he died.

Did you put those purple flowers on his grave?

I am still at Lernon Street should you decide to let me know.

Michael.

Questions to question

Don’t you know I’m not moving?

That’s what I want to say, when I’m with you.

When we ride the train into the city while night beats its wings at our backs.

When there’s a lull in the conversation, or when that second passes when I scramble to reach the door you’ve held for me, arms outstretched.

Don’t you know?

When I think about the moment I stopped, the moment I first heard your voices swims up into my consciousness.

You know, that night I woke up because you were screaming again.

It turned out that you weren’t.

(Maybe that was a trick from slumber?)

Or should I really ask you,

“Do you know?”

Because I peel seconds away from myself, whole minutes where I know that we are clear.

Crystal, in fact.

I won’t ask you, I promise. Even though I’m still not moving.

Even though the fingers at the edge of my mouth make it smile.

Even though I woke up that night and heard you screaming when you weren’t.

I love you, but I promise.

I won’t ask you if you know that I’m not moving.