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  • katherine halligan

Not Bored Yet

For our 21st wedding anniversary, which is traditionally celebrated with a gift of nickel, I bought my husband and myself matching keychains. Hanging alongside the actual nickel there is a medallion made of nickel, which is engraved — along with our initials and wedding date — with the words “21 down, forever to go”. This made me laugh, because it sounded as if it were a prison sentence — and humour is a large part of how we’ve made it this far.

Half a year after I first fell in love with my husband and we became inseparable, I turned to him as we were celebrating that milestone and said, wonderingly, “Six months, and I’m not bored yet!” He has never let me live it down, and it has become the thing we say to each other every anniversary. And, after 23 years together (21 of which formally hitched), I can still say — truthfully — that I’m not bored yet… and I doubt I ever will be, even if we lived a thousand years. So the idea of forever works just fine for me, because our marriage is many things, but it is never boring.

This is in part because he is an unending source of amusing anecdotes about his own life and about the world. Not a week goes by that I don’t hear some new tale from the three decades of his life before we met, or the things that happen to him when he hops onto his motorbike and heads off into the unknown. (The tales may not always actually be new, but we might just be getting to the point where I’m starting to forget things I heard twenty years ago, so the old news is cycling around to become new again.) Not a day goes by that he doesn’t share some tale about the wider world, which he soaks up voraciously by reading at least three periodicals daily (Irish, British and American) and then retains with an extraordinary recall that means I will never be able to recycle my own stories.

Our children have inherited both his incredible ability to absorb and retain information — a trait that is especially noticeable in our older daughter — and his astonishing capacity in his early years to get into mischief — a trait that is especially and almost exclusively noticeable in our younger daughter.

As I have shared in many a prior post, my parenting during this pandemic has become rather sloppy. As I’ve slid from an attentive, thoughtful, involved, details-oriented mother (indeed, what my older daughter would argue inclined towards the helicopter variety) toward the sort of mother who… well… isn’t, I’ve noticed a change in my children (of course). And I try to assuage the guilt about the sloppiness with the knowledge that perhaps they’re benefitting from having less than 100% of my attention.

They’re at an age where naturally they want and need more independence, but because we’re all in the same space almost all of the time these days, it’s so much harder to come by. They don’t get to disappear off to school all day, five days a week, where goodness only knows what happens (though I have an inkling — for, as I often remind them to their unending surprise, I was once a kid too). They don’t get to go on playdates at other people’s houses without me; instead the mothers chat on the patio or park bench, while the children play outdoors, not necessarily overheard but certainly always watched. So, more often than they ever have before, they usually just play in their rooms, alone.

I do, too. One of my favourite ways of carving out time and space for myself these days is a newly revitalised ritual. Early on, after reading a few stories with them following lunch, I would announce that it was Quiet Time. We all needed it, to recover from the morning’s tech-induced tantrums (both mine and theirs) and to gather ourselves for whatever the afternoon had in store — usually a concerted effort on my part to make things more interesting, which has become ever more exhausting as the pandemic drags on. So each afternoon I lie down for Quiet Time for half an hour, something I haven’t done regularly since my younger child napped and my non-napping older child would watch TV very quietly next to me, and I would drift off to the jolly sounds of The Octonauts. Then, it was sanity-saving bliss to succumb to the sheer exhaustion of parenting tiny children and allow myself twenty minutes of restorative rest. These days — despite being exhausted — I don’t manage to sleep, because many of my senses remain keenly attuned to what might be going on in the next room. For it is in these brief moments that utter mayhem unfolds.

I cannot allow the quiet to lull me into a false sense of security and thus to sleep for, in fact, the quieter the noise levels, the greater the ensuing chaos, and the less relaxing my own quiet time becomes. Eventually, if I’m not dragged from my bed to resolve the shrieking sibling squabbles that have become a regular occurrence in our house since we’ve all been forced to spend far too much time in it, I am forced out by my worry that whatever silence is reigning is an ominous one. And, unless I’ve allowed them yet more screen time, it almost always is.

It’s my own fault, really, for leaving my children to entertain themselves in the midst of a time during which true entertainment is at a seriously low ebb. Although 2020 has been anything but boring in the sheer scale and scope of its drama, it’s also been the year in which, paradoxically, we have plumbed the depths of a profound boredom we have never before experienced. As our springtime energy and positivity dwindled, while the news became ever more shocking and dire, we lived in a bizarre state of extreme mental weariness, which only got worse once school ended for the summer. Locked down and locked in, all our days began to look and feel the same: Sunday was scarcely any different than Tuesday or Friday. Despite my superhuman efforts to the contrary, our days were one flat, prairie-like expanse of… not much at all. I had never really heard my children whine those iconic words, “I’m bored!”, until this eternal summer, when it became an almost constant cry.

Initially, boredom had a novelty value all its own. None of us had ever really, truly experienced it before, normally being people of the adventure-seeking sort. It was actually kind of fun to have nothing to do, so we embraced it wholeheartedly, as we do all new things. We watched a TON of TV because we could! We played video games because we could! We lazed around because we could! But the lustre wore off quickly, of course, and we became restless. As the boredom got worse, so too did my ability to invent fun activities to counter it. But, in my own defense, this new sensation of boredom, hitherto unknown in our home, was punctuated by many moments of joy and wonder. What my children seem to remember, however, is the boredom.

What I shall remember are their attempts to entertain themselves.

My children have always been extremely good at inventing their own fun, a skill set which has stood them in excellent stead during these lonely, locked-down times.

With only each other for company most days, they held tea parties, played games, cooked meals, rediscovered old toys. They wrote stories, made jewelry, held talent shows, rearranged their rooms, prepared picnics. They set up spa days — complete with hot stones — and gave us all makeovers. They dyed their hair, and mine. They poured an entire bottle of bubblebath into the tub — and then turned on the jets, all in the name of science. From remaking Freaky Friday with a sister pair swapping places (filming stopped due to creative differences), to fashion shows, dance competitions and art projects, much of what they did was clever and creative.

Much of what they did was also to make pure, old-fashioned mischief, which is after all simply a different kind of creativity. Our seven-year-old has a particular knack for creatively entertaining herself. Early on in the quarantine, when we were all on full lockdown, only venturing out of our house for walks in our empty park, she ran away. Of course she did. Any sensible person would attempt to escape their prison, especially one in which they’d been incarcerated so unfairly: she’d done nothing wrong, so why was she being locked up? She carefully packed her little pink suitcase, sensibly filling it with books, a fully equipped first-aid kit (our children are exceptionally good at injuring themselves, so she was able to include splints, slings and removable casts), toothbrushes (three of them), toothpaste (two tubes of), and her baby dolls (all seven). Luckily her suitcase was so heavy it slowed her down, and after steaming along for a couple of blocks — her sister and I following a safe distance behind her — she began to regret her course of action, and in the end was mightily relieved that I was there to help her get that suitcase — and her small self — back home.

Like Mr. Frumbee the zookeeper in Hilary Knight’s brilliant classic Where’s Wallace?, I deliberately left the cage door open with a wry and knowing smile. I let her go, because she needed to go, just as I have turned a semi-blind eye to her other lockdown capers, because she has needed to express her anger and frustration and sadness, all of which have been in abundance of late. For all of us.

Once she began to resign herself to her confinement, she took it upon herself to make her prison cell a jollier, more colourful place. Not content to draw on paper or her body — though this happened almost daily as well (and so I can tell you that even washable markers are surprisingly difficult to wash off of flesh)— she drew on furniture, carpets and walls, little treasures I am still discovering in odd, hidden places around the house. She experimented with makeup daily (mine of course; most of it is now reduced to multi-coloured dust). She painted her nails (and ruined my favourite towels in the process). She fashioned a swing out of a scarf and hung it on the bedroom door, creating a whole evening of entertainment for herself and her sister. After a lecture from her father about what might happen if she pulled the door off its frame and onto her small personage, she tried the same thing with a (smaller, safer) cabinet door, which was a less successful venture — especially for the cabinet.

When she ran out of road (and wall space), she discovered how much fun she could have with scissors. First, she cut holes in her clothes, and mine. Then, she cut her doll's hair, leaving little clumps of synthetic black hair everywhere. Not content with that result, she cut her own hair, leaving larger clumps of beautiful brown hair everywhere. She has so much hair to spare, though, I didn’t even notice she was missing any until I started discovering those clumps in the bin, under her bed, in my closet. Undeterred, she cut herself bangs. Only a cute seven-year-old can really pull off the “I’ve been attacked by a hedge trimmer look” — and pull it off she did, with her usual flair — but then after a few days she decided she wasn’t thrilled with the results.

And so, dear reader, she cut her bangs OFF.

“Silly woman!” I hear you say. “Hide the scissors!” But we had. She found them. Again and again. All of them. We hid them higher, further, better, until eventually she gave up. Like a river overflowing its dam, her need to create mayhem overflowed the banks, so without the scissors to entertain herself, she turned her creative attentions elsewhere and, finally — finally! — began settling down enough to create art and stories and to play her imaginary games once more. Once expressed, the river of her grief and anger settled back into its banks, and she flowed more easily again.

For, like the running away, the hair cutting is, apparently, a sign of grief in children.

And she had much to grieve for. This year the walls have closed in even as all the boundaries of her former life dissolved. She lost all that was familiar, bar her home and her family, whom she has come to resent for our over-familiarity and our omnipresence. Without her older sister’s more sophisticated understanding of time, she cannot imagine an end to this (and sometimes neither can we). Without her sister’s ability to type and communicate with her friends virtually, she has been unspeakably lonely (and sometimes so have we). I have tried hard to play like a seven-year-old, but despite getting down on the floor and throwing myself into it wholeheartedly, I just wasn’t quite fun enough.

So just as I let her run away, I have also let her push boundaries. I’ve let her plumb the depths of her boredom to see where it would lead. Because it’s been well established by people who know far more about this than I that boredom is good for children’s imaginations. Naturally creative, their minds slowly fill with new ideas when they are allowed to quiet and settle. Our former lives had so much busyness and noise and go that there wasn't much room for our children to come up with their own thoughts. Of course they played alone in their rooms, because they each love their imaginary games. And as they would work through their experiences, both bad and good, they processed their days and their emotions. But when nothing much happened, there was less to process, and fewer sources for their imaginations to tap into and spin into play. Toward the end of the summer, as they became engulfed by their boredom, their play became decidedly less playful, which was truly heartbreaking, for a child who doesn’t play or laugh is but a shadow of themselves.

Before the pandemic drove us into a near-perpetual state of ennui, we lived in a near-perpetual state of externally propelled fun and entertainment, so we felt the limitations of lockdown even more profoundly. Living right here in America’s playground for the last three years, where world-famous amusement parks are almost literally on our doorstep, where beaches and zoos and hiking trails and entertainment of every possible kind abound, I had become a bit lazy about providing fun for them. We needed only to walk out the door and drive between six and twenty-six minutes in any direction, and we could surrender ourselves to those pay-to-play sources of fun, for hours on end. That quieter, more internal source of fun on which we’d relied in rainy old England — where we’d been forced to play indoors nearly daily — was lost as we let the professional Imagineers steer us around all sorts of happy places. Our own imaginations dried up a bit, as our creative juices stopped flowing so readily.

Our failure of imagination was more temporary and far less serious than the one we are suffering as a society on a national level (and possibly a global one). The isolation we are experiencing individually is more easily remedied than the isolationism espoused by the current U.S. administration. Our lack of creativity and problem-solving at home has been reversed in recent weeks, just as I hope our societal one will be reversed in the coming months and years.

So just as we need a national (and possibly global) reckoning, we have also undergone a personal one. Coming back indoors, quieting down, and taking time to reflect was good for us in may ways: we needed to slow down in order to remember how to make our own fun again. But neither can anyone be truly creative in a vacuum, and that’s where we’ve all been living for too long to count now. We need other humans, and our interactions with them, to fuel the fires of our inner worlds. We need things to happen — not the daily horror show that is unfolding on a national level, but real, vital things that connect us to the world around us.

It was with this in mind that we decided to allow our children to return to school, rather than place them in the far safer “virtual academy” that over 2,000 families in our district have chosen. They crave concrete social stimulation that we just can’t give them, because however young at heart we may be, we aren’t seven or ten. They need to learn from a real teacher, not some two-dimensional face on a screen. School is fun, in its traditional, bricks-and-mortar form; online stuff — from TV to games to chatting with friends — is fun. But school + online does not equal fun, for the school-ness plus the online-ness cancels out the fun-ness, and instead it all simply becomes the most boring TV show you’ve ever seen.

So, two mornings a week, I send them off to be less bored. And, as we venture out into the world and begin to reconnect with our imaginations and our creative juices begin to flow again, I can see the wheels of my children’s imaginations, their own internal sense of playfulness and fun, begin to turn once more. They are playing in their rooms, rather than sitting bored in front of screens. They are processing their days, however brief and limited they are. They are seeing themselves as part of a broader world and finding their place in it, rather than feeling lost in the tiny world of our home. On the days they are limited to home learning, while we tentatively reopen in our hybrid model, I can see their creativity taking shape in a healthier, less destructive direction. Our younger daughter transforms the less exciting elements of online school by pretending she is teaching her lessons to younger children, by working upside down, by singing as she reads, by using silly accents. Our older daughter is writing poetry and seeking it out to read, and dancing around the house like a butterfly.

Their wings are unfurled once more. Their lights are back on. They are happy again.

However long this reopening lasts — because winter is coming — they will have had a brief respite from their boredom. I, in turn, am enjoying this respite from their creativity, which has been devastating in its breadth and scope. Our house looks like a hurricane has hit it — the one natural disaster we have been spared thus far, in this time of fire and plague — but this tells us, at least, that they are having adventures again (albeit of the quieter, indoor variety), and so we accept the extra mess and chaos as part of our new normal.

Because at least they aren’t bored anymore. And I see that, thanks to them, I was never really allowed to become bored.

So it remains true that I’m really not bored yet.

And as the mother of these two daughters, and the wife of this husband, I don’t think I ever will be.

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