This week’s storyhack is a guest post from my best friend and husband, Euan Smith. He is and continues to be a constant inspiration to me in a world that is hampered by mediocrity and conformism.
“Aren’t you bored yet ?”, said no plover, ever.
In 2016 I found myself in a fortunate position. I was able to choose to step off the corporate hamster wheel for a time, well before my aspirations for ‘retirement’ had been reduced to milky tea & a nice lie-down.
My news, which I positioned as something like a ‘late gap year’, was received by those I told with varying degrees of respect, happiness & jealousy. I get all that. As said, I know I was lucky. But what fascinated me most was the frequency with which people asked, of myself and my family – “Is he bored yet ?” The regularity with which the question appeared was remarkable. Over assorted lunch dates former colleagues smiled and asserted definitively that “you’ll get bored in a few months”. Friends peered over their coffees to ask with concern – “How are you filling your days ?” Two headhunters recoiled in shock when I politely passed up their shiny baubles.
“But it’s such a great opportunity.”
No. Extended time out was the great opportunity. A ‘once in a lifetime’ blue-chip job it may well have been, but not this lifetime.
March 2016. I am in J-Bay in South Africa. This morning I rose early to stroll the majesty of the beach. At this hour it is delightfully free of humans. In the lull, under skies already cobalt, wildlife has temporarily reclaimed the world. Black-backed gulls tentatively explore a stranded jellyfish. A prowling mongoose slithers frustrated into bleached grasses as I approach. Out on the rocks a group of cormorants gossip as they hold out their wings to dry. It occurs to me that, like all anglers, even birds that fish seem inclined to exaggerate the size of their catch.
Where the wet caramel sand gives way to powdery white a small plover is working. She is hard to spot amongst the bric-a-brac of shells & driftwood; only her darting movement gives her away. From this distance her body is as smooth and pebbly as those that surround her. She perches totteringly on spindly legs, colours muted and flecked through, like an upside-down cappuccino. Her small head, equally mottled, flicks from side to side. She is perpetually caught in two minds – between the need to feed & the need not to become food. She pauses and turns towards me. Even against the white of the sand her snowy breast is dazzling. Abruptly she sets off at speed down the beach, legs peddling crazily, head bent low like a granny with a shopping trolley. And then, just as abruptly, she comes to a dead stop, rises like a queen. “Running ? What ? One ? Good heavens, no !”
And then she does it again.
I follow her at a respectful distance as she scours the sand, urgently stabbing her short needle beak when an insect is uncovered. Her industry is intense. She bursts into a run again for no apparent reason, then pulls up short, suddenly wondering if she left the gas on.
A dove sized bird with greenfinch plumage explodes from a frondy palm, screaming an alarm. ‘Waiki ! Waiki ! Waiki !’. I wonder briefly if mongooses can climb trees. And then I wonder if the correct term should be ‘mongeese’ ?
Perhaps all the ‘boredom’ questions came from ego, from a desire to protect our place in the world, a need to maintain status quo. Passion-riddled entrepreneurs and ladder climbers aside, I observe so many people walking soullessly through their careers, counting the hours until they can escape. They live life in their vacations & retirement, create bucket lists that they immediately consign to fantasy. We complain endlessly about monotonous meetings, about repetitive, vegetative tasks. We complain about being pulled away from our families at weekends, about having to attend yet another social event / conference / sales pitch with the boss / client / accounts team. And yet I found that when I consciously created space away from all those obligations, all the crazy noise (which many profess is also their dream) I seemed to touch an open nerve. We can all rationalise our own fears away when some hippie bails to start up a pottery in Devon, but not when one of the ‘normal’ ones steps out ? And so the default seemed to be that many created a story, a hope, that I would somehow be unfulfilled, that I would crave a return asap with my tail between my legs. “Phew. He’s back. I knew it. I’m ok.”
I watched Miss Plover for almost an hour. It felt like ten minutes.
Not once was I bored.
I came back, in my own time. With new perspective, a new story and (I think) much the better for the time away. If you can engineer it, stepping off the hamster wheel just to see what happens, is 100% the way to go.