On boredom

‘Nothing so consumes a person as meaningless exertion’ Haruki Murakami

Boredom, pure and simple but Murakami refers to something else, meaningless exertion, day after day of doing the same thing without understanding its significance. 

There were days in my childhood when life took on a colourless tone, where every move felt laboured under the weight of not knowing what to do, days when my father forced us out of our house into the safety of my brother’s place, semi-detached in red brick in a side street that led through an alley way and countless other streets to the Auburn railway station. 

The house is still there, not far from where I live today, and when I walk past with dogs on their leads, as they sniff around the grass under lamp posts on the narrow nature strip, I check out its proportions against my memory. 

The way it sat there banged up against its identical partner, concrete pathway to the front door which was tucked to one side and invisible from the street. The square of lawn consisted of little more than a patch of green bordered by flower beds of begonia and geranium. The stock standard flowers of my childhood. They looked after themselves.

My brother lived in this house with his young wife, a woman who eclipsed us all with her foreign beauty. Her clean round face free of the blemishes that beset me as a soon-to-be teenager. She dressed in an elegance that spoke to serious care and she helped my brother to rise above the dishevelled state of his own youthful neglect into something better, while the rest of us, my sisters and his younger brothers languished behind layers of dirt and disinterest in all but our schoolwork. 

Schoolwork was all I enjoyed, but on one such day in my brother’s house even my schoolwork could not help me. We were bang smack in the middle of holidays and no one had homework then.

During holidays you were meant to play, have fun, go to new places, with your parents, take trips into the city with friends like some of the popular girls at my school, or make time for activities like ice skating at St Mauritz in St Kilda.

Such experiences needed money and parental supervision, none of which we had in those days when my mother took herself off to work to raise what little money she could, and my father floated at home on yet another bender. We four kids in the middle made do at my brother’s house trying to keep the place tidy in the same way my brother and his young bride left it once they too took themselves off to work. 

One of the younger brothers lost himself in books, another took himself into the garden to explore the insect life. My sisters were young enough to make up imaginary games with dolls or other pleasurable preoccupations while I looked out the window onto a rain-soaked street and nursed my boredom like a broken arm.

There’s a television series doing the rounds that features a sensory deprivation tent. The character in the movie who enters the tent then enters new worlds. What fun. 

When I was a kid in my own version of a sensory deprivation tent, I could not kick start my imagination into anything other than boredom eked out of every moment and stretched to kill time. 

I walked over to the kitchen sink and wiped it shiny clean so that it sparkled the way my sister in law left it in the morning before work. I marvelled that she could keep her kitchen so clean. Nothing left behind on the bench beyond the toaster. And bread bin. An empty bread bin which made my stomach rumble at the left-over smells as I lifted the lid and looked for crumbs. 

We ate the last slices toasted at breakfast and my brother said we’d need to wait till he came home with something for dinner. He did not want us to cook anything from the cupboard for fear of the mess we might make in his kitchen, his new wife’s domain and so that one obvious activity – the preparation of food – became another activity denied in my sensory deprivation tent.

At such times it’s hard to form memories. Memories come from events that are loaded with feelings. On this day I looked down on my knees and marvelled at the shape of bones as they turned the corner to the rest of my legs to my sandshoes below. 

I wore a woollen skirt, a hand me down from my elder sister. Tight now, it bunched around my hips, and I needed to straighten it so that it sat comfortably. Otherwise, the wool scratched. I wore long socks that covered my legs to the nape of my knees. The gap in between where the cold air grabbed was annoying, as if there was a draft in my deprivation tent where sensations could sneak through. I wanted to numb myself to all sensation so that time might pass, and the day end and I could be somewhere else that held meaning, some promise in this otherwise drab world in my brother’s house where I dared not imagine life.

In moments like these it was hard to locate myself. To feel the contours of my mind and body. To sense myself as a person who had reason for being and could go on being. I was as transparent and ephemeral as the daddy long legs that crawled across the carpet to its hole in the corner of the lounge. 

My sister-in-law would be displeased at the sight of such a creature, and I had the impulse to swat it, but I also had a sense that this creature carried a soul and heart. This creature should live. 

So, I let it be and watched the knobbles on its long legs, the place which I imagined were its knees. as it sidled along the wall to the darkest corner and a crack in the sideboard where it finally disappeared. 

When you’re young and bored, when life offers you no sense of amusement or purpose, when you are helpless to the endless ticking of the clock and the inertia that comes from having nothing to do and no one to tell you where to go or how to spend your hours, you enter a limbo state in which your arms become sludge. It gets hard to stir yourself, to engage with the world. 

I was in the in-between state of early childhood like my two younger sisters stooped over their dolls in one corner of the lounge room in contrast to my older brothers who made a point of action into books or the outside world, while even my imagination let me down, and I tried to enter my tent of sensory deprivation to create a numbness akin to how it feels when you’re dead.

Only I was not yet dead. 

One thought on “On boredom”

  1. I do remember being bored as a child—childhoods are long and hard to fill unlike the days now that flit by like hours—but it wasn’t something I was often and certainly by the time I hit my teens I was never bored. At the age of about twelve I somehow managed to monopolise my parents’ front room (the good room for entertaining) and it became my office until I left school. I know my siblings, especially my brother, resented the fact I had the space but when I moved out the room reverted to its old function. Rather than bored over the years I’ve tended to get tired, exhausted from overwork, and that does feel a bit like boredom (what I remember boredom feeling like) but the simple fact is that for the past fifty years I’ve always had more stuff to do than time to do it in. That feels like a bit of a burden now as I enter what will likely be my fourth quarter. I would feel SO guilty for saying I was bored just now.

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