Sitting on the settee, holding a mug of tea with one hand and stroking the dog with the other, staring at logs burning in the stove, there was a feeling of guilt. Sitting doing nothing other than drinking tea an watching flames was time wasted, there was a sense that I should have been doing something constructive, something useful, something practical. There are always constructive, useful and practical tasks that might be performed; there are plenty of opportunities to use one’s time fruitfully. Time wasn’t to be spent just sitting and staring.
Such moments of complete inactivity are disrupted by remembering a moment described in Vera Brittain’s Testament of Friendship.
“On one of the coldest mornings of that spring, after she had learnt from a London specialist that she might not have more than two years to live, she went for a walk past Clare Leighton’s cottage to a farm further up the hill. She felt tired and dejected; her mind, still vigorously alive in her slow, impaired body, rebelled bitterly against her fate. Why, she wondered, should she, at thirty-three, not yet in the fullness of her developing powers, be singled out for this cruel unforeseen blow? She knew, for the constant demands of her friends had made it clear to her, that her life was infinitely valuable to others. She thought of all the half-dead people who ‘put in time’, as though time were not the greatest gift in the universe, while she, who could use it so superbly, was soon to be deprived of it for ever; and she felt that her mind could hardly contain the rising anguish of that realization.”
If time is the greatest gift in the universe, then to sit and do nothing is surely to waste it? But perhaps the reverse is true, perhaps times is wasted when every moment is filled with busyness, perhaps those who “put in time” are those who fill every hour of a diary and never stop to think. Perhaps there are conflicting views of the world. Perhaps, sometimes, the European impetus to activity needs to to be counter-balanced with the African wish for time for reflection. Alexander McCall-Smith’s character Precious Ramotswe laments the European wish to be always doing something:
There was a slight smell of wood-smoke in the air, a smell that tugged at her heart because it reminded her of mornings around the fire in Mochudi. She would go back there, she thought, when she had worked long enough to retire. She would buy a house, or build one perhaps, and ask some of her cousins to live with her. They would grow melons on the lands and might even buy a small shop in the village; and every morning she could sit in front of her house and sniff at the wood-smoke and look forward to spending the day talking with her friends. How sorry she felt for white people, who couldn’t do any of this, and who were always dashing around and worrying themselves over things that were going to happen anyway. What use was it having all that money if you could never sit still or just watch your cattle eating grass? None, in her view; none at all, and yet they did not know it. Every so often you met a white person who understood, who realised how things really were; but these people were few and far between and the other white people often treated them with suspicion.
Precious Ramotswe would have understood someone who passed time drinking tea and watching the flames of a log fire.