The place where I live is covered in old snow. Snow that’s been cleared off the streets, snow that’s been long since deposited on the curb. And the air has taken to mingling with fierce winds and negative numbers. The nights are a little brighter, though: not everyone has gotten around to unplugging their Christmas lights, and their reflection off the snow makes midnight feel like dawn.
Naturally, on a night like this, I developed a hankering for some apple cinnamon tea. I wandered downstairs, into my parent’s kitchen, and reached for a tea bag. It was as I was watching the bubbles in the little pot of water I was boiling that I realized I had forgotten my phone in my room.
I was seized, instantly, by a wave of panic. Someone could’ve called me, or texted me, or snapped me. And how the hell was I supposed to wait for the enormous cauldron before me to boil without any sort of distraction at all? I could be making a better use of my time by reading the news or watching an informative YouTube video. I could be doing absolutely anything at all, instead of watching water molecules acquire kinetic energy and bump into one another until I deemed it hot enough.
However, I found myself bound to the stovetop and the kitchen by my tendency to wander away from my projects and not return for hours, even if I tell myself that I’m going to come right back. And hot stovetops are not, I have learned, the ideal project to abandon. So I was stuck with the hiss of the gas beneath the burner and a boring kitchen in the nighttime.
I wondered what I could be doing instead. I wondered if I had the capacity to wait around for the entire tea process, steeping and all. I hoisted myself up on the counter and swung my feet. I observed the kitchen table and the living room just beyond it, noting the pattern of shadow and artificial lamplight that emerged from the background. My mutt was draped over her doggy-bed, her nose burrowed beneath the cushion, totally asleep and completely unaware of me and my pot of water. The lamps cast a soft glow, surrendering much of the living room and kitchen to darkness. The Christmas light reflection didn’t reach very far inside, I realized.
I turned a bear-shaped honey container over in my hands. I learned that honey has about sixty calories per tablespoon. I wondered what on earth I’d ever done without a smartphone. I realized, then, that I couldn’t remember. It was like all of the waiting before my sophomore year of high school was gone. What had I done? Did I boil water often, back then?
Well, I reasoned, I read a lot of nutrition facts and shampoo ingredients. A lot of the times, I would try to translate the labels into Spanish, just to pass the time, even though back then I didn’t know the language that well. I think I wasn’t seen without a book in my hand, too. Those didn’t just pass time, they sped it up. I wished I’d have remembered to grab my book. What else had I forgotten? What else did I once know?
I wondered, with some hesitation, if back then I was more complacent just swimming in my sea of thoughts, unprovoked. I thought about a study I’d read recently that said people would willingly subject themselves to electrical shock if it meant they didn’t have to spend four to six minutes doing absolutely nothing. Are our minds that unbearable, that we can’t stew in them for five minutes?
There’s a phrase in Italian, la dolce far niente, which means the sweetness of doing nothing. It made me think that sweetness isn’t always like a lump of sugar in tea, an instant dose of sweet, but instead something that you don’t notice at first; something that you come to realize you’ve unwittingly submerged yourself in. Sometimes sweetness is lowering yourself into a hot bathtub; it’s slow and steady and peaceful.
My experience boiling water and subsequently steeping tea was uneventful. It was dull. But it was, I think, spent no better than if I were on my phone, even in a productive manner, like reading the news or checking my email. Besides, your brain consolidates memories better when you’re doing nothing. That’s why life falls away from you so fast when you try to do everything all at once. Maybe it was a good thing to let my life slow down a little. Maybe forgetting my phone was worth it, after all.
My kitchen isn’t such a bad place to be alone in the nighttime. And neither is my head.