Running along the Southbank the other night after work, huffing and puffing and careering in and out of PEOPLE THAT HAVE TIME TO DAWDLE I clapped my eyes on something that nearly stopped me in my tracks.
A chic woman in a quilted puffer jacket (v. J Crew) was sat outside the BFI's Riverfront Bar, sipping slowly from a steaming great mug of coffee while reading a book under the warm red glow of an outdoor heater.
Nothing unusual about this you say and I agree. Yet, I couldn't take my eyes off her and a pang of mild envy smacked me round the chops without warning.
This malaise had nothing to do with not being able to feel my face thanks to an icy side wind coming off the Thames. Nor that my tatty Berghaus beanie made me resemble Badly Drawn Boy rather than a glowing goddess as we're supposed to look when exercising. No, this was because said lady was sat there doing absolutely nothing. Diddly squat. Nada. No phone, no companion, no evidence of work of any sort. Just her, a book and a hot beverage (and a great coat). There may even have been a cake. She was the antithesis of me; a picture of total and selfless relaxation.
As I trotted on towards the Hungerford Bridge and got stuck behind an overzealous tourist with a selfie stick, I mulled this over in my cold head. When was the last time I actually sat in a café and read something for leisure, rather than obligation? Stopped for longer than ten minutes to focus on one single thing, with no laptop, interruptions or iPhone and just savoured the pure, unadulterated enjoyment of reading?
I couldn't for the life of me remember. This troubled me.
Back in 2007 when I lived in Australia and first arrived as a pasty, scared thing and knew not a soul apart from my sister (I eventually dropped the fear but sadly the pallor never left) I would hang out in bookshops and various eateries in the early few days before city working. Just me, a Lonely Planet and a dog-eared book. I would gulp local coffee and read feverishly, stopping only to scribble some profound nonsense in a travel journal and have a nose at what was going on around me. I would eat whatever I felt like (*I'll have your finest flapjack and a plate of halloumi please*) and leave only when I couldn't make a tap water stretch any further or my bum had gone completely numb. A Jack Johnson soundtrack usually tinkled in the background, he being the epitome of repose.
Later independent travel provided further magic moments to pause in between destinations, seek out a second-hand bookshop and spend any leftover beer money on a battered but well-loved edition. As a result I was quite well-read and had a renewed sense of acuity and calmness. I'd meet the most interesting people when I least expected it. Luckily, Billy No Mates soon got some mates but I'd still disappear every now and then on my own.
Sigh. Which plonks me back down to Earth onto the arctic Southbank, the chilled lady and me squishing in an evening run. Clearly, when you're travelling / on your holidays you have a ton more free time on your hands. In those carefree days, I was sans responsibility, a busy job or an other half and my bestest mates were miles away. I could lounge about in hostels, chat to randoms and enjoy the benefit of wearing 'outdoor clothing' from Millets without fear of bumping into someone I knew. Just me, hanging out with me.
So the puffer lady got my brain ticking and ponder. Ahem, in a very Carrie Bradshaw way *typed words appear on screen*: Why couldn't we carve out some free time from our frantic schedules every now and then and gift it to ourselves? You know, take a breath and escape the chaos. Spend a bit of time doing exactly what we want, not what we have to. Enrich our souls and quiet our minds and... *thud*. That was the sound of a sleep-deprived parent throwing a Peppa Pig book at my head.
Ok, ok I hear you. The reality is there IS no spare time, barely time to pee let alone nibble on a flapjack and peruse a classic Hemingway. Life is so jam-packed and full these days, with crammed professional and personal schedules that there's hardly time to breathe. Free time is appallingly infinitesimal. But isn't it time we invested for the sake of our health and frazzled brains? Make an appointment with ourselves?
How about we all try this experiment together: Put a meeting in our diaries, half an hour here and there, just for ourselves and and stick to the commitment. Adjust this plan to fit to our individual circumstances - perhaps half hour when the kids are in bed to flop on the sofa and read, maybe escape the desk and Regain your Lunch Break as recommended by Stylist or get up with the larks and sneak out when your bed companion's still snoozing and go out for a stroll - just you, your iPod and your inner thoughts. Let's all report back on our findings.
My friend Vicki recently shared with me a beautiful phrase - dolce far niente which, roughly translated, means the 'sweetness of doing nothing'. What a gorgeous concept. Puffer lady had perfected her 'niente'. Mine's a bit rusty, but I've blocked out some time a few Sunday's away to experience the dolce of reading The Goldfinch, sat woefully on my bedside table unread since Crimbo, in a new brunch place round the corner. It should keep me grounded, power me through the bad stuff that life has chucked our way recently and reenact that wonderful sense of liberty I once experienced in Sydney, San Diego, Auckland, Hobart, Lima - right here in London.
So lovely friends, please accept my apologies the next time I decline a vino, a lunch or another adventure around town which you know I'm always up for - I have an appointment with me.
Next time you walk along the Southbank, take a look. It might be me there under the glow of a heater with my nose in a book.
In a better hat I hope.