Skip to content

PO Box 609, Stn P
Toronto, ON M5S 2Y4

[email protected]

  • Ontario Creates
  • Ontario Arts Council
  • Canada Council for the Arts

On Boredom

From Brick 105

Brick 105 cover

Let’s imagine it is interesting to think about boredom. The particular boredom of childhood: vague, a bit listless, on the precipice of possibility. Where time is expansive and anything and nothing might pique one’s curiosity, or it might not. The kind of boredom in which afternoons are eternal.

When I try to recall the boredom and aimlessness of childhood, I find mostly hazy memories hovering on the horizons of my synapses: the feeling of sun through an open window, the fug of ancient blankets spread over chairs to make a fort. Cicadas. Grass drying in the heat. June bugs hitting the screen. What is it about expansive time and summer? No school, probably. Though surely I was bored at other times, it was always summer boredom that was visceral. Underwater time. Mornings on a screened-in porch, the ancient Naugahyde glider creaking as I tap my foot. Afternoons spent swimming swimming swimming. Evenings that stretch past dinner, the hum of mosquitos thickening as the sun fades. Almost always I am alone in these memories. There is never television. There are often books, which I have finished, and the feeling of almost-sleep or near-frustration. As I enter my fortieth year, I find myself recalling these moments more and more. This is not nostalgia. It is something else. I think it has to do with time.

Now let’s imagine that other kinds of boredom can be interesting. Take, for example, the boredom of “ordinary devotion” in Maggie Nelson’s terms. She is borrowing from D. W. Winnicott, who maintained that if devotion was an important developmental step in the work of mothering, then a lack of devotion—the ability simply to provide care without getting too gummed up, without feeling ruined—was also crucial. So let us imagine that the ordinary devotion of care is also boring, at least in part. I think that this, too, has to do with expansive time, but here that expanse is accounted for in small acts of giving care. The time of rocking. Of holding. Of the crick in the neck that comes from falling asleep that way. Of the one-two-three-four-five count and slow breath before going, again, for the fifth time to soothe. Of remembering one’s own desire to be soothed. Of toddlers’ incessant questions. Of hoping for ten—just ten!—minutes alone and then attaining them and being at a loss. But also, this is about the familiar shape of a day, of a life I built. How boring this time is, how banal. And yet how risky to say so. “I am a bit restless,” I admitted, in hushed tones, to an acquaintance in the early months of new motherhood. I was quieted with a look of disapproval. Then, later, I overheard a whisper: “She must have postpartum depression.” Perhaps I did. Perhaps there are gradations of boredom around motherhood, and not all of them are negative. When one is interested in these creatures and their growing habits, one is devoted. When one is interested in writing about these creatures, one becomes pigeonholed as that kind of writer.

Or no. That’s not quite it. As my writer friend says, my fear might be misplaced. She suggests that the fear might be more pernicious than just my focus on art. Perhaps, she muses, our fear—hers and mine—is of being not that kind of writer but that kind of person. Focusing on ordinary devotions and the daily boredoms that come from giving care. Being attentive to (even chafing against) the slow. Noticing the unremarkable and the miraculously unremarked and then writing about them. That might be telling. What does it tell? I am not Jenny Offill’s art monster, who gives everything to creation. In Offill’s novel, Dept. of Speculation, the protagonist (a new mother) considers the dissolution of the possibility of becoming an art monster—one of those makers dedicated wholly to their practice—after the birth of her child. “Women almost never become art monsters,” the reader is told, “because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.” So not an art monster. Not even Navarana Igloliorte’s photographs of herself as laundry dancer, determined to make art from the dailiness of uncreative care. Just me, investing in these subjects, and in so doing becoming small like them. Transparent and molecular. This kind of boredom, this kind of time. It, too, stretches itself across the horizon of my thinking.

I find these subjects—of care, of boredom— interesting in great part because they fill my days. Or rather, have filled my days, for days do have a habit of going on and becoming softer in the rear-view. I began this thinking about boredom in the expanse of early spring when not crocuses but freezing rain gathered on the ground. I had left the city after a hard winter. I was shaken, shaking. I am used to filling every minute of my time with action and calling that meaningfulness, calling myself useful. This is a learned behaviour, and it makes me efficient in my own way. I am also used to having command of my time. As a child with no siblings, and parents who worked long hours, especially in the summer, I built a foundation of feeling as though days are my own. What folly to think so, really. I am fascinated by my own boredom. I think about my body becoming soft under hours of nursing a newborn. How the work of sharing my time with a small creature is raw and tender and tedious. I am thinking of how time in these cases of tending and attending another is also expansive and endless, but the quality of that endlessness holds a different kind of tenor. I am thinking, also, of how boredom gets mixed up with sadness. How depression might be a public feeling, yes. An archive, certainly. And about how familiar the descent of the bell jar feels with its accompanying darkness. How familiar and how banal. Is this what leads us to water when we are not thirsty? Why is middle age the point when so many of my favourite writers died? Have I mentioned it is my fortieth year? Oh, yes. I have.

These are midnight thoughts. Midnight thoughts are much like the midnight zone, that place in the ocean I’ve learned about from a children’s television show: the light is different in the midnight zone. It is too deep for the surface light to reach down; creatures here have to make their own.

Schopenhauer is of little use to me on these matters. Adorno might be.

Of Heidegger I have not much to say.

My friend found these references off-putting.

This interests me. When I began thinking about boredom, or this cluster of affects I am herding beneath the umbrella of boredom, I thought only of women. Then I did a search on “writers and boredom” and those were the top three names that appeared. Of the three only Adorno’s work has remained on my shelf, albeit his work on aesthetics. But perhaps that’s the same thing? Besides, as another friend reminds me, there are many valences of boredom. Incarceration is boring. Detainment is boring. Illness is boring. Boring might not be the most accurate term, I concede. What is? Structural analysis, she replies. I feel chastened. It is a familiar feeling. That familiarity? Boring, frankly. I bore myself. What does one call that? Indulgence, or prescience? The therapist tells me to stop being so hard on myself. I tell myself to stop being so self-absorbed. We may both be a little right.

After the cry that wakes me out of a dream where I am trying to get somewhere and am hopelessly late yet still running. After “Mama, I need an ice cube.” After “Mama, it still hurts.” After “I can’t sleep.” After there is sleep. After these things, I am here thinking the kind of thoughts I shouldn’t. Not at this time of night. Not ever, really. Why do we get on airplanes? Who can hold the tin-can-through-spaceness of it all in their mind without feeling dizzy? Why was I not better at physics? Why does the dog breathe so loudly? Have I lost feeling in the left side of my body? Is it always this hot in here? What, really, did Simone Weil mean when she said we need roots, all of us? How is it possible to endure time and not become less than we each are, not become mean in the midst of that endurance? Is it all durational performance art? Will I have time to buy milk before the gym, before the house wakes up? Will I always feel this pull of sadness at the temporality of it all, the fleetingness? Is it just that my thoughts are darkest in late March? Will I ever stop tearing up when I think of the smallness of my child’s nose and the inevitability that we all disappoint one another at some point? (And then, in the revisions, will I be able to avoid changing “some point” to “again and again in a single day”?) Will I ever write again? Why did I ever care about Twitter? What is the internet but another box that, when opened by a deeply curious femme, attacks her in her wild desires toward knowledge? Did I pay the phone bill? Can I? And then: when did I last see this hour of night? August. It was August in a small town in New Brunswick. I’d sat on the bench after the musicians had packed up and my companion talked about banality. I was sober, they were not, and after they’d talked themself to a quiet place I drove home through the marsh and across the province, and then down the narrow lane where two skunks frolicked—there’s no other word for it, they frolicked—beside the car for a few moments as I passed them and arrived home. After all of it I was awake, as now, in the sharpest part of the night.

I am not a wakeful person. I am a dutifullywaking person. I feel as if, should I wake early enough, I will beat the noonday demon away from the door of my heart. If I can get organized enough, prepared enough. If I can exhaust myself before dawn, then surely I will be kind.

I wake to the alarm clock I have placed under two pillows to keep from waking anyone else in the house, which is to say that I wake to the sound of my phone. Of course, the dog wakes too. I wake from dreams that are predictable. I used to wake to a pulse that rabbited in my chest. I used to wake with mainly rage and despair. Now, I wake. Dutiful. Answering a call that has been set by me the night before. There is nothing special in this waking, save for the fact that I do it for myself. The routine of it. Up. Glasses. Sports bra (too tight). Sweatshirt. Leggings. Down the stairs for coffee and milk. Out the door in the darkness of night’s shoulder.

If, as Sue Goyette writes, a bear can nudge the word mother and sometimes find it lacking, then I can too. I can too.

But oh, it is effort, that nudging. It tires me. I bore myself in the cycles of emotion. This is not the boredom of childhood. This is something else that I call boredom to avoid calling it what it is. There’s nothing to see in my early waking but sweat and effort and the mundane glory of having done work. Every day it is the same. Every day it is like it never happened. The work that happens before the house awakes is witnessed only by the dog, who, steadfast in his patience, thinks only of a walk. Of a run. Of something that is beyond what I can imagine, for who has imagined what a dog might think with the fulsome generosity that comes in the in-between hours? Someone has, of course, and I’m conflating things. Gena Rowlands is the canine narrator in the central section of Claudia Dey’s staggering novel Heartbreaker. The dog is an expert in patience and longing. Elsewhere, Dey has written about stealing time from child care to write. I cling to her declaration— that she steals that time—and I look at the dog. Who knows what this other creature is wishing for as I pad my bare feet across the floor, feeling the grit of the sidewalk that works its way in. It is a quiet comradeship we share. Two edgy creatures, waiting for the sleepers to wake. Keeping our own councils. Wondering, perhaps, but never asking what the other needs. What company.

Bless the espresso machine, bought in a moment of desperation and foresight. Bless breakfast, laid out and waiting. Bless a clean counter and a stack of dishes in the drying rack. Bless the folded clothes and the clean bathroom. Bless the idea of a mitten box by the door. Bless the changing focus of a life of reading. Bless the patience and desire I now have for things that once made me impatient. Bless me because I still care but won’t look back. Bless salt. Bless Lot’s wife, never named, but bless her for looking back, wistful. I would have, too, had I been raised with less shame. Bless Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living. Bless this small girl in the room above me, for she shall inherit something more than my pathos. “I believe that always, or almost always, in all childhoods and in all the lives that follow them, the mother represents madness,” writes Marguerite Duras. “Our mothers always remain the strangest, craziest people we’ve ever met.”

Let’s say it is a Monday morning. Of course it is a Monday. Cold, clear, sunny. Filled with frost and the fine dust of life that coats every surface when the light is just so. Never mind that I filled the two hours of nap time on Saturday with frantic and energized cleaning. There are still cobwebs (how, in late winter?) drifting from the ceiling to the wall, just out of reach, right in my sightline. Breakfast has been eaten. Hair has been brushed. So, too, teeth. All bags, packed, have been strapped to me. We could drive, I suppose, but I prefer to walk. I want to go under my own steam. What’s more, I want to carry all the groceries in one trip, proving to myself and no one else that I am capable. I realize there are memes about just this foolishness. I feel foolish and seen when I encounter these memes. Yet I continue—with the groceries and the memes. Of course I do. So, we walk. In the cold, we walk. Through the steam hiccupping from buildings, we walk. Across the windswept Commons we walk, bitten by wind. “Uppy, Mama,” and I am carrying her too. Arms aching. Mittens clenched beneath her. No slipping, not slipping. We make it to the daycare, thank god, and after clamouring to open the door, she is back in my arms (still aching), and somehow we make it up the stairs. My arms are on fire. My neck aching. We make it five minutes early, and I will in turn make my meeting. But no. The small stuffed unicorn—beloved, ragged with love— has fallen. Where? Where. Back down the stairs away from the stricken small face. Out the door in a mix of panic and fury. Up the hill (grumbling). Past the needle exchange, past the new hipster doughnut shop, past the plastic-free bulk store. No stuffie. Across the Commons. Nothing. All the while picturing that little face, feeling rage—why didn’t you hold on?—and that thing that is below rage that is not justified. Shame? Sheepishness? Feeling both of those and more. When did they become “stuffies” anyhow? I can conjure the smell of my own stuffed animals still. The way I pushed my face into them to quiet my own crying. Their placid brown-black eyes always ready for hugs or tears or adventure. Where did they go? Packed in plastic when I came home with lice, and my mother cleaned, white-lipped with frustration, while I sat on the steps beside the bee-filled forsythia. Lost in moves between countries. Musty with childhood. D. W. Winnicott has a theory about child development and transitional objects. They are sovereign to the child herself and vital to her development. They must never change, he writes, unless directed by the child. What pathology. What privilege. I think these things as I retrace my steps, enraged. Frantic. Bored by the idiocy and power of my love. Enthralled by it. When is boredom also reverence?

Unbelievably, I find it. I find the unicorn. There, under the doorbell of the daycare I spilled out of minutes before. There, dropped within reach of a little mittened hand, reaching. That gorgeous mittened hand. I grab it. Burst in, triumphant and annoyed. Unload that triumph on the women who care for our child all day so that I might come to a quiet office and write this. Even as I am in the midst of regaling them, I am bored by the predictability of the story, of my indulgent need to tell it to them in the break-room quiet that I have interrupted. I leave, late, saturated in my own inane predictability. It is not quite nine.

Boredom, for Adorno, marks a shift in social politics. Boredom is ideology. It is the oppositional relationship that has emerged in free-market capitalism. There is nothing free about time that is unfettered with demands. There is no time that is unfettered with demands. That’s not Adorno, not really. That doesn’t make it less true. When I read about others’ boredom, it is never unfettered. It is tied to work, and the demands it places upon us. It is gendered. It is my partner’s mother, exhausted after a twelve-hour shift in emerg in a small town, wide awake in front of the television. It is waiting for the ferry in Port aux Basques (a thing I have never done). It is trying to reach your loved ones in another time zone after you’ve done your work. It is sitting and wondering what they are doing. It is the reaching the mind must do from here to there, held taut by needs must andget it done. It is two hours off between a swing shift. It is time unfilled and knowing, knowing that there is always something to fill it. It is knowing this and doing something else.

Depression, for Ann Cvetkovich, is something just as telling as boredom. In her meditation on depression and scholarly life, she posits the usefulness of the concept of acedia. Properly the affective realm of Christian monks whose work was, in great part, self-scrutiny and reflection. Sometimes this self-scrutiny went a bit off track, and a monk would experience acedia, which is described by the fourth-century writer John Cassian as a “weariness of the heart.” While acedia has been passed over by much of cultural as well as medical writing around mental health, Cvetkovich posits that it might offer a useful location from which to think about the pervasiveness of bad feelings in the twenty-first century generally and among literary scholars particularly. Cvetkovich ultimately aligns this restless boredom of the sad soul with “political depression,” which has the potential to link “emotional and political life.” So perhaps my bad feelings are not markers of postpartum pathologies but something else, or something in-between.

And perhaps not.

Then there is that part of the day when I reach wits’ end. It is predictable, and while it is not noon for me, when it comes scratching at the door of the rag-and-bone shop that is my heart, I answer, weary and familiar. The straw, the camel. The fathomless frustration (with who?). In summer the herons often come at this time of the evening. I know. It is derivative to talk about birds and to apply some sort of anthropocentric meaning onto their creaturely work. Besides, the poets have been here already. After Mary Oliver, geese are done. Don McKay has, if not the last word on birds in poetic writing, then certainly many of the good words. Still, it is true: the great blue herons come here around this time in the summer, and regardless of the seasons, I feel the day shift from get it doneto stillness. From June to October they stand for hours on the rocks just outside our front windows. They mark something. Time. Endurance. The existence of dinosaurs. They make me laugh, these birds, with their high knees and slow steps.

What are they doing? I ask almost every night. It is a predictable question. It is an unanswerable question. Still, I ask it.


Erin Wunker lives, works, and teaches in K’jipuktuk (Halifax, Nova Scotia). She is the author of Notes from a Feminist Killjoy: Essays on Everyday Life.

More Articles

Read from Brick 106