The Fine Art Of Doing Nothing

What I wake up to every morningSongbirds whistle in the trees. The soft patter of children running in the street and the sleepy rustle of leaves in the breeze fill my ears.

“Horas,” they call out in greeting. A child whines and clothes dry in the cool lake air. Branches sway; the sun falls upon my face; some invisible force pulls the clouds away and over the mountains. They watch calmly. They are patient—just like the Batak.

Shouts rise from the pier below: a ferry passes, conversations drift in off the water. Carried by the wind. A boy calls to his father. A moped sputters past and ‘Uncle’ pulls in smoke from his cigarette. He taps out a rhythm on the table with his fingers, bends over, whispers something to the boy next to him who dutifully rises, returning with a full glass of palm wine.

There is a ruckus in the kitchen. Clouds pass over the sun again. An empty beer bottle rolls on the ground, shattering the silence. A hungry kitten begs for my attention. I throw him a chicken bone. It crunches in his strong, tiny jaws. I think about swimming, but the urge passes. “I’ve already showered in the lake,” I tell myself.

Momma cat stares at me with her one blue eye and one green. Keys jingle in a pocket. A door slams. She holds her stare—“what eyes these cats have here,” I think—pale blue, almost gray. Others as green as a beer bottle. She is hungry. She wants chicken too. But it’s gone—her kitten ate all of my leftovers. She paces back and forth now. Someone tunes a guitar.

“They will play soon,” I think to myself, “when the sun sets, the songs begin.”

A pomegranate falls to the ground in a muffled thud. ‘Uncle’ coughs, drinks more wine. We can’t speak to each other but our simultaneous smiles communicate all that needs to be said.

The wind shifts, now coming from the East, from Medan and the vast waters of the Straits. It stirs up the lake water—white caps appear, a cock crows in the distance like a confused muezzin. Children mumble downstairs playing a game with rocks.

‘Uncle’ climbs into the rafter on his wife’s orders, pulls out some wires. “Those are the ones,” she indicates. She tells him what to do and he does so without complaint. They share the soft ease of familiarity, children and many years of marriage in a smile.

She is strong. She is stout. Not handsome, but not ugly, either. Her children surround her. Like pilgrims come to see the Pieta in the Vatican they touch her softly, with reverence. They tug her red shirt, mewling questions.

“Her chicken curry is splendid,” I think to myself.

‘Uncle’ confirms he is doing it right. She smiles again. He smiles. She returns to the kitchen, shooing her children away like flies.

‘Grandmother’ sits in the shade. She smiles a beautiful, welcoming, red smile.

“She likes beetelnuts,” Antonio tells me, “they help with her afflictions.” She is 70 years old but smacks her grandson for some transgression with the reflexes of a professional athlete. He howls at the injustice and runs inside.

‘Mother’ brings me ‘kopi suzu.’

“Sean,” she says, “Stay away from palm wine. Or you will be like him.” She points at ‘Uncle’ her husband and laughs. He’s playing the guitar now. His task with the wires complete.

Dragonflies circle the mulch pile like silent helicopters. A bee-eater darts in like a dive-bomber, snagging one and scattering the rest.

My coffee is of heaven. I admire the copy of Herodotus on the table before me. I consider reading it.

“Why,” I ask myself, “visit Cambyses, the Persian Conquest of Egypt and the ‘Long-Lived’ Ethiopians, when what is before me, rain rolling over a tall cliff, a canoe tugging a fishnet or that whisper on the wind are so much more compelling?”

I haven’t listened to my iPod for days. Why should I? What does that world have to offer me that I don’t have right here?

“Horas,” says Efan.

“Horas,” I reply.

Two bee-eaters in a pine tree are chattering. A mother hen clucks. The wind remains steady, water beating against the shore in regular intervals now. The waves beat time for ‘Uncle’s’ songs.

“Aha!” I think to myself. “That’s why their rhythms are so unique. Sure, the music is based on the Western scale, but the rhythms are waves beating time.”

Perhaps the secret of the whisper will be so revealed. So I hope.

I think about swimming again but put it off. There is too much nothing right here before me to miss.

I can’t afford to miss any of it and so I remain, quiet, observing with a smile and ‘Horas’ ready on my tongue.

I am reminded of Yeats and his “bee loud glade.” This must be what he meant. His other poems are too mystical for me. But I know “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” I am there.

One of the boys knocks fruit from a tree. He’s pudgy. Likes food. He smiles at me as he peels back the skin of some exotic tropical fruit. Whose life is better? Who has more imagination? This boy who has the world before him or one who plays Nintendo all day?

No, wait. The world I so want to escape intrudes. I brush the thought away.

The ferry pulls up to our pier. Perhaps we have new guests? I summon the will to rise up and see. It’s a Japanese girl.

“Traveling alone,” I think? Curious.

‘Uncle’ sings in the late afternoon breeze. I sit. Exhausted by the effort. I won’t move again for at least another hour.

It starts to trickle. Water beats down on corrugated iron roofs. The smell of fresh rain and asphalt rise in the still air. Children run inside, hurrying to take down the clothes drying in the sunshine now past.

What magnificent mélange of sounds is this? Children scurrying about, ‘Uncle’ on the guitar, the wind and the rain?

If I didn’t know any better, if I didn’t know that something else amazing would happen as I sit here over the next few hours, I might fool myself into thinking my day was complete.

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