Reveling in mental flâneurie
Updated: Jan 5
Occasionally when I get together with my weekly writer group, talk turns to aimless meanderings. Over tea, coffee, or cocktails, and always snacks, we discuss family, work, politics, books we like and recommend, and so on. Eventually we get to discussing our writing. The time it took to get to the writing, which I thought was the main reason we usually met, used to bother me. Not so much these days.
I used to think we had to make the most of the time we set aside from our family responsibilities and really focus our efforts on the "important" work of our writing. In part, because there are more than a half dozen of us now at these weekly gatherings and I often fret that not everyone will get a turn at being heard or their work discussed. I was wrong. Time expands for us and no one is left behind or unheard.
What I've learned in the 3+ years we've all been together—many of us first meeting in the same writing class—or anytime I congregate with other writers, is that there's much to gain while reveling in mental flâneurie. "Mental flâneurie" is a term coined by Siddhartha Deb in A Novella That Ticks Like a Bomb, his recent The Paris Review article (June 26, 2019). He begins his article by describing "...an afternoon of wandering conversation...of freewheeling hours...that the Bengalis call adda..." and how this loose time among friends "...makes no concessions to modernity's iron cage of productivity and self-improvement..." though, to Deb at least, they still prove useful. I sat with that for a bit; its impact on me, profound. Whiling away time can be useful. How 'bout that?
Many times, I've said productivity is in my DNA. Anyone who knows me well will attest to this affliction. Even today, when my mother calls me on the telephone, her first question is never, "How are you?" Rather disconcertingly though familiarly, it is, "What are you doing?" As if my life is based on my human doing-ness versus my being-ness. There's even a meme about human beings versus human doings. I can relate.
My friend recently gave me Marlee Grace's book, How to Not Always Be Working: A toolkit for creativity and radical self-care. "Part workbook, part advice manual, part love letter," Grace's book is helping me focus on how to get the best use of my time. The jury is still out on exactly what that looks like for me, yet I feel like I'm getting closer. The book has helped, and if one friend can recognize how I wrestle with myself, what does that tell me about how I am dealing with my struggle? It means I still have work to do. But not that kind, if you know what I mean.
Much has been written about how busy and overworked Americans are, and though I am Italian and Canadian by birth and citizenship, I am "pseudo-American" (as my American husband likes to call it) because I live and work in the U.S. Mix together my Friulian heritage of stubbornness and hard work with the American culture of constant hamster-wheel work ethic, you get, well, me. A woman who writes and thinks about writing all the time, and only in her middle age, is learning to embrace "Idyllwild Days"—my version of Deb's mental flâneurie and the Bengali's adda. To my knowledge, the Italians don't have a similar word in their vocabulary to the French's "flâneurie." The closest we come to is a "vagabondare", but that doesn't fit me or what I experience in the lead up to my weekly writer gatherings. Perhaps flâneurie is a word that's lost in translation? No, too easy.
We Italians have "fare una passegiatta", which is more than just a phrase about walking. According to Clare Speak and how I was brought up, it's an "art form." On the surface, it's a time-honored walking tradition that occurs after dinner and is believed to aid digestion. However, if you've ever heard the phrase, fare la bella figura, you know there's more to it. You will understand that a passegiatta is not just about a stroll around town, in the piazza, or along a seaside promenade. It's about being seen, and in your Sunday best, too. Even when walking leisurely, the Italians have to put a spin on it; the Friulians, it's more like an event, a spectacle.
The concept of looking good (bella figura) is ingrained in Italian culture. For Friulians (those people in the northeast corner of Italy where my ancestors hail on both sides), I believe it is part of their "hard-working people" identity. They can't be "seen" to be "lazy." That would be unforgivable; practically a sin and worthy of confession.
Add the intent behind the Italian bella figura and passegiatta to the American concept of 24/7/365 productivity, what do you get? A writer struggling to set aside cultural preconceptions and accept mental flâneurie as one of the BEST tools in her creativity toolbox. It takes patience to change one's ways. I remind myself I didn't get this way overnight so cut myself some slack. The struggle lessens everyday as I honor the pauses. Thanks to the many meandering conversations with writer friends—my comfort and sustenance—I adda* get there one day soon.
*With apologies to the Bengali people for adapting your word to fit my humor