A place to pause

On a patio in a faraway land, a student finds the time and space to unravel and organise her thoughts.

ONE of my favourite poems is W.H. Davies’ Leisure, in which he wrote, “What is this life if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare?”

Living in Toronto, Canada, as a graduate student in the fall of 2002, I had ample time to stand and stare. I even had the perfect place to indulge in this introspection – Rafaella’s patio.

I remember the first time I met Rafaella. Her house was the last one I had to see that autumn day. As I stepped inside, I fervently wished that it would be the house that I’d be living in. I didn’t have the energy to meet anymore prospective landlords if this didn’t work out. So I prayed hard.

After spending many minutes touring the space Rafaella had advertised for and answering questions from her son because she didn’t speak fluent English, she looked at me and declared definitively: “Yours is like an Italian name. Okay, you can rent from me.”

And just like that, I became her tenant.

I rented the lower ground floor of her four-storey house for the next school year. The main entrance was a set of sliding doors that opened out to Rafaella’s garden in the back.

The garden was not substantial in size but every available bit of space had been lovingly utilised. Along the left wall were tomato plants which had begun to ripen. When it did, Rafaella would collect them and can the tomatoes. I was a proud and grateful recipient of several such cans. As a student on a budget, those cans were like gold to me.

On the far wall, opposite the sliding doors, was where Rafaella’s herb garden flourished. There were stalks of basil, parsley and a multitude of other herbs – the names of which I never learnt – growing along the wooden fence. Their fragrance perfumed the air.

There was also a pear tree and a plum tree in the garden. The pears were the sweetest I have ever had; the plums, I never saw bear fruit.

The spot in which I sat and stared was the patio, immediately outside the sliding doors. On the right of the patio, there was a trellis where vines of green grapes crept upward, reaching for the rays of the sun. There were two chairs on the patio, the kind that had narrow wooden slats along the back and the seat.

When I sat there, the trellis and the trees provided enough shade from the sun, and from that vantage point I could see all the neighbours’ houses. When I closed my eyes, I could even hear the rustling of the leaves on the pear tree. Harmonious melody.

On week days, I would do my course readings, interspersed with daydreaming. Once I was even inspired to write a short story about a squirrel that was moving acorns from one hidey-hole to another. During those lazy mornings (or afternoons, depending on my class schedule), I also wrote numerous poems and filled pages and pages in my journal. I had never been as prolific in the written word as I was then. I didn’t need the Pomodoro technique to help me focus; being there on the seat on that patio was focus enough.

When I wasn’t reading or writing, I’d just sit and listen to whatever was playing on my CD and stared out at the day unfolding before me. Contemplating, reflecting, dreaming.

And whenever I felt homesick, I’d go out and sit on the patio in the nighttime and feel the wind on my face and in my hair, and hear the crickets sing.

I’d let whatever feelings I had pass through me, after which I always emerged more level-headed.

All the moments of introspection set my head as straight as it could be. I never felt more in control of my life than in those quiet moments, which were always pregnant with possibilities. Gosh, those were cherished moments.

Oh, how I love that garden. I still see it, even in my dreams.

Now that I’m back home, I have no such place for quiet introspection. Not really. I try to make time and find a place to just sit and stare, but it’s different. Here, there is the sense that one should always be on the go, keeping busy, and that to be idle even for a minute is an indication that one is lazy and unproductive.

And because I never made time to just be idle and introspective, I realise that, more often than not, my thoughts are jumbled, disorganised, uncertain.

The last verse of Davies’ poem goes: “A poor life this if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare.”

I don’t want to live a poor life simply because I worry that if I slowed down to mull and ponder, I will fall out of sync with the speed at which everyone is moving. I have to make time to stand and stare. I have to make Rafaella’s patio come alive here in my life.

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