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Small Talk: ‘Enforced leisure’ — it’s a thing

In scenes of a stalled elevator, there is inevitably panic, much pushing of the buttons, wild attacks of claustrophobia and someone climbing through the little square on the ceiling and shimmying up the cable for help. If that’s your first perception, you have seen too many action movies. 

In my circles, that approach is far, far too lacking in realism to even be considered. There is quite another scenario that those cloistered screenwriters have overlooked, or maybe they just realized it would send the audience into a snooze.

A favorite mother-friend of mine recently played out this alternative scene, when her elevator suddenly stopped mid-floor. She was, of course, in the middle of a typically crazed day, in a hurry to be somewhere, already 15 minutes late. For perhaps a nanosecond, she considered pushing the emergency button, but before she even lifted her finger in that direction, she was overcome with an emotion far more compelling than panic. It was relief.

She was, you see, quite alone in the elevator car. Instead of feeling put upon and distressed, she suddenly knew she had won a “moment.” She had scored a bonus of what I like to call “enforced leisure.” It is pretty much the only leisure some of us get, at least without tons of accompanying guilt.

My friend needed only to take one deep breath before seeing the opportunity for what it was. She was confident assistance would come soon and decided to simply bask in the silence — the delicious, rare, unplanned, uninterrupted quiet. No one could blame her, question her or force her to hurry up. It was a luxury ranking with bon-bons, massage or an afternoon nap.

We can’t rely on sticky elevators, but we are always on the alert for those moments — a time that unintentionally graces us with some small bit of uncompromised relaxation. It might be that one time when all your children simultaneously fall asleep for their naps, or perhaps the five minutes in the car waiting for the train to pass by. Whenever you stumble over it, embrace it and sit tight. The wave of normal chaos is peaking just behind you and will shortly break right over your head. Until then, just smile and breathe deeply.

For these very reasons, it’s a wonder I’m not a screaming hypochondriac.  It’s never easy to squeeze in doctor appointments, but when I must, I always hope the waiting room is stocked with good reading material. I get my cultural update and savor a few moments of that wonderful “enforced leisure.” Especially once you’ve donned that silly backless gown, you have no choice but to stretch out, guilt-free, and read a magazine.

Whether I’m stepping into that elevator or scheduling that doctor’s visit, the words of cagey Br’er Rabbit, and his timeless plea to his archenemy, ring in my ears.

“Please, please don’t throw me in that briar patch.” Oops.

Jean Gillette is a freelance writer relishing quiet moments whenever she stumbles over them. Contact her at [email protected]