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Idle Hands Do What?

January 30, 2008

What do idle hands do anyway? Are they the devil’s workshop? Where does the expression come from? Idle hands are the devil’s tools – idleness is the root of mischief; this maxim has been traced back to Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales, the Tale of Melibee.” c. 1386. And therfore seith Seint Jerome, ‘dooth somme goode dedes that the devel, which is oure enemy, ne fynde yow nat unocupied. For the devel ne taketh nat lightly unto his werkynge swiche as he fyndeth occupied in goode werkes.’ Yada yada yada. God, how I love Chaucerian English; the way it just rolls off the tongue sets me a giggle.

I checked out “Google” and came up with varying forms of this proverb: Satan has some mischief for idle hands to do; the devil finds work (or mischief) for idle hands to do,” from the Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings” by Gregory Y. Titelman (Random House, New York, 1996). And much more that I won’t go into. It was also the title of a B movie (Idle Hands), and a Rock Band (who call themselves Idle Hands Banned).

I got to thinking about idle hands and the gist of that proverb while I was emailing a friend, and mentioned a change in my – long distance driving – plans for the day, due to a winter storm heading in our direction; snow billowing making white-out conditions, temperatures that drop from above freezing to zero degrees in about ten minutes or maybe twenty; and how because of that plan change and the fact that I wasn’t going to be in my studio anyway (before I’d even heard about the storm), I decided to stay home. I think the “idle hands message” is fairly clear to me……..I found myself getting into some “mischief” because my day had no structure. So I pretended I was a lady of leisure and started off the day with my feet on the coffee table, my mouth munching some bonbons while sipping a cup of tea; all the while watching some vacuous stuff on TV before my conscience got the better of me and I switched over to the radio and NPR. The part about the bonbons wasn’t true; I never eat chocolate in the morning, saving my plunge into decadence for the evening, when I’m triggered by N’s eternal snooping around the pantry after dinner. I can blame him too.

The dog started to squeak, taking advantage of me being home and a sucker for walking her around outside far too often. After tip-toeing around the minefield of dog poop on our back lawn with a now reluctant dog at the end of the leash (she likes warm weather), I realized everything had defrosted in the above freezing (duh) weather making our stroll a little more hazardous and mine more mindful. And there’s a snow storm coming? Sure didn’t look like it. The joy of owning a dog always become self evident at this time of year; the snow melts too early (when one isn’t yet psyched for the spring clean up), leaving in its wake canine residuals that had previously been lost (and forgotten) beneath the snow. I told you this was an idle hands day.

Going shopping came next. No, not for frivolous goodies for myself, but for food; but first I had to have lunch. I’ve learned never to shop for food when one is hungry; one never knows what will end up in the shopping cart as a result of a rumbling stomach. “Sweetheart, what are we going to do with 7 lbs of Reese’s Pieces? And that’s 20 or 21 packets of frozen cookie dough you have there?” And I’m gluten intolerant. Even dog food has a certain appeal. Oh, don’t go there.

When I came home putting the groceries away had a certain Zen quality to it. I paid attention to everything I was doing and where it was going; caressing each package as I extricated it from the brown paper bag; which shelf in the pantry, what drawer in the fridge; tossing out any fruit that had been overlooked from two weeks earlier (you know which ones), like I’d never paid attention before; and I paid closer attention to N (who had just returned home) and noticed with an appraising eye as he poked around everything I had just purchased with an appraising eye. Then he and I sat down for a cup of tea. How civilized he says, how English.

Now the house is creaking as the wind whips its way around the roof and chimney, rattling at the windows; and the temperature has fallen at least 25 degrees. I’m so grateful not to be out on the Interstate hanging onto the steering wheel in this frigid gale even though the snow has not yet started to fall.

It was an “idle hands” day, but one that, every once in a Blue Moon, probably needs to happen.

Copyright © 2008

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