We were sitting round the dinner table in our Airbnb lakeside cabin at Mont Tremblant, Quebec, last week – Sarah and I and our two grown-up children, Anna and Jake. Anna’s reaching the end of the first year of a two-year working visit to Canada. We hadn’t all been together for about eighteen months and there was a lovely feeling of family closeness and warmth.
‘Where does everyone want to be in a year’s time?’ asked Anna. We went round the table. Anna, among other things a writer and musician, has itchy feet: it would probably be somewhere in Europe once her Canadian visa expires, she thought. Jake, her junior, has a good, steady job in the City and hoped he will be on the way to buying a house with his girlfriend. Sarah, a counsellor in both private practice and the NHS, and now also a yoga teacher, wished fervently for fewer commitments.
When it came to my turn I surprised myself by saying: ‘more time for footering’, and as I said it, realising that there was nothing flippant about this. I can’t remember when I last had time to footer, but now it seemed like something I missed in the way I might miss a vital organ.
The Scots expression ‘footerin’ aboot’ can mean being a nuisance and getting in the way, but it can also mean simply idling away the time, picking things up and putting them down again, wandering around in a daydream. (It is supposed to derive, incidentally, from the medieval French word foutre which means to have sexual intercourse – so literally ‘fucking about’ which, as Kurt Vonnegut famously said, is the whole purpose of our presence on Earth, ‘and don’t let anyone tell you different.’).
Etymology notwithstanding, I miss it not because I have any great wish to be idle, but because it’s often the best route to my imaginative self; the place where I do my best and most creative thinking. Or rather, the place from which my best and most creative thoughts emerge, that state of mental and emotional free-wheeling that good footering fosters.
There are days when I long to be able to go to my second office, our local arts centre, and rather than ploughing through a long list of emails, simply sit there with a cup of coffee for an hour or so and see what comes to mind. The vacuum would not be total: I’m aware of things I want time to reflect on, projects I’d like to develop, but they seem to be mere shadows at the edge of my consciousness, forever denied the mental space they need to take shape of their own accord.
It’s that spontaneity of emergence that’s the key, the best reward for good footering. The point of footering is precisely not to think about anything in particular. But, as anyone who has ever tried meditating will know, thinking of the opposite, nothing, is almost impossible. Therefore, good footering needs some kind of focus, however pointless. Re-arranging the bookshelves by colour of spine would count as good footering in my book.
Children are expert footerers. In that freewheeling childhood play state, imaginations are at liberty both to act and be acted upon. The result might be a made-up game of ponies and pirates, or a big question such as Who is God? Either would be the product of what, in adult terms, would be considered unproductive activity.
In a TV interview last night, on the eve of publication of La Belle Sauvage, the eagerly awaited (by me, certainly) first volume of The Book of Dust, his Northern Lights prequel, Philip Pullman lamented an education system which ‘greatly discounts the importance of the imagination’ in favour of a gradgrind regime of measurable activities and attainments. It’s an education system that actively discourages daydreaming or footering, thereby establishing a mindset that follows us through into adulthood.
I know footering is good for me and I recognise that I’m probably limiting my own potential through my lack of it. I have only myself to blame for that; I’m old enough not to have anyone telling me I can or can’t footer. But if my experience of its benefits is anything like the norm, then it should be an essential part of all our lives.
If you like the sound of a weekend of guided footering (and some personal reflection and insight), come and join us for The Stories We Tell, 25/26 November. More details here.