Entirely simultaneously these two things are true: everyone is an expert potterer and no one is an expert potterer. You can do it frequently but you cannot do it ‘well’. There are no benchmarks for success when you listen to the radio, rearrange books on a shelf or stand on a chair flicking a tea towel at a cobweb on the ceiling.
Pottering – the doing of small domestic tasks and occupations in and around the home – doesn’t honestly look all that productive, but you can achieve a surprising amount by repairing, cooking, gardening, upcycling, doing hobbies and DIY. There are other benefits, too: you can become so absorbed in sorting through and organising the contents of a long-neglected cupboard, that this simple physical activity somehow allows you a mental break to reset and gather your thoughts.
Equally no one can disapprove, inspect or guide you when you (slightly unnecessarily) organise and fold all your shopping bags, and select one as your ‘best’ grab-and-go bag to be left by the front door ready for your weekly shop. Activities like this lack ceremony: you are completely free of judgement and free to do as you please. It’s an escape from perfection and a lifestyle that’s ‘always-on’.
Pottering belongs in a world that co-exists with coronavirus, as we spend more time in and near home. Though there are constraints, the discipline of restriction gives you a chance to take pleasure in the small things, to catch up on the practicalities of being at home: decorating, arranging and decluttering. Most important of all, pottering at home gives you the time and opportunity to think about the things that matter to you most.
When you set aside time to potter, your time is entirely your own. When someone asks you what you are doing for the weekend and you reply, ‘Oh, I don’t know, really. Just pottering’, what you’re saying is you haven’t decided yet, you don’t want to commit – in fact, you could do with a bit of time to yourself.
You can potter for a moment – watering and tending to houseplants – or spend weeks filling your time as you do on holiday: browsing a local food market, reading, walking along a coastal path, and taking in a view. Being without a specific plan like this puts you in control and allows you the freedom to take up any exciting invitations should they arise. The pace will be slow and, because you’re unhurried, it’s as if you can trick your mind into thinking you have the luxury of ‘spare time’.
Pottering is uncharted territory: spontaneously doing things from which you derive the tiniest bit of pleasure. It’s important that you like doing what you’re choosing to do when you potter: there is satisfaction to be gained from ridding a cutlery drawer of dust and crumbs or knocking up egg on toast.
In fact, you can get into quite a meditative state while pottering, with one activity intersecting another. As you spontaneously break off from one thing, you can start something else: deadheading flowers past their best in the garden, followed by the planting of bulbs and the snipping of unruly shoots, then back to deadheading again. You could even call it flow. You’re occupied, but not with anything especially demanding. There is no need to practise and there is no need to plan. The outcome is that your mind is rested and you are physically relaxed.
For something that brings so much pleasure, it is surprisingly guilt free. And though indulging in a potter while having a think doesn’t sound all that exciting, if the outcome is a feeling of contentment, well, perhaps there is no better way to spend your spare time.
THE POTTERING COMMANDMENTS
Make do with what you’ve got. When you live simply, you are resourceful; improvising and compromising with whatever you have to hand, from putting together a lunch using the contents of your fridge to creating entertainment out of paper and pencils. This means making the best of your situation, as well as the things that surround you.
Keep moving. The present participle of the infinitive ‘to potter’ implies continuity, seamlessly going from one activity to another. By being completely absorbed in rummaging, sorting and re-arranging objects, you achieve flow. You are never still.
Stay local. Be in your local area and community. Wander down to the shops (they need you) and interact with your neighbours with a wave and a ‘hello’.
Keep it digital free. What you do when you potter is often so inconsequential that it’s not worth a picture or post on social media. Switch off and distance yourself from your devices for a while. So much satisfaction can be derived from writing a letter, making a photo album or flipping through a magazine.
Don’t try too hard. To try and potter perfectly misses the point. Embrace imperfection. When your ambition is slight and your requirements are limited, ditching perfection really helps keep the pressure off.
‘Pottering: A Cure for Modern Life’ by Anna McGovern (Laurence King Publishing, £12.99) is out in hardback on 26 October
This article first appeared in ELLE Decoration October 2020
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