50 Shades of Play with Deborah Paul

The point of grownup coloring books is the process, not the result—the means, not the end.
After you retire, people always ask what you do all day. The recurrent inquiry obligates you to develop a hobby, something worthwhile to pass the time. I’ve had such diversions, even when I was working full time. Take knitting, for example. I enjoyed the activity, given that it could be accomplished while sitting on the couch, watching The Big Bang Theory. I could only make scarves, however, and I never knew when to quit. They grew longer and longer and, once worn, stretched out even more, until they hung out of the bottom of my coat.

The point of a hobby is relaxation, hence the desire for mindless repetitive movement. Creating something worthwhile is an added bonus, although for me, nothing aside from cooking—and occasionally baking—has yielded much in the way of useful or even nice-looking results. My mother found her meditative state with yeast dough: the pliable, fragrant mound she would knead and massage and turn into a work of art.

One friend makes glass mosaics, which requires a class. I graduated from school years ago and have no desire for more formal instruction. Another acquaintance is a master woodworker who crafts fine furniture and has a full shop in his home, complete with varying sizes of lumber on a rack and hand tools hung in order of size. When your goal is a stately grandfather clock or etched armoire, perfection never hurts.

For no particular reason other than my penchant for pop culture, I recently bought an adult coloring book. The category kept climbing on bestseller lists, and I am nothing if not on trend. The fad has every classification imaginable, from geometric patterns and Harry Potter to butterflies and ocean life. I color occasionally with my 5-year-old granddaughter, although the pages in My Little Pony are hardly as demanding as those found in the grownup versions.

I started the easy way, with a copycat coloring book, where an outlined page is adjacent to one of the same design already completed in vibrant colors. The idea is to mimic the finished version, like paint-by-numbers, only without the numbers. I was too practical (read: cheap) to spring for the $39.95 set of 48 colored pencils and went for the 24-pack, a decision I came to regret. A rhinoceros’s horn is not pale, cold gray, and at least five shades of green are required for a jungle scene. As in life, go big or go home.

Aside from the opening entry, which reads, “The pages in this book were colored and completed by _______,” there isn’t much to show for your efforts. One would hardly frame any of these rainy-day masterpieces or give them away as gifts. The point, I assume, is the process, not the result—the means, not the end. The act is meant to relax you, to relieve stress: Xanax on a page.

Concentration is what the hobby requires, or at least friends—and wine—at the table, like a quilting bee sans a singular goal.

Maybe because I have perpetual heebie-jeebies, however, I did not find comfort hunched over the breakfast table coloring tiny segments, never straying outside the lines. It felt like another job, something else I had to get right. Do you start in the middle of the page and work your way out, or go from the outside in? Color in little circles or straight up and down? Use the same hue in every appropriate spot, or switch, which at least gives you something exciting to anticipate? Concentration is what the hobby requires, or at least friends—and wine—at the table, like a quilting bee sans a singular goal.

Mindfulness is in style these days, which means being “present” for only what occupies you at the moment. This frees the mind from conflicting thoughts and allows you to find fulfillment in the act. Coloring, I suppose, satisfies that requirement. Between mindfulness and mood improvement, though, I choose the latter, which I receive by taking a long walk outdoors, grateful for my senses, never relying on counting steps or blasting music in earbuds to make the endeavor complete. Nature is enough.

In my copycat coloring book, I chose the wildlife page. As I diligently worked, stopping every so often to sharpen my pencils of indigo blue and crimson lake, I found my husband looking suspiciously over my shoulder. “What are you doing?” he asked. “Coloring,” I responded. “Why?” he inquired, “to waste time when you’re old?” I guessed so, and, after shading in the iguana, baboon, redbird, and a few vines, I called it quits.

So I did not find my zen in a coloring book. When we were children, the activity was often followed by approval. “Look what I did, Mommy!” we’d say. She would pat our hand and tell us how talented and smart we were, and say, “Good job!” We’d smile and feel happy. Maybe this time, admiration was what was missing.

I derive more pleasure from reading a novel or binging on a dramatic TV series. I would rather absorb than do. Maybe that’s lazy, but it’s how I prefer to waste time when I am old. How one whiles away her precious hours is a matter of taste. Any indulgence is better than none.


Email Deborah Paul here.

Illustration by Elvis Swift