Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Sweetness of Doing Nothing

It was my thirteenth summer, and the livin' was easy.... My parents had planned no activities for me, no summer camp, no piano lessons. Each day was an eternity to be filled by my own desires. Eventually my bike led me to the pool or the library-- ah, that old high-ceilinged, sunny library, where I could explore freely, and sneak into the adult section, and pick whatever caught my eye: new and old, glittering titles, fairy tales and mysteries, travel books and biographies. I lay in my backyard and read for hours, and afterwards, closed my sun-dazed eyes and imagined myself traveling to exotic lands, and maybe even creating one of my own....

When it got dark, my friends and I played games and leaped after fireflies....

It was one of the best summers of my life.

I have a Mediterranean temperament-- work hard, play hard, and savor sleep, food, and sun. I write everyday, except those periods when I am forced to stop, either because of life's demands or because my mind and body tell me it's time to slow down.... To play with kids... to lie out back and read like I used to... to linger over lunch with friends... to walk in the park...  It's time for me to be quiet. To gather words again, slowly and lovingly, the way I used to gather ripe berries with joy and wonder, eating them from the bush, dizzyingly sweet.... To catch words the way I used to catch fireflies-- a flash of light and heat between my palms-- and then, to release them.

I used to worry about losing words after I'd set them free, but then I remembered my grandfather on his rooftop in Morocco. He raised fifty homing pigeons in two enormous brass cages. He never locked the gates. He trusted they would return to him. They always did.

I had to trust that my words would eventually return, too. And they do. They know I'm on my own rooftop, waiting.

Sometimes I think we just have to trust in life, in its organic rhythms, to carry us where we need to be. And sometimes that place is right where we are at this moment.

The Italians have a delicious phrase for the art of doing nothing: Il dolce far niente.

The ancient sages of religions incorporated a day of rest in the weekly calendar. Farmers learned that fields cannot be harvested year after year without being given a season to lie fallow in order to renew and replenish. Humans are the same: we need time out from our increasingly regimented schedules.

Doing nothing is hard work, particularly when balancing our jobs and children, but if we can try to wrest a moment, an hour, a day from our busy lives, we find unexpected rewards.

So what can we do to increase our enjoyment of the art of doing nothing?

  • Get over the guilt. This is my personal challenge. 
  • Savor the moment. Be in the moment. Whatever you're doing, try to do it with all of you.
  • That means putting the phone away for a moment. Look at who you're with. Look at your surroundings. Look at your food. Be here, now.
  • You can also withdraw for a bit to dream and recharge. Enjoy a siesta... you don't have to sleep, but you can close your eyes....
  • Read a book for pleasure. 
  • Actually, do something, anything-- garden, cook, draw, paint, play music-- for the sheer joy. No judgment, just for yourself and the people you love.
  • Play. Borrow children if you don't have any and follow their rhythm. 
  • That means slowing down. If you've ever walked with a child, you know that the way to where you're going may have fascinating detours you never explored. 
  • When you have leisure time, try not to over-organize it. Leave time to be spontaneous.
I find profound similarities between the Zen art of mindfulness and the art of doing nothing. They're all about living in the moment, as much as you can. 

 ‘Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis
on which the world earth revolves – slowly, evenly, without
rushing toward the future. Live the actual moment.
Only this moment is life.’ 
~Thich Nhat Hanh

We can't live in the moment all the time, but the more we practice doing it, the better we get. 

If you have any suggestions, please pass them along!

Remember: you don't have to go away on vacation to experience the sweetness of doing nothing. It's inside each of us, waiting for us to discover it. 




Kelly Lundy said...

I had foot surgery last April, right when the school year revs up and standardized testing is driving us all crazy...I was "given the opportunity" to miss all that, and I was FORCED to sit still and do nothing. And it was agonizing at first! It really was. I was restless; I was bored. My brain and muscle memory couldn't believe I had nothing on my to-do list.

I recovered from the surgery just find, and since then I have enjoyed "doing nothing" this summer so much that I fell back into writing! I haven't looked at my novel since before my marriage broke up! I almost finished a whole "part" in the last four weeks.

I don't know what it will be like having this new attitude AND going back into the fray of teaching public high school, but I look forward to the challenge of forcing "doing nothing" into my and my kids' lifestyles!

Ruth Setton said...

I am so glad to hear you're writing again, Kelly! It's so funny how doing nothing sometimes opens the door to... doing something! :)

Joyce Hinnefeld said...

This is a gorgeous and (for me) timely post, Ruth--thank you! It makes me think of a book some folks I know were reading earlier this summer, one I want to read soon: THE SLOW PROFESSOR (

Thank you for this!