Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Doing Nothing

Summer is the ideal time to do nothing. Italians and other Europeans seem to be able to enjoy their beaches at this time of year with that effortless ease and freedom from guilt that I and many other Americans lack.

Doing nothing is hard, unless you are a cat (cats seem to have been created to do nothing with great poise and skill).

Even though many would say I have a life of leisure as a retired academic and writer, my days are busy, and this generally makes me happy. I am restless and anxious with nothing to do. Is it my German ancestry that tells me a busy person is a happy person, or is the speeded-up, productivity-oriented American culture in which I was raised?

Today, for example, should have been a quiet day for reading and writing, yet, after numerous household duties, including the care and feeding of three cats, I spent an hour on e-mail, not including the revision of a chapter of my forthcoming textbook, The Practical Handbook for Writers, 7th ed.  Luckily, my co-author, Donald Pharr, does the heavy lifting on this revision and relies for me as back-up.

I know I have a graduate student waiting in the wings to send me her second chapter of a dissertation that needs editing.  I also have been working on two forthcoming talks and week-long courses for next winter that require extensive preparation. Then, as "publicity director" for my wife, Lynn Schiffhorst, I spend time promoting her new Kindle book, The Green Road to the Stars.  Some days, it seems, there are not enough hours in the day to accomplish all I want to do.

None of this is a complaint; I am grateful to have these projects. They, along with my reading, are stimulating, a constant source of the growth we all need. Without them, I might be bored, fearing that I will run out of something to do--as if doing is my only reason for being.

What about my spiritual life, about which I have written and spoken?  What about meditation time? I squeeze it in but am eager to return to being busy, even though I realize my level of busy-ness is nothing like most people's in the "real world."

The poet Charles Simic in the New York Review of Books writes of always being a daydreamer and living like the ancient Greeks who had no clocks and so, knowing nothing about hours and minutes, could philosophize all day long. Not unlike cats.

For humans in the 21st century to do nothing well, calmly, requires both practice and patience. To savor the moment and be grateful for each happening in a day: that I can do. Yet, while enjoying being busy, I yearn for more summer daydreaming, more freedom (which I alone can bestow) to do nothing.

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