I wanted to title this story The Fine Art of Doing Nothing, but I realized that even if I’m sitting and staring at a wall, I’m doing something. Is nothing even a definable word when paired with doing? Ah, my good friends at Merriam-Webster were able to fill this void in my knowledge. That which does not exist or is worthless or frivolous. Well…caught me there with the worthless or frivolous. But still, if I’m doing it, it’s not nothing, though it might be worthless. However, like beauty, worthlessness is in the eye of the beholder. Even wall-staring has some value if done properly.
I shifted out of my aimless pondering mode to redefine my activities, doings, happenings, enterprises, larks and exertions of a worthless nature as skilled nonproductivity. Not to be confused with general nonproductivity, which is aimless, unplanned and intractable. My particular brand of doing nothing is pre-planned laziness with only a spark of insignificance.
Since I am a person of high expectations and accountability, I find it difficult to simply lapse into periods of depression-like inactivity. I need to write my wasted time into my daily schedule along with exercise, ZOOM meetings, artistic endeavors, cooking and dog walking. Doing nothing for short periods of time becomes highly valuable for warding off seriously long bouts of bleak ineffectuality. I’ll start off my examples of skilled nonproductivity with that perennial favorite: the nap.
I am a connoisseur of the power nap. I am able to program myself for a 30-minute spell in which I lie down on my bed, shut my eyes and awake at the agreed-upon time. It’s a refreshing way of doing nothing. Getting a dog last year put a dent into the usual ease with which I was able to get my rest. To assure I will not be brutally kept from sleeping by my high-energy (barking) dog, I bring her with me. She in her bed, me in mine; we are copacetic in our snoozing.
There is a purpose to napping. Historically, the Puritans saw nonproductive time (i.e., sleeping during the day) as the devil’s domain, whereas the Spaniards valued the midday nap as a vital part of staying awake for the fun stuff that happens after dark. This is clearly a cultural divide I am able to transcend. I get up early and am high-powered in the morning, but feel my energy dragging by the afternoon. A scheduled nap is the perfect solution. I like having more energy for cooking dinner and engaging in all the after-dark activities. Though the pandemic has cancelled much of (all) our evening outings, I am able to stay awake to watch House Hunters on HGTV and drink a glass of wine. Sprawled out on the couch with my dog, I indulge in that other worthless endeavor, watching the rectangular box.
In my own space, after 8 pm, the choices for engaging my brain are diminished. I have no interest in working, baking, cleaning or inventing during the evening. I simply wish to be entertained. Since restaurants, bars, shows and ballroom dancing are currently sidelined, that leaves two options: Reading and watching television. I prefer my reading to take place on the back deck with a cup of tea in the afternoon when I can indulge in a good mystery or other such drama.
Reading is easily considered one of the higher forms of entertainment. Even my Puritan foremothers would consider it a worthwhile pastime if it involved the Bible or other enlightening script and as long as one got one’s never-ending chores done. I’m pretty sure my ancestors did not schedule a back porch read in the middle of the afternoon, but my own mother was an avid reader. She always had a book at hand even though she had a job, family and household to manage. Watching tv at night made her fall asleep in her chair, which gave us kids the notion to be quiet so we could continue watching Star Trek or whatever happened to be on after our bedtime.
Lacking other stimulating options, I will turn on our television and settle on the couch with the dog for a few hours of entertainment. While it might seem like an idle enterprise, I get up from the couch every 20 minutes or so, much to the consternation of the dog. She could lie there all night, but I need to move around and expend whatever energy I’ve got leftover from my day. I often do leg lifts or arm motions which pisses off the dog, who jumps out of the way in a huff to settle at the top of the backrest. I feel rebuked, though I am able to coax her back to my side eventually.
I love any type of storytelling and indulge in the evening viewing through a variety of portals. Streaming, network channels, DVDs and good old recordings (I have 105 episodes of Beat Bobby Flay in my stash, a great example of the cooking/action genre). I get a bit testy when it’s pledge time on PBS since my usual fare is preempted by the same inferior twaddle they play every year when asking for my money. I give them a donation, but resent how my favorite shows get held hostage for a couple weeks. Carefully chosen audio/visual entertainment keeps my mind engaged for a couple of hours, helping me to wind down for the night in a comfortable and safe environment. Though I am fed up with the familiarity of that environment, it remains the best COVID-free place to partake in a short period of planned nonproductivity. It’s also where I do my meditation activities.
Being a fidgety person, I find meditation to be a necessity and a difficulty, so I try to sneak it into my schedule when I really need it. In the before pandemic days, I rode the bus downtown to my little rented desk and, once seated before my computer, used the first few minutes of my writing time to settle down with a short meditation. At home, I am far too settled already to catch a moment of quiet before I write—I am bursting to get going, to break the monotony of my daily life, to be productive in the place where naps and tv viewing are available.
A portion of my meditation is done while I am practicing tai chi each morning. Though it is a physical activity, the slow, repetitive movements allow my mind to quiet down and focus on a simple flow of consciousness. If this sounds too lofty, it just means I have to concentrate on what I’m doing so that I don’t run into the refrigerator—I practice tai chi in my kitchen. The practice leaves me in the right frame of mind to sit down for a few hours and write. My formal sit-down type meditation is spotty at best. As part of my yoga practice, I can incorporate a time to just be still and aware. As long as the dog, husband, phone, refrigerator aren’t calling my attention elsewhere, I can achieve a bit of bliss in the late afternoon. I need that little moment of wall staring, that seemingly nonproductive, do nothing juncture in between my scheduled activities, just to keep myself balanced and sane.
At the front end of the pandemic, I was cut loose from the usual events which defined my daily life. It felt like a vacation, a time to cut myself some slack and laze around the house. I embraced the moment and allowed myself to be perpetually, casually nonproductive. I did not want to feel the pressure to get stuff done. As our time at home expanded, I drifted back into a schedule as I was not capable of sustained randomness. A year later, I strive to find some balance, fulfilling the need to produce and not produce in appropriate proportions according to my needs and desires. This means that once in a while, I choose to be spontaneously doing nothing.
Cherishing the moment,
No Editor pre-read this week’s blog because it took too long to write it and everybody is busy. I’m sending it out like a school paper and all those teachers out there can correct it and send it back to me. Or simply read and enjoy whatever blunders you find.