A few years ago, a slim volume at Borders jumped out at me. I don’t know which caught my eye first: the jacket photograph — depicting a man’s sand-dappled shins from the POV of their owner, who’s reposing in a beach hammock — or the title, The Importance of Being Lazy. I’d been giving the subject some thought even before spotting the book. That is, wondering if I’d ever have enough free time to put on my lazy pants. The subtitle extolled what I was lacking: In Praise of Play, Leisure, and Vacations.
I bought the book, bestowing on it the power of an oracle to show me the way. I absorbed author Al Gini’s thesis: “Even if we love our jobs and find creativity, success, and pleasure in our work, we also crave, desire, and need not to work. No matter what we do to earn a living, we all seek the benefits of leisure, lassitude, and inertia. We all need to play more in our lives.” I thought, Right on, brother.
I placed the book on the teetering stack beside my bed, and there it sat for quite a while. Then I moved, so it went from packed to unpacked to languishing on a shelf in my new house, where it remained for the next couple of years. So much for “oracle.”
At last, this Summer Preview Issue inspired me to seek out The Importance of Being Lazy and do what I’d wanted to do from the start: Invite other writers to explore the idea of doing nothing, whatever that meant to them.
For me, dolce far niente would be lying around reading during the day and not feeling guilty about it. If I succeeded at that, I might even devote a patch of unclocked time to gazing at the clouds, as I did as a kid, interpreting their nebulous shapes as they moved. That seems an unbelievable luxury now. Never mind the office. Shouldn’t I at least be pulling some weeds?
Gini cites a study whose authors declare that we — that is, Americans — “constantly brag about being busy.” Aside from being insufferable, this habit is pathetic. He further notes that many of us don’t actually toil as many hours per week as we think we do, but that constant multitasking and rushing make us feel overworked. Perception, in this case, is reality. Regardless of actual hours, though, the fact is that “work sets the pace and establishes the rhythm for everything else we do in life,” Gini writes. “We are rush freaks.”
The psychic distance between hurried and unhurried is immense. But if we’re going to attempt the leap, there is no better time than summer. In the following survey, 11 Vermonters muse on ... the joy of chilling. Their responses bear out the research that insists we’re happier, healthier and, yes, more productive if we know how to give the work ethic a rest.
A great man (Les Claypool) once said, “Funny thing about weekends: When you’re unemployed, they don’t mean quite so much. Except you get to hang out with all your working friends.” Lord knows, I can relate. Besides being unemployed right now, I haven’t had a 9-to-5 job in quite some time, either. Employed or no, I have had more than ample time to ponder the “little things” in life — the little nothings that make life so tasty.
One day Jay Leno is standing in front of you talking about why he loves Vermont, and all you can think about is how you never would have pegged him as one to don the “Canadian tuxedo” as his casual wear. Next thing you know, you’re in your backyard teaching your hound dog about earthworms and why they’re important for the garden. I suppose life is funny that way.
I consider myself a driven and passionate person, but also kinda lazy. I’m not lazy in the sense of laying around in my underwear all day playing Wii ping-pong between bong hits; more in a “why the hell should I mow the lawn today because it’s friggin’ 90 degrees outside and Messner said it’s gonna be 70 tomorrow” kind of way. I like to think of it as being Taoist.
It’s not that I don’t challenge myself during my free time, because I do. My latest challenge is to overcome my fear of spiders. I’ve actually been doing pretty good. Yesterday I held a wolf spider in my palm for at least three seconds before freaking out. Baby steps ... I suppose this world is full of little nothings tucked away in dusty corners, staring at us with eight beady little eyes, ready to test us.
Nature: To extend one’s allotment of time, especially while walking or during a meal. Optimum: The flowing, nonbitter kind, as practiced by children, where there is strict correlation between the movements of the mind and of the body. Usefulness: For those desiring infinity, but not transcendence. Dangers: Causes itching in those with much to do. Neutralization of the Dangers: With cheese between courses; by listening, looking on, or participating with joy and accord.
Who Could Be Luckier Than I Am?
To spend my days
these mountains and streams,
on a stone or under a tree,
to play a flute,
to write poems, to spend my life
about my mannered and genteel
to have such freedom
is a gift
David Budbill is a poet and playwright who lives in the Northeast Kingdom, where he cuts wood, gardens and writes.
I have to get a lot done before I can do nothing. Because if my nothing is going to be successful, then there has to be nothing left to do. The house has to be cleaned. The bills have to be paid. All the books at my bedside have to be read. My own books will have to be published. My son will have to be in college. And my husband will have to take a vow of silence.
I guess my whole life is about preparing for the big chance to do nothing one day. Sometimes I see the nothing out there, and hear it calling me. I resist it because I am scared of nothing.
“Come lay on a hammock,” it says softly some afternoons.
“I will have to buy a hammock first!” I yell back.
I know the nothing gets agitated when I don’t acquiesce.
“Come into a six-foot-deep hole,” it says loudly in the middle of the night, “where you can do nothing forevermore.”
“I have more to do,” I whisper. “Be quiet, nothing. Be quiet.”
The closest I get to nothing is on the rare occasion when I am at home alone on a rainy morning and there is only one thing left to do. My husband has taken my son to preschool. The house is clean enough. The bills are stamped. The books at my bedside are all works in progress, as are my own novels.
There is no sound to disturb me until the nothing utters a guttural plea. And on these occasions, I comply.
Nancy Stearns Bercaw
Nancy Stearns Bercaw is assistant to the dean of Libraries and Learning Resources at UVM and lives in South Burlington. She also is a writer, and likes to make something out of nothing.
In Praise of Doing Nothing
A man walks into an old-fashioned elevator in a fancy hotel. The elevator operator asks him the obligatory question. The man responds, “Neither up nor down; I’m good here.” I use this cartoon from The New Yorker to illustrate our obsession with doing. The man’s response is jarring and unexpected — even downright un-American. We should always be doing something; you just can’t stay there doing nothing. Go up or go down unless there is something wrong with you.
If we look at the fabric of our days, what do we see? Our days are a concatenation of tasks, multiple doings often executed simultaneously: checking email and voicemail, making phone calls, attending meetings, Twittering. We love to multitask. We love our to-do lists. As David Whyte says in The Three Marriages, “In many ways our to-do lists have become the postmodern equivalent of the priest’s rosary, the lama’s sutra or the old prayer book — keeping a larger, avalanching reality at bay.” What would happen if we just took a moment to not do anything? Would we implode, or short-circuit like a computer given an insoluble puzzle?
What might it look like and feel like to do nothing? One of my favorite “nothing” activities is to sit on my front porch in the warmer weather drinking my coffee. Of course, I am doing something — drinking coffee — but outside of that I am loosening my agenda. I’m watching the birds and the insects, I’m appreciating the lushness unfolding around me, and I’m allowing my thoughts to go wherever they like, staying close to the experience of just sitting and drinking coffee. In paying attention in this way, I have shifted the balance from doing towards being.
I can shift this balance even further if I sit down to do some mindfulness meditation. Here again, I am doing something: sitting on a cushion, crossing my legs into half-lotus, and paying attention to what is happening within the confines of my mind, and without. While I am doing meditation, I am practicing being.
Mindfulness is an invitation to make contact with what is happening now without having an agenda to change it. It is an invitation to notice, and to rest in, what is happening by making full contact with it. This nothing contains everything, and is available — on and off the cushion — in any moment we can remember (and are willing) to put down the Blackberry and relinquish our to-do list.
Arnie Kozak, PhD, is the founder of Exquisite Mind in Burlington and author of Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants: 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness.
Sometimes there’s nothing to do.
Sure, the dishes have overflowed the sink,
Plates and bowls caked together on the kitchen counter.
Leaving the house I brush off my shoes
So my footprints won’t stain the driveway,
But, really, there’s nothing to do,
Well — nothing I want to do.
It’s just one of those Sundays
And everyone’s in church
Or gobbling turkey with relatives
While I sit idle in an empty house,
Cheneying the dishes (“Go do yourselves!”)
And cursing the sole-deep coating of crud on the floors.
One might say I am bored, but I’m not:
Fascination with my idleness absorbs me
Deep into the spine. My whole body
Swells with imperfection, inactivity,
Intimidation at the thought of some productive move.
It was almost too much to fish out this pen.
Geof Hewitt is Vermont’s reigning slam poetry champ, and lives and writes in Calais.
On the last day of school, when the bus reached our stop, we escaped through the back door — the door the red-paint warning said we should use only in an emergency. In case the driver chased us, we ran — headlong, headstrong into June’s gathering haze.
When we finally stopped running, the bus, the school, the words and numbers on calendars, the hands on clocks and a few natural laws had all vanished.
After breakfast the next day, we began a wiffle ball game in a remote corner of the cemetery where there were no graves. The innings stretched to dusk. No one kept score. No one kept time. The game became time itself. Kids went home for dinner, others to camp, others on family vacations — but new players took their places. The game continued without interruption.
A speedy kid chased a fly ball so deep into the outfield that he disappeared. We missed him, but we replaced him. When he reappeared, he made us jealous with tales of Fenway Park and tall ships in Boston Harbor. A next-door neighbor underwent rotator-cuff surgery after throwing one million consecutive strikes. A record. We’d witnessed it. Then the newest kid in the neighborhood, the frail-looking son of a computer programmer, walked onto the pitcher’s mound with two outs and the bases loaded. He threw a curveball that traced the infield clockwise, left the graveyard through the wrought-iron gate and returned from above on a direct line with the sun.
I, the batter, couldn’t see the ball. But I could hear summer hissing in its plastic shell. I swung mightily, missing it by a mile, clobbering it farther than anyone ever had. I collapsed in defeat and then trotted a victory lap around the bases.
One morning, we met not at the cemetery but at the bus stop. Dressed in new clothes, we eyed each other like strangers. Even the bus driver failed to recognize us as the punks who’d once escaped through the back door. We were different people — transformed by the trial of doing precious, precious little.
Walking Around the Lake
After decades in the time-pressured arenas of politics, policy and a college presidency, I’ve learned that often doing nothing is the most important thing you can do. Time was something I could never find enough of; now, I realize it’s all I’ve got. I’ve also discovered the paradox of time: You need to take time to make time. With summer deciding to make a reappearance in Vermont, I distract myself from work by imagining what I am going to do when I do nothing: lying in a field of wildflowers by my house on Spruce Mountain, pretending to read a book; napping, jotting, listening to the penny-tree leaves shake; floating on my back at Groton, looking at Owl’s Head and the clouds forming in the sky.
Making time to do nothing purposeful can feel like being lazy — but if you need an excuse, believe me, it’s the best way to find out who you are and might become; what thoughts are bubbling up inside, and what to do next when you are ready to start doing again.
In Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman wrote, “I loaf and invite my soul…” That’s a pretty lofty reason to do nothing but savor being alive. Yet it is the most replenishing non-act you can commit to and a wellspring for creativity.
Loafing is the best way to get out of the repetitious patterns that take over our lives. But for unstructured time, it has its own rules, like any good game does. Rules include: no email or phone conversations; not much talk — let your words relax, too, and slowly hear some new ones. Let your attention wander, and get attracted to things you don’t usually notice: the color of the trillium, the texture of the fruit you are eating, your loved one’s laugh. Forget “the list” you carry around in your mind; practice amnesia.
At our recent Marlboro College commencement, I didn’t ask the seniors to revise their resumes or go out and change the world. Instead, I asked them to reflect on what poet Wallace Stevens said: “Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake.”
That’s why I am taking the time this summer to “walk around the lake,” doing nothing, gaining everything.
Ellen McCulloch-Lovell is president of Marlboro College.
For years I’ve made my living either in multilayered, impossible-to-master nonprofit jobs or with combinations of freelance gigs. In 2002, laid off from a job, I took on 20 part-time jobs in a year, 11 at one time, which was both harrowing and euphoric.
By metabolism and habit, I’m busy. My wife and I built our own home, and there’s always more to do. We’ve got two cars approaching 200,000 miles, which usually need bodywork. And we live in a co-op community, where there’s no end to potential chores. I also tend to say “yes” to requests from good causes, and recently I realized I’d landed on seven boards of organizations.
There’s a staunch imperative I hear through my innermost ear: Never, ever waste time. When hanging around with friends and relations, it’s hard for me to sit; while chatting, I want to make a meal, wash dishes, knead bread, sweep the floor or rewire a lamp. Even when picking a movie to watch — to relax! — I try and find some way a given film can be relevant and useful for some writing or teaching project.
I suspect I’ve sometimes been insufferable, striding around, making lists, as if to imply that everyone else is a sluggardly sloth. And yet ... last fall, again laid off from a regular job, I resolved to do the opposite experiment from the previous lay-off. Instead of filling up the hours with kinetic hubbub and countless obligations, I decided to be as still as possible. Luckily, I’ve found jobs I can do from home. I’ve cut expenses drastically and found big reservoirs of time I hadn’t known existed, time to take walks or play badminton with my wife and our daughter most afternoons. What a discovery!
One of my teachers, the late biophysicist and farmer Donella Meadows, said that in nature, unchecked growth and activity is cancer. Learning how to be vital and energized without racing around is helping me think about how living things express themselves “in place.” As poet Czeslaw Milosz wrote, “Not that I want to be a god or a hero. Just to change into a tree, grow for ages, not hurt anyone.”
For me at age 9 or 10, Quaker meeting was forced quiet, in public. I was comfortable with quiet, that’s all I knew. One hour waiting for God to speak through me, or the others. Sometimes we’d just sit quietly for the hour and no one would speak, and I would be forced to count shoelaces or ceiling tiles.
Once, when I was 10 or so, my mother, while weeding in the backyard, fell over backwards and didn’t move for several long minutes. I finally ran up to her to see if she was OK, and she said, “I’m fine, I was just looking at those clouds. Look, do you see a rabbit in that big one?”
Doing nothing is best when one sort of falls into the state of mind:
Childhood, running and playing in deep woods outside my house; forts, Indians, Civil War soldiers, screenplays enacted.
Standing on the beach, age 15, taking off my glasses and letting all the lights become diffuse and out of focus, just jewels of shattered light; breaking contact with anyone around me to slip into my own world.
Sitting in front of my poetry bookcase, pulling out a volume, dipping into its verse, entering a poet’s brain. Reading and moving on, deep into the squat pen of Seamus Heaney; then Cid Corman and pines and winds.
Meandering about a stream bed, hopping rocks, no overall plan.
In May, lying on my back, head on the ground half under the south lilac bush, waves of scent, inhaling.
George B. Thomas
George B. Thomas eats poetry for breakfast and shares music at night as the jazz host on Vermont Public Radio.