Learning to Loaf
By Claire Wolfe
July 1, 2005
I took it easy today.
That is, I painted the bathroom, groomed a foster dog, spent a couple hours answering e-mails, swept the floor, beat the dust out of three area rugs, made notes for a new article, and worked on a volunteer newsletter.
Then I sat down on my deck to enjoy the sunshine — being very careful to face away from the prettiest view. Because if I looked in that direction I’d notice that the blackberry hedge needed trimming and I’d just have to get right up and do something about it.
Ah, the joys of relaxation!
Oh heck, face it. I have no talent for loafing. Not really sure whether it’s nature or nurture or a little of both. But every spare second of life is filled either with activity, plans for activity, or nagging feelings of guilt about not doing any activity.
This act-o-mania is irritating as all get out, because I truly aspire to be lazy. Not just lazy, but Lazy, LAZY. LAZY.
I don’t mind hard work. But between sessions of work, I aspire to lie around on a hammock, sipping a gin and tonic, and catching some rays, untroubled by a single significant thought or obligation. Or I aspire to meditate in serene, centered silence. To Be Present in the world, fully alive in the moment.
Instead, here I am making mental to-do lists while the sun is shining and the birds are singing. Leaping up five minutes after I sit down because I’ve just remembered that I promised to drop a note to the third cousin of my best friend’s next-door-neighbor’s daughter, advising her on whether she should pursue a career in art. (Somehow, a simple “NO” won’t suffice, even though it’s the absolute truth. And even a modest expansion, such as “NO and heck no. You don’t have a shred of talent, so consider a career in the burger field, instead” lacks the right touch. No, it must be a Tome brimming with Sage Advice. Nothing else will do.)
Attaining True Lazyiness is a long-time ambition of mine, and I admit that I’ve — so far — failed utterly in the endeavor.
I confess this in the e-pages of Backwoods Home not because Jerry Springer said it was a tad too boring for his show. But because … well, I suspect I’m not alone.
Admit it now. Really. Even if you’re a dedicated backwoodsian, chances are you live your life at a full-out pace — driven from obligation to commitment to planned pleasure to must-do. Driven from morning to night, year after year. (If you’re one of the few who has truly Attained Laziness, then ignore this article. Actually, if you’re one who has, you’re probably already ignoring this article.)
Excess obligation coupled with a dearth of idleness is our modern social disease.
We have so much TO DO! And it must get DONE, DONE, DONE, DONE, DONE! at any cost.
The weird thing is that constant activity and having half a dozen things on the mind at once isn’t even the best way to accomplish all those tasks. Focusing on one thing at a time works better.
And idleness — real, thorough, do-nothing, think-unscheduled-random-thoughts idleness — is as important as any other item on our jam-packed to-do lists.
Throughout history, writers and other creative types have done some of their best work only after periods of idleness. Newton might not really have been idling under a tree when he had all those mental thunderbolts about the Universal Significance of falling apples. But if he hadn’t had time on his hands, he’d have never gotten ideas like that in his head.
People didn’t go spend 40 days (or a whole lifetime) in the desert back in the olden days just for the scenery.
Productivity increases when we give ourselves plenty of breaks.
So ironically, True Laziness is one of the best skills to cultivate if you want to achieve a ton of stuff. And this is the time of year for cultivating, is it not?
But like every other form of cultivating, cultivating idleness is darned hard work.
But worth it. Worth it. Worth another try in my case, even if I have less talent for idleness than my best friend’s next-door neighbor’s fourth cousin once removed’s son (er … whoever) has for oil painting. Worth it because every good life should have a share of true, guiltless, uncluttered empty space in it.
So herewith, my latest personal Grand Plan for Attaining Perfect Idleness:
- I am going to buy one of these gadgets
that plays soothing sounds while pleasant faux rain showers patter down. And I pledge to resist the temptation to jump up every five minutes to fiddle with the sounds and/or volume levels. (Optional. Something tells me that requiring a gadget to obtain idleness might be a slight contradiction in terms.)
- I’m going to get even more exercise than I already get, because a well-exercised body is less likely to feel ready to go into either fight or flight mode 24 hours a day. I might even be more faithful about going to Pyramid Man’s yoga class. One of these days. (Pyramid Man knows better than anyone how to appreciate getting a lot done in a long, slow time.)
- I’m going to focus on doing one thing at once, no matter how many other things tug and pull at me. To help, I’ll develop a Bad Attitude. I will regard intense focus as a form of personal rebellion against the distractive order of modern life. (“Take that, distraction! So there!”)
- I will to try to do everything more intently — work more intently, loaf more intently — to do whatever I’m doing with the greatest possible dedication. Dedicated loafing; now there is a concept the merits most serious inquiry. (Imagine how much loafing one could afford to do if you could get a government grant to study the subject!)
- When I catch my thoughts scattering off in search of “musts” and “shoulds”, I’m going to bring them back in a little butterfly net — softly, gently, without beating up on myself (which is yet one more form of distraction).
- When I catch my body jittering I’m going to slow it down. I will feel all four corners of my feet contacting the ground. I will let my breath go slow and deep. I will probably fall asleep before I achieve successful meditation. But what the heck, falling asleep is a form of advanced loafing and beats the heck out of a frenzy of meaningless go-go-going.
- I’m going to set aside at least 20 minutes a day to do absolutely nothing. When it’s time to do nothing, I’m going to labor with utter dedication to do the best nothing I can do.
If I work very, very, very hard at taking it as easy as possible, someday I might even qualify as a master of idleness.
In this wildly, insanely goal-oriented society, that’ll be mine.
In the meantime, I’m still writing in all my non-spare time. And I’ve co-authored a very exciting novel for young adults and the rest of us: Experience the brand new novel by Claire Wolfe and Aaron Zelman: RebelFire: Out of the Gray Zone