I think I’ve come up with a brand new twenty-first century concept: the Art of Doing Nothing.
Two weeks ago I was rehearsing in the chorus of the Dvorak Requiem at Berkshire Choral International in Sheffield, Mass. Nestled in the Berkshire Mountains, the organization is fondly referred to as “summer camp for choristers.” The week was packed with rehearsals, classes, recitals, meals, and other fun activities, and though I had promised myself some time off for pure relaxation, it wasn’t happening. Just like home, there was too much to do; every hour seemed consumed by some activity. My afternoons were “free” time, but I managed to fill them anyway by going to the gym or finishing a book I’d brought.
By Thursday I’d had enough. I decided to stretch out on a lounge chair by the pool at the B&B where I was staying. Ah, relaxing with a good book in hand, what could be better? Unfortunately, I’d brought the wrong book, one with disturbing images of death and dying, not very restful. Putting the paperback aside, I realized I had nothing to do. I began to stare at the sky. And smell the minty monarda in the garden. And listen to the whirr of the sprinkler. Only the blue sky and treetops were in my line of vision. I had come to a stop like an antique clock that has wound down to stillness. I was doing something I never, ever seem to find time to do. Nothing.
I sat in that state for perhaps a half hour, enjoying the empty sky, the rare inactivity. After a while, my self-imposed schedule demanded I rush off to my next event, but those moments by the pool were precious and forced me to see how little time I spend truly relaxing.
Certainly here at home there is little time for real rest. Between writing, doing laundry, gardening, walking the dog, feeding the cat, checking emails, shopping, fixing dinner, etc., etc., etc., there never seems to be a spare moment. Reading, which should be relaxation, really isn’t; while I’m reading, I’m working to understand and absorb the author’s words and thoughts. Watching TV should be relaxing, too, but there is so much noise associated with it, is it restful? Sleep would seem to be doing nothing, but it’s not. The body and brain are working to settle, to slow down, to prepare me for the next day; and the subconscious is surely hard at work. So sleep is not the same as consciously doing Nothing.
The practice of doing Nothing has eluded me partially because of fear. The work ethic I was raised with is so deeply ingrained, it has made me afraid of indolence, indolence that could perhaps become an ugly habit and ultimately render me a mindless, sedentary blob. Now, there’s a frightening thought! So I’ve developed the habit of pushing myself to keep going, maintain a schedule of activities, press on, move ahead, and keep busy. As a result, the days and weeks and months fly by at an alarming rate. Good grief.
So this past Sunday, with not a single activity on the calendar, I decided to experiment. I did garden chores and some reading, and after George had headed off to his golf game, I lay back in the hammock, my book and reading glasses on my chest, and for a few moments I felt nothing but the swinging of the hammock and saw nothing but the sky and clouds through the shimmering green treetops. I wasn’t reading or gardening or bird watching or eating or sleeping. I was doing absolutely Nothing.
And did this indulgence turn me into a slob? Was I damaged by those moments of inactivity? No, it was pure bliss. For a few minutes I was experiencing true relaxation, unadorned rest. Aaaaaaaah. Until I remembered with a start I had to walk Sasha before George came home from golf. I leapt off the hammock and went to find her leash.
So I haven’t gotten there quite yet, but at least I now recognize that doing Nothing is OK. It’s not a sin. It’s a refresher, a glimpse at purity and rest. Lovely, lovely relaxation. Maybe we should all practice it for a few moments daily or at least weekly. I recommend you experience Nothing—give it a try.
I guess you could call me a nature lover. My husband George and I can often be found on weekends hiking or bird watching. On these outings we secretly long to come across something special, which, even if we don’t have a chance to photograph it, will make an imprint on our memories. We rarely do see anything extraordinary, but recently over the span of a week, we got more than our fair share of nature’s drama. Let’s face it—wildlife in this part of the world is taking over!
On a recent bird watching workshop in Northern New Jersey included our first sighting of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo. Sounds like something out of a Disney cartoon, but the bird really exists—a large grey bird with a downward-curved yellow bill; the bird is not often seen, but it can be heard making a low kuk-kuk-kuk sound in the forest. Great find!
The next day, as our group ambled along listening for songbirds, what should we see a mere fifty yards down the trail but a big black bear. We had a staring contest with it for a while, until he or she ambled away, and we continued warily with our birding. Then, after much discussion of survival tactics if one meets a bear in the wild, our leader, scanning with his binoculars for bear eyes in the brush, said, “You know what? Let’s get out of here!”
The morning after we returned from our trip, I was relaxing on the back patio with my golden retriever Sasha. She wandered off, and moments later I heard her in the front yard, yelping and crying as though being attacked. Coyote! I thought and ran to her rescue. Calling her in, I was faced, only a few feet from the house, with a female deer, a wild look in her eye. Sasha, her tail between her legs, dashed into the house, and I approached the doe (who had just attacked my dog!) with “It’s all right. All right,” as though she was the one needing comfort. Then I saw what I suspected to be the problem: a tiny fawn, only hours old, staggering along the driveway, trying to reach his mom. Sasha must have startled them and paid the price. The two deer soon wandered off the property, the fawn barely able to walk on his tiny new legs but obediently trailing his mom.
The next day as George and I blithely pulled into our driveway, George slammed on the brakes. “What’s that?” A large dark blob sat on the side lawn. We realized it was the huge snapping turtle we had seen last year. Her head, the size of my fist, was raised in alarm. She was no doubt looking for a nesting site near the brook. We left her to do her thing, kept our curious Sasha inside, and suspended all weeding in that spot.
The following night we heard a horrifying sound. Coyotes, very close to our house, were yipping and howling, as they do when they’ve made a kill. Oh, no, had they found our baby fawn? We pulled the covers up over our heads and tried not to think about it. Fortunately the next morning I spotted the two deer grazing in the woods, the fawn staggering a bit less, the doe a tad more watchful.
Just when we thought we’d had our fill of wildlife for a while, we got a different sort of show as we were sitting in the sunroom. Our resident Barred Owl, fierce and enormous, swooped down to snatch one of the gazillion chipmunks on our property and flew off to his nest at the top of the hill. Can’t get much closer to nature than that!
So, we may have more than enough wildlife around here, most of it right in our yard; we really don’t need to go hiking to find it. My good friend Anne, a lover of city life, used to say “I don’t really like Nature. There’s just so much of it!” Yes, Anne, it can be overwhelming at times. But to me, it’s an important part of living the good life, and I wouldn’t be without it. Even though it does seem to be closing in on us from all sides!
Keeping my nose to the writing grindstone is usually not difficult for me. Writing short stories, blogs, and book reviews, is, after all, my favorite thing to do, and I can, at least for a few hours each day, ignore the usual distractions—pet care, laundry, shopping for dinner, etc. But the month of May? It’s really tough.
First of all, there’s the garden. With shrubs bursting into bloom and the foliage of perennials pushing up taller and taller every day, my acre of garden in southwest Connecticut is an exciting place this time of year, and there’s much to attend to. Shrubs that didn’t survive the winter need to be dug out, perennials that have seeded themselves where they shouldn’t must be pulled or transplanted, bare spaces must be filled with new shrubs and perennials.
There are flowerpots to be planted with colorful annuals for summer pleasure. There are dead or drooping tree branches that must be removed. And, despite yards and yards of expensive mulch, there are irrepressible weeds that need to be yanked. So, there’s much to be done, and getting to my writing, usually my number one priority, is not easy.
And then there are the birds. May is the month of the amazing annual bird migration from southern climes to New England and Canada. And while I usually chain myself to my writing desk between nine and eleven in the morning, that’s the exact time the birds pause in our garden to forage for insects or gather nesting material. It’s a show too good to miss, and I’m always on the lookout for a passing warbler or oriole, as well. I need to be out in the yard with my binoculars at that time of day, studying these lovely creatures, not closed up in my dark study putting together sentences! And if I hadn’t made such an exception the other day, I wouldn’t have seen the huge White Egret at the edge of our pond or the tiny Orange-crowned Warbler feeding among the weeds or the brilliant American Redstart flitting through the trees.
And then there’s the weather. On a rainy or windy or brutally hot day, I’m OK. Those aren’t good gardening or bird watching conditions, and I can get a lot of good writing done then. But give me a gorgeous mild day in May when I can smell the lilacs and the fresh-mown grass and listen to the house wrens and song sparrows, and I simply must be outdoors.
So, that is why May’s my least productive month in terms of writing. That’s my excuse for not getting much done, and I’m sticking to it!
Families fascinate me—how they evolve and what ignites the personalities that develop as a result of a particular family dynamic. As I began writing scenes and chapters of my book Nobody Home: A Memoir, I had no idea where they would lead me. I only knew that, as I delved into memories of my mother, recollections I had thought long-buried flooded through me and onto the page. It was a profoundly pleasant experience re-connecting with all those mental images, grappling with the less pleasant ones, shaping them into chapters, and forming them finally into a book. I was compelled to keep writing—shared experiences with my siblings, my mother’s baffling words and actions, my own life challenges—there seemed always more and more to write about. And perhaps with my mother, long-gone from this world but always in my head, guiding the pen. As I wrote, not only did I remember so much more about my childhood and early adulthood, I came to understand so much more, about my mother and myself.
I’ve read quite a few memoirs, both before and after I wrote Nobody Home, and I can’t help comparing them to my own. Written by authors with many more literary credentials than I, many of these books have one thing in common—finding a way to make sense of connections to parents. The drama of the memoir expresses itself in many ways—each author has his or her own take on it—but since our parents are the source of all that we are, going on a journey of parent- and self-discovery has great value.
On my bookshelf I see Wild (Strayed), A Good Enough Daughter (Shulman), Elsewhere (Russo), Dreams from my Father (Obama), Bettyville (Hodgman), Jesusland (Scheeres), Lit and The Liar’s Club (Karr), The Glass Castle (Walls), Angela’s Ashes (McCourt), and Growing Up (Baker), among others. All are stories of adults trying to capture on paper what it was like to be raised in a certain type of household with a parent who had a particular way of making life difficult. The author’s reflections on that relationship take readers to an amazing place. What a charming set of talented authors, what fascinating parents! And yet these writers all survived their ordeals, gained perspective on their lives, and came to be successful despite their haphazard upbringings.
When I present my author talk, I speak not only about Nobody Home. I also encourage my audiences to write their own memoirs. I believe everyone should examine their life stories, whether they are accomplished writers or not. Everyone, I think, should try to set something down on paper to memorialize the bond between themselves and their parents. There are many benefits to examination of this crucial connection, not the least of which is passing down family history to the next generation. And the task need not be done alone; there are lots of writing classes out there, some addressing memoir specifically, that can help one shape his or her story.
So, have you ever tried it? Writing a true story about your relationships with the people who raised you? If not, I highly recommend it.
An amazing confluence of events occurred for me last week. At the same time I was re-reading Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, I happened to attend a superb HDLive broadcast of the National Theatre’s production of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. It was remarkable that I should encounter two of my favorite childhood books at the same time, and it got me thinking about the early influences in my life that made me who I am.
Jo March, the second eldest sister in Little Women (1869), is an indomitable non-conformist who resists the restraints placed on her by 19th century society. Coming from a poor family, she spurns a woman’s traditional role and is determined to make a living for herself as an authoress. My memory of Katharine Hepburn as Jo March is so vivid.
Likewise, the heroine of Jane Eyre (1847) overcomes formidable obstacles of inequality and severe hardship in order to become the person she needs to be--one who is true to herself. Surprisingly, the National Theatre production gives substantial weight to Jane’s struggles for autonomy rather than focusing solely on the love story of Jane and her employer Mr. Rochester. The company did this no doubt to point up the dire situation of a poor, unwed young woman in the 1840’s.
Both these characters, Jo March and Jane Eyre, brim with strength and willfulness and an intense desire for the freedom to express themselves and develop their lives according to their own rules, not those of family or society; their resilience is inspiring. These were the early role models my generation grew up with, a generation of women who fought fiercely for women’s rights in the 1960s and beyond. These characters embedded themselves in our hearts and minds. What a pleasure to meet up with them again.
But I ask myself, who do young girls today—the beneficiaries of the struggle for women’s rights—have as fictional role models? Do girls still read Little Women and Jane Eyre? Bombarded as they are with media and pop culture, what characters do they look to for guidance in maintaining principles of equality and finding emotional and intellectual fulfillment?