I had planned to spend last weekend working on my novel revisions. I had no major commitments, and since I have a day job and need to keep an eye on my elderly father’s care, uncommitted time is a precious resource.
So I got up Saturday morning with every intention of writing. Yet somehow I ended up working in the yard. I wandered down to a neighbor’s plant sale and bought two hibiscus plants. Then I went out to my favorite garden store and not only bought more plants and a hummingbird feeder, but also acquired a metal Kokopelli to put on the stump of the dead tree I just had removed.
I wasn’t tackling the major things I need to do in the yard, like put mulch all around the trees and digging a bed for a cacti and succulent garden and planting more trees. I was doing fun stuff that didn’t require a lot of effort.
That is, I was puttering. And Sunday morning I woke up at 5:30 with ideas pounding in my head. I think the two things are connected.
A week or so ago, a writer named Tim Kreider had an op-ed in the NY Times on the virtues of idleness. In it, he observed:
Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.
I’ve always known I needed idle time and yet that seems to be something I have to keep learning over and over. Maybe that’s because, in our society, being crazy busy is considered virtuous, so that I feel guilty if I’m just puttering around.
But busy is also the way modern life is constructed. While Kreider suggests that a lot of busyness is based on a desire to see our lives as important — “obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day” — I think he’s not being completely fair.
More and more people in this country no longer make or do anything tangible; if your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scarry book I’m not sure I believe it’s necessary.
That may be true, but the paycheck that comes with that job is necessary for most of us. Busyness is part of how we keep our bosses convinced we’re worth paying.
Kreider does have a solution, or rather — being an idle guy — he has a friend with a solution:
My old colleague Ted Rall recently wrote a column proposing that we divorce income from work and give each citizen a guaranteed paycheck, which sounds like the kind of lunatic notion that’ll be considered a basic human right in about a century, like abolition, universal suffrage and eight-hour workdays.
Personally, I would love this. Having enough money to live on while being free to do the work I consider important, regardless of how well it pays, is my idea of heaven. It would give me time for the puttering and long walks and conversations that lead to more creativity.
But I’m not sure it would make everybody happy. I’m always seeing articles about people who win big in the lottery but still keep their uninteresting jobs. They don’t want all that extra time for idling around and thinking.
And if I had all that time, I’d probably decide I could take up another dozen things that interest me but that I never get around to, like playing video games or learning blacksmithing or getting very good at shooting pool.
I don’t want to do dull and unimportant work and I hate being too busy, but damn, there are a lot of fascinating things to do in the world.
I just have to keep reminding myself that doing nothing is one of them.