Wednesday, March 26, 2014

in praise of doing nothing

Part of getting older (yes, yes: I have been forty for two months) is not being at the mercy of embarrassment. I'm rarely embarrassed these days. Of course I have my own secret stash of embarrassing stories, moments of total mortification (and my best friend keeps these in a little box in her mind just in case I forget). Maybe getting older means you can play it off more easily. You step away from the embarrassing thing you just said as if confused about where that might have come from. Or perhaps look the person next to you in the eye and burst out laughing. Tools that just didn't occur to me in my youth.

I have a vivid recollection of being severely embarrassed by not-so-embarrassing situations. Once in my twenties I was sitting in a circle of women—wives to be precise—while the group kvetched about the problems of married student life: parking, shopping, laundry. I piped in to bewail the inconsiderateness of people who put tennis shoes in the dryer, particularly late at night. Shoes in the dryer make such a racquet! My apartment was just down the hall from the laundry room! Afterwards it dawned on me that the person who had put the tennis shoes in the dryer was likely sitting in that circle of women. But instead of making a joke about it or walking away and not giving it another thought, I took the high road: I worried about it for days, weeks, months. Heat rising in my cheeks whenever the thought of my words came to me. Did it even occur to me that the person who did put tennis shoes in the dryer—if she was even there—felt embarrassed too? No, I was absorbed in my own deep mortification. Writing this now I cannot fathom being so embarrassed by such a silly thing.

But that said, there are lots of little things I find myself internally a bit embarrassed about. Take, for example, my capacity for doing nothing. I am a champion at sitting and staring at nothing and no one, except maybe the sky or tree shadows on the wall. I think one of the reasons my husband, when I first met him, made me so deeply uncomfortable, was that he never did this. His incessant productivity seemed to seal my suspicion that happy, successful people do not sit and do nothing for long stretches of time.

But now I admit: doing nothing is a productive habit of mine. I cherish doing nothing each morning after the children are at school. I don't talk on the phone, or check email. Sometimes I check Pinterest or Instagram on my iphone, but I don't read anything. On mornings when I attend an exercise class, I speed home to a good dose of nothing. Without any sheepishness or internal guilt dialogues or suspicions that here is proof-that-I'm-a-loser-after-all, I sit. For about an hour or more: nothing. Then I shower, pop some chocolate-covered espresso beans, and make my bed (and the kid's beds, and dishes, laundry, etc).

Doing nothing is how I process. I free my mind from the activities of the day so that I can remember what is important. Sometimes I go over my dreams, sometimes I rehearse conversations I need to have in my head. I think about my design projects in a lazy, undirected way. I pay attention to whatever might be bothering me but hasn't had the time to fully surface. Sometimes I think about my children and how I can better parent them. But nothing is planned, nothing must be thought or not thought about. It's just nothing time. And I need it every day, more—I realize now—than I need coffee. And, embarrassment? I don't have time for that.


Manuela said...

I love it, Amber. Thank you. Once in a while, when I do nothing, a little bit of guilt will still sneak in. I will be turning forty next year. So hopefully by then I can completely leave it behind and enjoy my nothing time fully.

Evelina said...

Sorry for intruding - you see, I'm still foolish enough to apologize for such things - but this is a lovely post and perfectly in line with my own thoughts recently. I'm still feeling embarrassed about not being productive enough, but now that I read you, I have a hope to heal one day :).