Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Importance of Doing Nothing

Note: In honor of upcoming Mother's Day, I'm devoting the next couple of posts to excerpts from my book, "All About Motherhood: A Mom for All Seasons and Other Essays," available at or your favorite online bookstore. Above, Ben on his 20th birthday and myself, still happily doing nothing together though he is indeed a very busy college student now.

If you’re a parent, you’ve certainly read those Richard Scarry books about all those busy people in Busy Town. You know, Lowly Worm, Bananas Gorilla, Huckle Cat and so forth, all running around in circles?  Sometimes, as I’m driving my kids to school in all the morning hustle and hysteria, I think of those books. Yes, these are busy times, and we’re all very busy people.
            These days, it’s fashionable to be busy; it’s not chic to spend the morning doing the same pig puzzle 100 times.  Busy is cool, but frantically busy, absolutely crazed by things to do, is even better, whether you have a “real” job or not.  Surely, all this busyness must be good. Yet something tells me we’re afraid to be unoccupied; we’re just a tad nervous about having time on our hands.  Clearly, idleness doesn’t fit in the computer age.  We don’t want to appear to be too mellow or too lazy; busyness indicates importance and success.  In the sixties, sitting around in a stupor gazing at flowers was perfectly acceptable behavior, but in the new millennium one must be on the go or eyebrows will arch.  Slowness is for slugs.
            So I’ll admit this in a whisper, as if it’s some kind of sin: Recently, my youngest son and I spent an entire morning doing nothing.  On this particular morning, I didn’t make any trips to the grocery store; I didn’t run down to put in laundry or down again to throw clothes in the dryer; I didn’t do any writing, networking or phone-calling; I didn’t make soup or clean the bathroom; I didn’t even wash the breakfast dishes until afternoon.  I did, I’ll confess, make a pot of coffee, but after that I spent the whole morning with my four-year-old, Ben.  We traced our hands and painted pictures; we dragged out all the puzzles we haven’t mastered in months and did each five times; we read books and listened to tapes, we played indoor “hide and seek.” In short, we “hung out.”  We didn’t do much of anything; we just…were.  Yes, we even watched the flowers growing.
            Not once did Ben appear to be bored. Never did he say, “Mom, when do you take me to preschool?” or “Can’t we go play with some kids in the park now?”  He was thrilled, it seemed, to possess my full, undivided attention, to feel that he was not just a distraction that keeps me from more important grown-up pursuits like scrubbing all the floors or making money.  And surprisingly, halfway into the morning, I realized that I was really enjoying this “free” time, too.
            Usually, when I call friends or colleagues, whether they’re parents or not, I get essentially the same answer when I ask, “What have you been doing?”
           “Oh, I’ve been really busy,” is the common response.  Or, “Things have been really hectic.”  Then I get a breathless, longwinded rundown of what the person has been up to: shopping, preparing for birthdays or holidays, taking courses, car pooling, volunteering, meeting deadlines, running the school candy sale, and so on, ad infinitum.  One friend of mine, who always calls me on her cell while on the L.A. Expressway driving home from work, is perpetually “just wrapping up a deal.”  Another, a teacher and mother, is always running from school to church to library meetings.  Sometimes (when she’s forced by laryngitis) she takes a day off.  Usually, however, she pushes herself to the outer limit before she’ll ever take a moment’s rest.
            Perhaps I’m a dreamer.  Okay, I am a dreamer, but I’d like to think that maybe in the future, we’ll learn how to slow down.  I’m not talking about old age here, either.  I’d like to think that even in the days of electronic mail, the Internet, two-income families, and the fax, there still will be times when I might call a friend and ask, “What are you doing?” and he or she would say without remorse, “Absolutely nothing.” Or even better, “I’m just finishing up a morning of building blocks with my two-year-old.”  Just once, I’d like to get a call from my West Coast friend when she’s sitting on her deck, leisurely sipping an iced tea and polishing her toenails, without the roaring backdrop of traffic.  “What are you doing?” I ask.  In my fantasy, she answers, “Zilch.”
            So maybe I’m foolish to admit this, but I’m really not that busy.  Yes, I do have three boys, and each has umpteen activities to be carted to, I do have housework and laundry and writing.  But when Ben looks at me and says, “Mom, help me do this puzzle,” I’m going to drop everything for a moment.
           I’ll be very busy, you see, doing nothing—nothing, that is, in the grown-up sense of the word.
            After all, one day Ben’s going to be too busy for me.  I don’t want to wonder, when that day comes, why I was always so hurried and preoccupied. So at the risk of sounding as if I’m lazy, I propose we all do nothing together with our children…while there’s still time.

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