Most of us by the time we become parents start to develop a sense of nostalgia for the “good old days,” those days that seemed simpler and carefree. For me, it was waking up on Saturday mornings as a kid and eating cereal in front of the television for hours – and I literally mean hours. First, I’d watch Saturday morning cartoons and then I’d tune in to some feature film, often of the “horror” variety – or what was considered “horror” when I was a kid… grainy black and white movies about Godzilla or the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Outside of a few assigned chores, I literally did nothing all day. Imagine that. Having a day with nothing to do.
As mothers, those days seem long gone, as if there will never be another day with nothing to do again. Because cleaning a house when you have kids is like stringing beads on a rope with no knot. Right?
It is true that when we were younger, we had fewer responsibilities. But, after reading Patricia Hampl’s The Art of the Wasted Day, I think she might be onto something when she points out that as we’ve grown up, not only do we have more responsibilities, we’ve likely internalized the idea of the American pursuit of happiness. The key word here, she says, is likely not happiness but pursuit. Americans are strivers. We crave accomplishment and not just a little.
I was recently watching Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee with Jerry Seinfeld, an episode with Tina Fey. They went out to have coffee and a Cronut – a pastry that’s a cross between a croissant and a doughnut invented by New York City pastry chef Dominique Ansel of Dominique Ansel Bakery.
They joked about what if an American had invented the cronut. That it would be “blown-up” with hundreds of storefronts across America. Endless cronuts made available everywhere via fast food franchises. But, because the inventor of the cronut is French, Fey says, he’ll likely instead take 70 weeks of vacation and won’t care if he ever makes another cronut again.
I laughed. But isn’t that how we really are sometimes? If something is good, then lots of it must be better. Americans are always in search of how to wring the most out of everything, including our time. We must not waste time.
Hampl tells a story of her first confession as a young catholic schoolgirl. How she studied the catholic catechism about possible sins she might need to confess. She was very concerned to learn that listed on the list of potential sins was daydreaming. Now I am not catholic and I cannot confirm or deny such a concept but I did find a few thoughts about it online. What I found were mostly things that make sense like we probably shouldn’t daydream about lusty stuff or breaking any of the 10 commandments, which makes sense. But I also read a line on a Christian forum that said, “Daydreaming and unprofitable thoughts lead us away from the Lord.” Hmmm… I thought the term “unprofitable” was interesting. It could likely be interpreted a variety of ways, but it spoke to me in the same way that too many of us view life – as one long to-do list. Hampl says, “For the worker bee, life is given over to the grim satisfaction of striking a firm line through a task accomplished. On to the next, and the next. Check, check. Done and done.”
I am this way. I get an almost perverse satisfaction from checking things off of my to-do list. As if in doing so I’m actually solving any of the worlds problems.
Hampl says, “The essential thing required of the American dream has always been that it must remain a dream, vivid, tantalizingly beyond reach. Just the dreaming of it, which costs nothing, absolutely nothing except every cent of our imaginative attention, inflates the soul. Fills it rather than fulfills it.” Whoa!
She talks about the Latin term known as otium cum dignitate or honorable leisure. I looked it up. This is what I found from a blogger named Daniel Dendy:
Otium cum dignitate was the advice Cicero gave for how an honest person should live. The word “otium” does not mean ‘idleness’ but instead the advice was to pursue an ensemble of non-political and non-paid activities (I’m going to also insert unprofitable) that allow for the “humanistic” development of an individual.
In other words, Cicero advised that one should dedicate him or herself to study, writing, intimate and cultured conversation, meditation, finding time for family and friends, and of course some time in the countryside. Together with “otium”, Cicero also recommended a strong dose of “dignitas” which was very important to people of his time. Everything was to be done with a sense of measure and moderation. It’s a lovely philosophy of living to try to pursue especially when put in the context of today’s hustle and bustle.
I remember when my first born was an infant, that struggle to shift gears from what a workday looked like compared to what a mother of an infant day looked like. Not getting to finish tasks that I’d started or feeling like I needed to put my sleeping baby down instead of cuddling him because I had so much to do. Just sitting here seemed like wasting time.
Then, years later, when my kids were in school, a friend asked me to babysit her infant for a few hours once a week. I agreed and little Ella was brought to me in her baby carrier. I remember holding baby Ella while lying on the couch watching Regis and Kelly. Not caring a lick about having to accomplish anything else. Why didn’t I treasure those moments with my own kids? Why did I always feel so guilty about “wasting” time? Time passes without regard of what we do with it. My house is no more or less clean today than it was then. I can give no account of anything extraordinary I accomplished because I put my baby down and stopped “wasting time.”
My husband is worse than me when it comes to his need to be (or maybe just feel) busy. It took him years not to resent seeing me sitting in a chair reading a book. In his mind, reading is a waste of time because you’re not really accomplishing anything that can be measured. Sort of like daydreaming… or rocking a baby.
Some people even feel guilty about their hobbies. Speaking of hobbies, I remember once being invited to a card making party. I’m not a “crafty” person, meaning I don’t particularly enjoy crafts, not that I don’t appreciate the process or outcome. But during the presentation by a lovely woman who demonstrated lots of fancy papers, stamps and tools to make homemade greeting cards, I leaned over and whispered to someone, “Seems like a lot of trouble for something that will end up in the trash.” There was an audible gasp. I don’t know why, in room full of crafters, that I was surprised to learn that throwing a “crafted” item away is also likely to be on the list of sins one might need to confess.
But if everything we do or make has to be accounted for, then technically it’s not a time waster and therefore we can justify spending time doing it. Right? Does my throwing a lovely greeting card away detract from its loveliness? Or the joy someone had in making it? Or the joy of receiving it? Really?
My mother-in-law loves to do Sudoku puzzles. But she feels guilty about it. She even said to me once, “I wish I had something to show for the time I spend doing Sudoku like someone who enjoys knitting, or cross-stitch” or card making perhaps… because then, they have something to give away so it’s not really wasting time, right?
But you see, tending to things or creating things without any real goal or accomplishment in mind can be good for the soul – therapeutic you could say. Whoops! By saying it’s therapeutic, I’ve gone and given it a goal without even meaning to. I guess what I’m trying to say is, you need not do only things, that by doing them, you accomplish some “thing.” Hampl notes the importance of just being present, of slowness, of patience – things that only look like wasting time.
She even gives mention of monastic life. I’m not asking you to live it – I’m not nuts. I’m only asking you to think about it for a moment. To imagine, as Hampl says, “no grit of social maneuvering, no sharp elbows of ambition, loving instead the things of the earth with our focus on the immediate growing world, the daily round of life. Time’s seasonal shape. Monastic life is, among other things, profoundly domestic. A lot of bread baking, honey gathering and wine making.”
Granted, most of us don’t have time or desire for a more domestic life.
I’m a mom. I clearly understand that we have enough domestic duties already – many of which I assure you, you need not do as often as your mother told you. I believe it was comedic writer Erma Bombeck who said her theory on “housework is, if the item doesn’t multiply, smell, catch fire, or block the refrigerator door, let it be. No one else cares. Why should you?”
So when Hampl mentions monastic life, I think she’s referring more to the essence of care and tending that is more like gardening than farming – more like life in Eden before we became soaked in the sweat of our brow.
I didn’t love all of Hampl’s book. But I appreciated the thrust of her message and wanted to share it. So, I’m here to affirm you that it’s okay to sit still. To play with your kids instead of unloading the dishwasher. It’ll get done. Trust me. One way or another, it all gets done. Plus, I agree with Hampl in that, in an effort to not waste time, I’d prefer not to waste my life. Which leads me to conclude with another of my favorite quotes:
“A clean house is the sign of a life wasted.” So go ahead, embrace the Sabbath day by doing big fat nothing. Bring European siesta culture to America. Start a time wasting trend, and stop feeling guilty about it.