Monday, September 9, 2019

On Doing Nothing

My mother was a canny woman.  When I entered my teens, two things happened.  My sister began to smoke and science was beginning to show that smoking caused lung cancer.  She was also an elegant smoker; it was as if she smoked in part to show off her lovely hands and impeccable manicure.  So one day when she invited me to light a cigarette for her--at this point, everyone else in my family smoked--I was delighted to try it out.  I put the cigarette in my mouth and put the match to its end, but nothing happened.  "You have to inhale," she advised me.  So I did.  The cigarette took the flame and I coughed and retched for about five minutes.  So I've never smoked.  (Well, I went to university in the late sixties and early seventies and later hung out with musicians; you know what I mean.)

There are times when I wish I smoked.  When I wake up in the middle of the night and can't get back to sleep, I just wish I could stand by an open window, look out meditatively, and have a cigarette.  I suspect this vision owes something to Bogart.  There's just something so much more comforting and yet serious about being up when everyone else is asleep if you can stand by a window, thinking out a puzzle, and have a cigarette.  Whereas really, there's nothing at all romantic and focused about being awake in the middle of the night, when your mind is leaping all over the place--grasshopper mind, I call it.

But mostly, I think walking out into the back yard to check out the vegetables in the middle of a work morning would be much more justifiable if I had gone out to have a cigarette.  It's a way of doing nothing.

I'm terrible at doing nothing.  About the closest I come to doing nothing is people-watching in a coffee shop or in line at the grocery store.  I even plan my driving routes to avoid lights, though I've recently discovered that sitting at a red light is really an excuse to do nothing.  

Feeding Tuck and Lyra is the one moment in my day when I do nothing.  You see, Tuck is a foodie:  he scarfs his food as fast as he can and then always wants more.  If I let him have free rein, he gets fat quickly, and fat cats don't live long lives.  Lyra, on the other hand, has a healthy approach to eating.  Sometimes, for example, he thinks he should spend several minutes winding around my legs or stretching his paws up my thighs, hoping to get picked up:  thanking me for feeding him is more important than eating.  Then, if he's not particularly hungry, he plays with his food, neatly lifting a single piece of kibble from his dish and scooting it somewhere so he can chase it.  He's also a grazer.  He walks away from his dish when he's full, but also counts on me to hide it from his brother so he can come back fifteen minutes later and eat a little more.  In the meantime, I have to watch Tuck like a hawk.  Normally a sweet, laid back cat, he'll bully his way into Lyra's dish for as big a helping of "salmon feast" as he can get in his mouth.  Watching cats eat is really doing nothing, isn't it? 

Lyra is good at getting me to do nothing.  Like right now, when I'm typing with one finger (okay, that isn't quite doing nothing) because he's climbed into my lap for one of his ecstatic cuddles.  Either he tucks the back of his head into the crook of my arm and stretches out like a babe in arms, or he sits upright in my lap, the side of his face on my sternum, one paw stretched to my clavicle.  Either pose requires at least one arm, sometimes two.  He's my ADHD cat and he won't be here long, so I just stop and do...nothing unless the ideas are coming fast and furious.  Then I type with one finger.  Scratching the belly of a cat who's lying in your arms like a baby is doing nothing, isn't it?  It's important nothing, as are all those moments when we stop to celebrate love and affection, like the post-prandial hug Bill and I share every night after dinner, before he blows out the candles he's lit.  Then we go wash up the dishes.

Well, I'm better at doing nothing than Dave McGinn, who published a piece in The Globe and Mail called "You need to relax."  He and a friend went to the beach one day to do nothing, but he ended up spending the day on his cell phone, taking pictures and posting them to Facebook and Instagram, and texting friends to see what they were doing.  He has some interesting ideas about why we're so bad at doing nothing as a culture, suggesting that the convergence of the 2008 recession and the rise of social media has led us to believe that "busy is desirable."  He goes on to describe "the frustrating irony of our obsession with busyness.  Our leisure time rarely, if ever, feels rejuvenating and restorative, and whatever work we do during it never really feels important or productive in any meaningful way.  We lose on both fronts."  He blames the Protestant Reformation for our belief that who we are is the work we do and that our cell phones allow us to work everywhere.  There's some merit in that.

I have some techniques for doing nothing but seeming to do something.  I hand quilt or make Bill another pair of brightly-coloured socks in simple stockinette stitch.  I weed the garden or deadhead the roses.  I guess I have Protestant hands.  As long as they are doing something simple and repetitive, my mind happily does the wandering and questioning and leaping that McGinn says is the benefit of doing nothing:  "Downtime has been shown to improve creativity and is vital for allowing us to process our thoughts."  And for processing the complicated emotional lives we live.  I recently read an article I can't find again where two writers argued about whether taking a walk was doing nothing--one arguing that a walk was simply a walk, the other emphasizing the way walking was a crucial part of his creative process.

But I also blame our cell phones.  If McGinn really wanted to do nothing, he should have left his cell phone at home.  Here he gets at what I see as the central challenge on doing nothing.  We need to put our nothing on Facebook or Instagram:  "Why go out to dinner, on holiday, or to the beach if you can't put it on Instagram and be seen as exploring or indulging instead of just relaxing?"  We have to be seen to be doing nothing.

I think we all need to take back doing nothing, to make it ours, to see its intimacy, its legitimacy.  Your doing nothing is entirely unlike mine.  Maybe you do go out for a meditative smoke or take the dog for a walk just to see how fast the leaves are turning, whether the few startling and worrying branches have multiplied or whether greenness is holding for now.  We need to study the fall light that changes daily.  Maybe you simply lock eyes with your baby or lover or cat for one of those wordless conversations that take time to unfold.  In fact, the time is the very point of those conversations--that we will invest that time into saying nothing and everything.


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