by Amy Henry
“Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass on a summer day listening to the murmur of water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is hardly a waste of time.” (Sir John Lubbock)
[Author’s note: I think of this as the ultimate summer post, which is my way of saying it first appeared on May 31, 2016. Even writers need to pry themselves loose from their laptops and kick back once in a while. If you see me on my deck, give a wave. Enjoy the fine weather.]
Some years ago, after a day of rambling through the 300+ booths of the Paradise City Arts Festival, I suggested to my husband Ed that we sit and be for a while. This was one of our early excursions together, and he had yet to master the lingo of his beloved. “Sit and be?” he echoed. “What’s that?” Somewhat taken aback—how do you reduce the irreducible?—I stammered, “Well, you just sit … and you be.”
Most of us feel keenly the press of time. Deadlines lurk around every corner. The rent is due. Taxes are due. Biological clocks are ticking. Careers must be launched and once launched, must be advanced. Running through it all, like a Greek chorus whose role it is to underscore the message, are advertisements exhorting us to Act Now. Don’t Waste Another Minute. Hurry! Be The First To …
The MO of modern life is constant motion. There must be something to show for every moment. Like some throwback to the 16th century, we have an almost Calvinistic need to justify our existence through keeping busy. What were you accomplishing on the night of June 6? Woe to the person without an answer. When did you last hear someone confess to doing nothing?
Sleep Bah, Humbug!
As a kid, I was horrified when I learned that fish lack eyelids and so cannot sleep in the sense that mammals do. I walked about for weeks trying to imagine what it would be like to be awake 24/7, unable to take a break from the demands of the onrushing world.
Yet, by an extension of logic, if no moment of life must be “wasted,” then we waste 6-8 good hours every night sleeping. Totally unconscious. Not producing one damn thing. (Note: I just googled “guilt about wasting time sleeping” and a whole slew of forums on the topic popped up. People worrying they are wasting their lives by sleeping. People worrying they are wasting their lives over worrying about sleeping. Even one insomniac who confessed to suffering guilt about trying and failing to sleep. People, get a grip.)
But we know we need sleep. Without it, the systems that power all that frantic waking activity break down. Our brains turn sludgy and after a while, we know not what we do. So, we accept (some of us grudgingly) that some portion of every 24 hours will be sacrificed to catching ZZZs.
We have a harder time with the concept of resting when we’re awake. And yet, there is a powerful body of research that suggests we accomplish more when we take frequent breaks. Barreling through our to-do list like automatons on speed stresses virtually every system in our bodies, lowering our mental capacity and performance.
We pretty much know this, that our brains are in danger of frying from the endless rush and craziness, so we seek various compromises. We meditate while jogging. Strap music to our heads while raking leaves or cleaning the kitchen. Keep up with Facebook and Twitter while (ostensibly) vegging with a movie.
But stopping, truly coming to a FULL STOP—we hardly know what to do with ourselves. How can we sit and be? Wouldn’t we go nuts with the boredom?
What’s So Great About Doing Nothing
Calvinist hustle aside, history offers us some compelling examples of the riches to be mined from sitting and being:
Newton was not “busy” searching for gravity when he first got the idea of it. No, he was just sitting under an apple tree, doing nothing in particular, when the notion of gravity hit him on the head, so to speak.
In the summer of 1916, Mary Gordon and her future husband, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley were just hanging out watching a thunderstorm with their friends, the poet Lord Byron and author John Polidori, in Geneva, Switzerland, when one of them proposed a contest to see who could write the best horror story. Mary Gordon Shelley won with her little gothic tale Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus.
I would argue that just sitting and being has inspired more discoveries and literature than any outburst of manic energy. It simply opens up your head once you shut off the distractions.
But what if you plunk your derrière down and nothing genius comes to mind? The workable design for a teletransporter is not revealed to you, nor the plot for a sequel to War and Peace. That’s okay. In fact, that’s really the point of sitting and being. It doesn’t require you to do anything.
We used to be a nation of porch sitters. People would hang out on their stoop or veranda and just be. If there were two of them on the same porch, the conversation might go like this:
Person #1: Stars are out tonight.
(Minutes tick by.)
Person #2: Yep.
What I recall most clearly from that crafts fair with Ed is nothing about the fair itself—not the sprawling warehouses crammed with hundreds of booths, nor the vast selection of foods, not even the band. My memory of that day centers on the 15 or 20 minutes (we weren’t checking our watches) we sat together on a bench outside the exhibition buildings, relishing the early October sunshine, letting the hum of a busy world pass us by. Maybe we exchanged a few words. Laughed at something.
What I know for sure is this: We were completely at peace.
Featured Mark Twain pic is public domain. The fridge magnet is a personal photo. The other photos are courtesy of Unsplash.com and Pixabay.com.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
I grew up in the Midwest. After earning a B.A. in literature, I did a stint as the editor of a monthly publication for women’s retailers. The job took me around the country—Dallas, Chicago, Boston—and introduced me to many delightful people. I interviewed industry bigwigs, gave seminars, and wrote several hundred articles about fashion retail. It was a great opportunity, but it wasn’t my dream, so I loaded everything into my VW Bug and—against famed editor Horace Greeley’s advice—headed east to Massachusetts, where I kept a (small) roof over my head writing anything and everything. Cover stories, profiles, how-to articles, news features, essays, and theater reviews. (Click here to read two of my articles).
Somewhere in there, I managed to have two kids, earn a M.Ed., teach first grade, and edit several series of college textbooks in psychology and sociology.
Through it all, I wrote fiction. I have always been writing fiction since I penned my first short story “How the Zebra Got His Stripes” at age seven. (This deathless prose still resides in my attic somewhere.) I went on to write reams of comic adventure fantasy in fourth grade because the stories made my friend Lisa’s mother laugh out loud and she always asked for more. Writers love their readers.
In recent years, I’ve had the good luck to be writing fiction full time. The research for my World War II thriller, The Sticking Place, took me to many fascinating spots—Bletchley Park, Churchill’s famous bunker (the Cabinet War Rooms), and the American Bar at the elegant Savoy Hotel, among them—and introduced me to a variety of experts, like the man who helped me calculate the rate of fall for a parachutist dropped over occupied France in 1944. You can read a teaser here.
While revising The Sticking Place, I published two short stories in The Barcelona Review and The Alembic (links to both stories can be found here). The (relative) ease of writing short fiction leaves me giddy. Without those annoying 300 middle pages, by the time you start, you’re almost done.
I also completed another novel, How Did We Get Here?, the structure of which owes a debt to Kierkegaard’s observation that life can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards.
Let no one tell you that contemporary fiction does not require research. Not Spitfires and Enigma machines this time, but megatons about Senate and House procedures, Child Protective Services, lawsuits, morgues, and human decomposition under water. Like life, How Did We get Here? is funny, heartbreaking, a wee bit macabre (well, the morgue scenes anyway), and full of surprises. Click here for the teaser.
Despite my light tone and love of a good laugh, I’m quite serious about my fiction. As Gustave Flaubert noted: Writing is a dog’s life, but the only life worth living.