UR Here: On embracing the value of doing nothing

Photo by Dawn Frary
Photo by Dawn Frary

As a typical middle-class grade-schooler in the ’60s, three months of freedom lay before me after the last school bell rang in June. This was a time when many moms stayed home to raise the kids and when summer camps and special classes were few and far between — for many of us, due to economic restriction, but also because there weren’t that many available in the first place. One of my fortunate luxuries at this time of my life was piano lessons, and we even suspended those during summer vacation. But far from being days of deprivation or boredom, they were packed with free play and abundant imagination.

My Illinois family did enjoy an annual two-week vacation at a lake in Wisconsin, but mostly of a summer day, the hours ahead of me after I woke up were unplanned and unstructured. I would run up and down the alley with the neighborhood kids, play softball at the nearby church parking lot, ride my bike to the corner drug store for a candy bar, spend an afternoon at the branch library three blocks away, play “Ghost” (a game we made up) in the wooded lot until Mrs. Nielsen (who owned the lot and whose house was on the lot next door) kicked us out, read piles of comic books or Hardy Boys mysteries, have séances in our basement and chase lightning bugs at night. Little was scheduled, unless you count being home at 3 p.m. to watch Dark Shadows on TV and have a snack. At this age, I had little consciousness of the calendar, and summertime seemed endless.

Much has been written in recent years about the value of unstructured time and free play in childhood and the consequences of its loss in our current overscheduled world. Adults today also often suffer from a life overburdened with too much activity, busy-ness and responsibility, much of it unnecessary, manufactured for a false cultural belief in human worth through overwork. That is why I am so pleased that, for the first time in a long time, I will celebrate our country’s independence by embarking on several weeks of nothing.

Even though the pace of life always slows down a bit for me during the summer, it is usually punctuated by obligations and activity. These are good undertakings — things I enjoy doing, even highlights of the year. Our annual family vacation in the Northwoods of Minnesota holds a special place as one of the greatest experiences of the year. I usually teach a workshop or two in the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, which is always enjoyable and motivating. And there are often several other formal activities throughout the days of light and warmth: board meetings or retreats in out-of-town locations, teaching at our local senior center, or perhaps attending a conference. Last summer, for example, I was greatly fulfilled by the wrap-up to the Center for Regenerative Society Corridor Leadership Retreat yearlong series in June, capped by my first-ever sweat lodge ceremony, and in August, I thoroughly enjoyed the first “Building a Land Ethic” conference of the Aldo Leopold Foundation in Leopold’s Baraboo, Wisconsin, home territory. But all of these activities, no matter how enjoyable or how significant, take planning, work and psychic energy to happen, and the intensity of the experience displaces the calm and centering that comes with routine and a lack of obligation.

So it was with some joy that I recently realized late June until late August on my calendar this year was blank. Thanks to summer plans of other family members, our trek north took place in May, and my Iowa Summer Writing Festival workshops wrapped up in June. With no further major commitments this summer, I now have six to eight weeks with no obligation to plan, think about, prepare for, or go to any special event or place.

I still have my job and plenty to do at home in my off-work hours, but I cannot remember such an open stretch of time in my adult summers when I could go about my daily routine without much forethought of the next big thing. Improvisation, even whim, will drive what I decide to do in the coming weeks. I’m committing myself to a constrained scope of activity and simple pastimes, which will be freeing rather than constricting. In this simplicity, I hope to deepen my connection to this place where I live by centering on the everyday.

If you have a chance to keep your calendar clear for any length of time, I encourage you to keep it open and unstructured and join me in a summer of freedom. I’m sure your mind, body and soul will thrive in the release from the prison of plans and the exhaustion of urgency.

So if you ask me what I’m doing the rest of this summer, my answer is, “Nothing.” If you have a big idea to do something or go someplace exciting in July or August, don’t bother asking me to hop aboard because my answer will be, “Nope.” If you ask me what I’m doing on July such-and-such, my response will be, “I don’t know.” And when that day does come around, who knows? Maybe what I’ll do is come home early from work, make some Kool-Aid, find an episode of Dark Shadows to watch on YouTube or Hulu, and then dig out a pile of old comic books in which to lose myself.

Thomas Dean isn’t doing anything. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 202.

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