A while ago, I posted a photo of an old book I saw online: How to Avoid Everything — Irresponsibility Made Easy. Right up my alley, and apparently of other readers. Several wrote to ask where they could buy it. I suspect someone photoshopped the title onto a blank book cover. The genius of it, or course, is that we supply the answer in our imagination…
In addition to that compelling idea of a book, I have two actual books about doing nothing. How to Do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself is for kids but I totally relate to it. A spiritually-minded friend saw it on my stack and stopped dead in his tracks, opened it, and stood for at least 5 minutes reading avidly with the expression of someone who’d found something very essential. He did.
Robert Paul Smith’s book is full of things to do with cheap and found items that need little instruction, that inspire invention, imagination, being in the moment. More importantly, it encourages independence and feeling fine with aloneness.
I understand some people get worried about kids who spend a lot of time alone. But I worry about something else even more; about kids who don’t know how to spend any time all alone, by themselves.
These days, you see a kid lying on his back and looking blank and you begin to wonder what’s wrong with him. There’s nothing wrong with him, except he’s thinking… He’s trying to arrive at some conclusion about his thumb.
That would be me.
I spend a good amount of time doing nothing, that is, not doing many of the “normal” activities in our busyness-valueing world. To thrive, I need a lot of time doing nothing alone, which is of course always something. I putter, I get ideas, I nap and dream, and read, and wander and when I look back on the day, much has happened internally for sure, and often externally, that was the product of flow rather than scheduling. Somehow books get written and the house cleaned, because “doing nothing” defies the usual thinking of productivity as linear.
I’ve long been aware that “doing nothing” is not the norm; over the years I have gotten comfortable with it. Still, it is always affirming to hear of others made the same way. And recently there have been a spate of books extolling doing nothing as an antidote of overwork and competitive living.
The BEST book I have about doing nothing is Jenny Odell’s brilliant How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy It is a complex and insightful meditation about how to find quiet and meaning in our dangerously consuming world.
It somehow gives permission to find or make that quiet dreamy space (which naturally means gradually disengaging from chattering technology). You can open it anywhere to find illuminating ideas and mind-shifts. Here’s a current favorite that has added another dimension to my daily wandering in the park across the way:
Even when I go to the Rose garden, I’m not really alone. Although I generally keep to myself, the park, whose visitors are diverse in pretty much every way, is where I’ve had by far the most conversations with strangers. And those are just the humans. I’ve always found the phrase “alone in nature” to be a humorous oxymoron, an utter impossibility. When the garden is empty of people, I still consider it a social place where I spend time with jays, ravens, dark-eyed juncos, hawks, turkeys, dragonflies , and butterflies, not to mention the oaks, the redwoods, the buckeyes, and the roses themselves.
I will often look up from a book and let my attention wander over to a foraging towhee, settling into its scale of perception, lingering in the minute bug universe under a rosebush. Over the years I’ve noticed that, on hearing birds that are out of sight, I’ve gone from asking “What’s there?” to “Who’s there?” Every day, and indeed very thought, is different depending on who’s there.
Reading How to Do Nothing, we accompany Odell on the rich trail of “doing nothing” and in doing so, find our own.
As Paul Collins wrote in the introduction to How to Do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself,
Doing nothing with nobody, and doing it well, is a talent at living.