I am a list maker, an agenda keeper, a doer. Multitasking is my middle name. And when I am not making lists for myself, I’m making them for my kids and husband. The way I see it, productivity is a virtue. Getting Things Done is a priority. I relish the busyness of a day. Though I complain, the running and racing to and fro seems to both wear and energize me. So when a dear friend invited me to his summer rental on Fire Island, I thought it would be the perfect way to wind down at the end of a busy summer. I packed my bathing suit, summery tunics, flip flops and one bag filled to capacity with a book group selection I needed to complete, one magazine, the previous week’s New York Times book review, two reference books for a picture book biography I was working on, my tablet, my journal and one “just for me” book. When I met my friend at Penn Station, he looked startled. “Just some beach reading,” I assured him. I fully expected to go hop on a ferry and uncharacteristically leave all my cares behind. But along with my book filled bag, I had unwittingly packed my agenda.
“What do you want to do now?” I asked almost as soon as we arrived.
My friend smiled patiently, “We relax.”
So, I dutifully gathered up my books, found a comfy chaise, and read the book review, wrote in my journal, and read a few pages of my book group book. There, I applauded myself–I was done with relaxing. Check.
“Now what?” I asked.
We went to dinner. We went shopping for groceries. We talked, we laughed. We walked along the beach. When we sleepily arrived back at his place, I began, “So tomorrow…..?” He didn’t respond.
I awoke early, made a mental list of all I wanted to do for the day. I would start by working on my manuscript. So, off I went onto the deck with my tablet and reference books and worked for an hour. He ambled out to the deck, sleepy eyed and pajama’d. Before we’d even thought about breakfast, I needed to know,
“So what are we going to do today?”
“I come here to do nothing.” he replied lazily.
“Do nothing?” I’d never thought of that as an activity. “You mean you sit and read?”
“Nope. I sit outside and look at the clouds and think.”
“Think?” This was getting more confusing by the minute. “Don’t you go to the beach?”
“If I’m in the mood. But, if I’m not, I just sit outside and look at the clouds and think.”
Was I trapped for an entire weekend on a tiny island with a mad man? When he went back inside, I sat back on my favorite chaise, took out my book, leaned back to get comfortable and looked up. There above me were the most beautiful clouds nestled in the bluest of skies. I rested the open book on my lap. Periodically I heard the rumblings of activity indoors, the ipod, the shower, dishes being washed. But I never stopped staring at the clouds. I felt strangely relaxed. When he came out, I hastily sat up, ready to start the day.
Throughout the day, I thought about the quieter moments this summer where I sat outside in the early morning hours with a cup of tea or just after the sun had set, staring into space. Exhausted from a restless night or tired from the 24-hour Mommy taxi service, these were the times when I had to be still because I was just too tired to do. And so I sat and listened and thought, that is, until I heard the dog whining to be let out, James pouring his morning cereal or the kids shouting, “Mom” throughout the house, wondering where I ccould possibly be. Those moments were short lived but they stayed with me.
As the weekend progressed, I watched my friend like an investigative reporter trailing a subject, intent on disovering how a person does Nothing. I took notes. Subject took a long walk, laid in the sun, had lunch, bought more supplies, had a nap. Subject sipped cold drinks outdoors barefoot while gazing at the sun.
On the day of my departure, I realized that with all of my investigative reporting, I hadn’t completed one thing on my weekend checklist. But my friend was busy doing Nothing, so he pointed me in the right direction, and off I went to conquer the beach. With my beach chair and bag of books I headed out, determined once again to multitask–sun on the beach, read and write–check, check, and check.
I found the perfect spot on a not too crowded beach, next to a couple with a dog. I set up my chair and my water, checked my text messages, sent a few, wrote in my journal, read a few pages. But somehow I just couldn’t focus. The sound of the water lapping ashore was distracting. I preferred watching my beach neighbors toss a ball to their dog. I returned to my book but the sun felt so perfect, I took off my cover up and stretched out in the sand. I watched joggers, and couples strolling, the water, the sun, the dog. I checked my watch. Only two hours till the next ferry and I had yet to complete a chapter. But the sun, the water…. When I checked my watch again, it was time to go. Did I just waste two precious hours doing nothing? When I packed the books back in my bag and folded my towel and beach chair, I was smiling. I did it. I did Nothing
and it was glorious. I was clear and relaxed and happy. And strangely the time had allowed my mind to wander and create and dream. All the things that never make it onto my never ending lists, but should.
When I returned, my friend was lounging in bed, sipping a cold drink.
“Well, how was it?” he asked.
“Just perfect,” I answered.
I had finally discovered the Art of Doing Nothing and the realization that in life it is less about Doing than it is about Being. Check.