Glorious Indolence: A Blank Stretch of Time

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Last month, I read an op-ed in the New York Times about how important it is to do nothing. I set it aside and when I went back to find it, I saw the same topic broached four or five times. All of these writers were advertising for the lost art of stillness, inertia, or as I put it glorious indolence; getting into a hammock and staring into space, making yourself a snack and lying back into the same bed you just got out of. I would add binge-watching TV shows on Netflix, but even that is potentially too much of a something. What we’re really looking for here is a big, blank stretch of time you might only fill with some drawings, ideas and a good book.

The whole concept reminds me of all those hours I spent staring at the sky as a kid. Time seemed infinite in those days and the world only seemed to exist for the purpose of mystery and discovery. Life was one long meditation, from morning to night. And it was mine, too, with all its discoveries, wonders, and possibilities. Even as some kid lying supine in the grass staring at airplanes, I had some command of myself and my environment. I was free to explore it.

Then I went to school. They meant well; they did. But it was my first institution, and I remember it had a nasty habit of flattening the three-dimensional world into textbooks. We had to learn to spell the world and calculate it. A teacher told us what the world was, and graded us on how well we picked it up. There were other requirements: we had to have the right friends and the teacher had to like us. The lights, I remember, were horribly fluorescent, which illuminated the classroom like a display case. We were ranked. And the world outside, in all its possibilities, in all its vast wonder, became a snapshot through a glass. A fence corralled us at recess and I used to watch the garbage men just outside of the fence. They wore jumpsuits and worked the truck, turning the dumpsters over, and I thought, enviously: “they’re free.”

Later, college and the workplace were both replicas of the first. By then, we were supposed to be used to the ranking business. Learning stopped being passionate and joyous, but rather something we do for approval. And we go to work for the honor in it, learn to call Wednesday hump day and say TGIF, and that sort of thing. In the Midwest, they say, “workin’ hard or hardly workin’,” and sometimes people laugh as if they’ve never heard that one.

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And this early sense that your world is bursting with mystery and the mesmerizing thought that you’ve been born into it has diminished.

Which is exactly what we are getting at, I think. When was it ever our lives and when did it cease to be so? Whose idea was it to flatten the world into a textbook, organize it into acronyms, or keep us too busy to think? Why on earth should I ever have to justify standing, if I want, for three straight hours in the woods, looking at a leaf? To whom do I owe my space, my time and my breath, that I should ask permission to use any of it for my own pleasure? We are asking ourselves, quite seriously, if we’re allowed not merely to exist in the world, but to be alive in it.

It’s a wonderful question. It’s relevant for the marginalized: for women who have been made to justify their existences and choices; for members of the LGBTQ community who have had to hide who they are, sometimes for their own safety. For people of color, who have found themselves not only brutalized but diminished and defined. It’s relevant for anybody who spends her weeks doing something she would rather not and is then made to feel bad because all of those hours spent while the world is confined to an office, building, or factory do not pay equal money to earn her respect or even a reasonable quality of life.

To whom must I ask permission to rest? To enjoy the water and air and stars, which were laid out for me as they were for everyone?

But we ask permission. We ask each other, really. We list our activities at social gatherings and announce our exhaustion like badges, if not of honor, of belonging. Anyone who’s anyone is on the run. Our lives become sealed so tight there’s no space for air or movement or thought. We are trying to justify the air we breathe and the space we take up. We’re apologetic.

So I hope the op-ed writers are succeeding in this quiet revolution. I hope we learn to sit with ourselves and each other again, without expectation, and I hope we learn to understand that we are all right as we are, even in our glorious indolence. I hope we learn to think about the Anasazi, who inhabited the quiet-assed desert in the Southwest more than 800 years ago and, despite having to build houses and cook and a thousand other things, still managed to take time to paint on canyon walls. Imagine how quiet that was.

I hope we learn to tell the world to back up. Anything worth anything has always been pulled from those quiet, lawless spaces where imagination runs wild. But it’s more than that: It’s your time, your space and your life, whatever you decide to do. Slowing down simply means owning it.

Artwork by Fluvio Obregon