Permission to do nothing? Take it for granted!

"Rest at harvest" by William Adolph Bourguereau
Discovering nothingness

When PreciousGrrlChild was a senior in high school and we were visiting colleges, I made an extraordinary discovery one day. Oh, yes, the universities were fascinating and being on each campus stirred in me the desire for a graduate degree, but that's not the discovery to which I refer here.

This is something far more elemental.

My daughter and I agreed on a date to make the 3-hour trek to a university that very much wanted her to attend. About a week in advance, I arranged to take the day off and looked forward to our road trip together, to the break from a hectic schedule and multitude of conundrums I needed to solve.

The morning of our trip arrived, and I asked PreciousGrrlChild what time she wanted to leave. She looked at me, confused, and said, "For what?" I reminded her of our arrangement and she apologized profusely for having forgotten to get permission from her teachers, explaining that she really had to go to school that day.

I was floored. I drove her to school, then sat in the car for a moment and tried to decide what I should do. Go back to work? Tackle myriad cleaning projects at home? Pay bills? And then I remembered how many times I'd craved a whole day to do nothing but bead, to play with vibrant arrangements of color and try out new techniques for off-loom needle weaving. I felt a little guilty considering such self-indulgence -- for about a minute. Then I decided to simply go for it.

I cannot recall a single piece of jewelry I created that day or what new skills I tried to learn. But I know I spread out on the dining room table a glorious concoction of beads of all sizes and that by the end of the day, my neck was sore and time had passed without me having looked at a clock once.

I slept wonderfully that night. And when I woke up, my mind was practically exploding with ideas. I had to grab a pen and notebook fast to capture them. Solution after solution poured onto the paper before me. I could not believe the novelty of the ideas that had come to me. They all related to issues at work that I had tried for weeks to "think" my way into solving.

Something about the spending the previous day creating beauty, pleasing myself, letting go awareness of time had loosened up or perhaps rested the part of my brain that apparently was spent from trying so hard. That part of my brain needed a full day of "nothingness" to function again.

To this day, I have not experienced so profound a contrast between trying to force a solution and having completely ignored a problem in favor of self-indulgence, which I now understand was, in truth, self care.

. . .
Sometimes the answer is a walk
Image by joiseyshowaa

Whenever I've needed to hire someone for a job that involves juggling too many responsibilities, meeting dueling deadlines, and dealing with some pretty tough characters, I pose a few impossible scenarios during the interview process. My goal is not to see how astounding the candidate's problem-solving skills are.

Rather, I am looking for one answer. After bombarding a candidate with a scenario that could easily cause her or him to hyperventilate, especially during an interview setting, the response I hope to hear: "I'd take a walk."

That simple answer reveals so much: that the candidate has experienced such quandaries and knows that the answer lies in staying calm, in clearing one's head, in attending to self-care first, and that muscling through a problem is not always the best approach. The question has yet to fail me.
. . .
What my shoulder reminded me
Image from

On Monday, a surgeon removed the bursa and a bone spur in my right shoulder. He also shaved down a bone that was causing me trouble whenever I made certain movements and which made me a good candidate for a rotator cuff tear. Full recovery from this procedure takes about 3 months, but the first week can be pretty painful, I'm told. Fortunately, I'm a big believer using pain medications as directed, and so I've been mostly in "lala" land for the past 5 days.

My days have been something like this: wake up, take pain meds, reapply ice pack, eat a little something, read, conk out, wake up in time to take the next dose of pain meds, reapply ice pack, eat a little something, conk out . . . you get the picture.

And what has most astonished me this week is how when I wake up, I always expect it to be about 2 hours later than it actually is. When I look at the clock, to my surprise, I still have plenty of time to do nothing. Blissful nothingness. I can't say I've had any startling discoveries during this period of nothingness other than to remember how good it feels to do nothing, to be self indulgent, to take care of myself. I start a new assignment at work on Monday, and I can't think of a better way to prepare than by having spent the past week napping, healing, and, for all intents and purposes, doing nothing.
. . .
Permission granted
"Rest" by Vilhelm Hammershoi, 1905

If you've never felt that it was OK to do nothing, I hereby grant you permission.
Go on now.
Do nothing.
But do let me know how you feel when you're done.


steven said…
kathleen wow! i so understand and connect to the need to create space for creative goodness, or to be available to that space when it opens up for you. i wouldn't wish the kind of body work you just underwent but it is what it is and i wish you well and a speedy and peaceful recovery of course!!! cool post. i very love the first painting!!! steven
ellen abbott said…
I don't sit still for long very well. until the day when my body or brain just refuses to cooperate. then I give and and do nothing.
Rudee said…
I completely understand and routinely practice lollygagging around. I have it down to an art form.

Your post was eloquent and meaningful and stands as reminder to those who can't relax to give it a shot. It really works.
Erin Davis said…
I am still trying to wind down from the end of the semester, and wound up getting the flu this weekend. Sometimes I think my body does this in order to make me come to a halt and do nothing. Because of my past battles with depression, there is a part of me that fears doing nothing. I am still trying to teach myself constructive ways to do it. I am going to keep this post in mind whenever I need some perspective on the matter! Thanks, Kathleen. :0)
Tess Kincaid said…
Nothingness. I love that. I needed this today. x
ladyfi said…
Those images are fabulous! And you're right - sometimes we need to do nothing, nothing at all...
Janie said…
I can't do nothing, literally. THat drives me crazy. But I do love to take long walks or rides when I can just let my mind wander. The wandering seems to allow my brain to reset, and for solutions to some of life's challenges to find a way in.

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