Last fall, after I finished writing The Mermaid Chair, I began to think fondly of doing nothing. I’d been working at a pretty high pitch for several years, writing, speaking and traveling, and I’d loved every moment of it, but honestly, now I felt tired down in my bones, in the wrinkles of gray matter in my brain. I was what you call spent.
The other day someone told me about seeing a prime time television commercial urging the American people to please, please take their vacations. Apparently the time we take for rest and renewal is shrinking; apparently we place our work at the top of the food chain and it tends to swallow up everything else.In The Secret Life of Bees
(page 57 to be exact), there’s a line in which Lily says, Next to Shakespeare, I love Thoreau best. I love Thoreau best, too.I read Walden when I was fifteen. Along with Kate Chopin’s novel, The Awakening, it made the biggest impression on me of any book I read in my adolescence. As you probably know, Walden is Thoreau’s account of seeking spiritual awakening by returning to a simple life beside Walden Pond in the New England woods. It is strange the way certain sentences from the book are still alive in me. Like this one:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to... see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
Since fifteen, I’ve harbored a secret and, I admit, highly romantic fantasy of going off like Thoreau to my own Walden Pond.
|photo by: Jim Helwig|
But as I considered an entire winter of doing nothing, I told my husband we better leap before I started looking around too much at all the things I had to do, before the urge to write the next book got to me. We ended up on an island along the coast of Florida, in a place by the sea where I leave the doors flung open to the sound of the waves, where early in the morning pelicans lap through the salted fog and dolphins spew their breath beyond the jetty. Every day I tell myself that I came here to see if I could live deliberately and learn what this place has to teach me.
I have been here seven weeks now. Of course my Thoreau experiment got the romance knocked out of it pretty early on. My car battery went dead- it did not distinguish between my regular life and my contemplative life. And so it seems to unfold nearly every day– the complexity and demands of life on earth intrude and I am pulled away from doing nothing to doing something. But still.... still I am finding a slower rhythm establishing itself in me.
At the moment, I am writing to you from the lanai. In Georgia where I grew up, this would be called the porch; in Charleston, the piazza. What these things all have in common is that you sit on them and observe the breathing world. This newsletter is coming along slowly because I keep peering out at the water where the sun is hovering on the horizon. The first time I observed it sink into the gulf, I explained to my husband that it looked like a big orange, fizzing tablet that drops into the water and dissolves. He said by all means not to use that terrible metaphor in the newsletter. I am anyway because it makes me laugh. And because as bad as it is, the metaphor is apt. After the sun hits the water, light will splash up in effervescent patterns, moving across the sky. Most evenings I sit right here watching all this till I’m enclosed in darkness and awe.
|photo by: Jim Helwig|
I know now there really is a kind of loitering that is good for us. In Walden, Thoreau describes how he sat in his doorway for hours watching the pines and hickories and sumacs-- essentially doing nothing-- and proclaimed the experience far better than any work of his hands. Can you think of anything that seems more out of touch with the rushing world? Yet, he proclaims there’s value in sitting there. Even when you recognize its value, it can be hard to practice this sort of thing. I understand that. I spent the first two weeks of my nothing doing retreat (as a friend of mine labeled it) fighting off the recurring idea that I was wasting time, that watching sun cycles and water heave itself onto the shore in repetitive sameness for hours on end is irrelevant.
Then one day on the lanai, I watched a vast migration of stingrays. They floated in the water for hours like great dark lily pads, and I watched with the vague sense of coming into sync with a deeper, slower, truer rhythm than the one I usually lived by. I began to see the relevance of doing nothing.
It’s clear to me that the human soul is meant to move at a much slower pace than the world around it. When we lose touch with this pace, we can get what has been referred to in medical circles as hurry sickness. It shows up in a whole array of symptoms and diseases. Since coming here my blood pressure has sunk to new lows.
|photo by: Jim Helwig|
And it is not just my body and spirit that need this episode of lavish rest, but my creativity.
It waxed for such a long season, but now it needed to wane in order to renew itself. I read an article years ago that said the mind had to rest in order for the brain to produce the chemicals necessary to think dynamic, new thoughts, otherwise we just keep recycling the same old tired ones. I have no idea if this is really true, but I think it must be. Right now, my creative mind is lying empty and fallow. I have plowed under all my ideas. With each day that passes, the feeling grows in me that the seed for my next book is lying in a fertile crevice deep inside, incubating. Waiting.
Meanwhile, here on the lanai, I notice the sun has finally disappeared and the afterglow is darkening toward night. I can no longer see my scribbles on the legal pad. I think, though, I’ve said what I wanted to say to you: How beautiful nothing can be.