I had a poster when I was a teen with this quote: “sometimes i sits and thinks and sometimes i just sits”
― Satchel Paige or A.A. Milne, depending on your source of information.
I ponder now why that saying intrigued me at the time. I am guessing I thought it was about being a thinker, a deep thinker. Perhaps a philosopher. What I know is it what very different from what was expected of me. I have vivid memories of several incidents of my parents yelling at me and my sibs when they came into the house from the morning milking and finding us not working, thus being lazy. They had gone to the barn at 5:30 am, so the affront was we were still in bed, after 9 a.m., or sitting around the house in our PJs. One morning, Dad berated me for playing solitaire, while still in my PJs. So perhaps the poster’s declaration, the permission, of the activity of non-activity, was a unique thought for me. (After becoming a parent, I realized my parents didn’t tell us their expectations of us, gave us no direction about chores or behavior they wanted. Maybe if they had given us some guidance we would have behaved differently? Who knows.)
When I was a child, my mother shared a hurt of hers, that a relative told her father that her then-fiance was lazy. My mother cared deeply what other people thought, and spent a fair amount of her farm life aiming to disprove any laziness existed on our farm. Overtly doing nothing useful did not further her goal.
My mother never had idle hands. After we bought a TV, when she watched in the evening, her hands were busy darning socks, knitting or crocheting her latest creations. She taught me to knit and crochet (not how to darn socks though!) so I soon had busy hands while watching TV.
I enjoyed the sitting and thinking part of life, especially as a student. I loved pondering ideas teachers introduced. Two of my favorite classes at college were Ethics and Philosophy. My friends grew so tired of me repeating my newfound information and revelations from Philosophy class they banned me from postulating at mealtimes. After college, I enjoyed Bible studies, professional workshops; any form of information dissemination and discussion. I savored the passage in the song “If I Were a Rich Man” from Fiddler on the Roof:
” And I’d discuss the learned books with the holy men
Seven hours every day
That would be the sweetest thing of all “
I too, dreamed of sitting around and pondering those learned books. That aspect of seminary was one I relished when I thought of attending seminary. (I wanted to attend seminary since I was a kid. I didn’t end up going but held on to it as a potential for decades.) I did attend graduate school for a master’s in social work and thoroughly enjoyed the classroom again. I even took another ethics class!
As I grew up I followed my parents’ example of ceaseless work. But not by living on a farm! I avoided getting serious with any guy, even those handsome ones, who were becoming farmers. I had no interest in the consuming life of a farmer’s wife. It sounded limiting to live in one place, and there was a whole world out there. I also observed that my parents were not happy when they lived on the farm and left when I was a teenager. Their contentment seemed more apparent when they were no longer dairy farmers.
After my first job out of college, as a church youth worker, the rest of the jobs I pursued were Monday-Friday, with weekends off. But I filled those weekends with avid church involvement, then later added marriage and children. When I started working in the school district and had ten weeks off in the summer, I saw that as an enormous amount of time. I immediately signed my five-year-old daughter up for four sessions of swim lessons, as I had no idea how to have that much unstructured time with my child. I even volunteered to pick up a friend of hers, which added at least an hour to the summer-long swim lesson venture.
I kept up this frenetic pace, working full time, having two children, and certainly not slowing down when being a single parent. I remember one weeknight: the children were in bed, it was nine p.m, and I was thinking of the tasks I felt I needed to complete before allowing myself to turn in. I paused, took stock, and realized I was exhausted. It struck me in some cultures, some parts of the world, when people are tired, they go to bed. I realized that was a reasonable response to being tired, but I don’t think I allowed myself to go to bed. And now I read articles supporting the benefits of a good night’s sleep, such as this one.
All of my life, however, I have stopped to observe a sunrise, a sunset or a rainbow. Usually with exclamations of appreciation and encouragement of those around me to enjoy it as well. If we move, my husband and I both want a clear view of at least the sunrise or sunset from our new abode. And a place that delivers the sunsets we get in Kansas. Sweet stuff!
Gradually, my buy-in to the busyness of life started shifting. I heard the term, “be a human being, not a human doing”. That intrigued me and hearkened me back to my lovely poster. I no longer wanted to live by my parents’ perceptions of laziness. I didn’t need to face their demons or live according to their fears. Several things happened: I left my small church, where I volunteered for a variety of responsibilities, and joined a big church where less was needed of me, and anonymity was possible. I married someone who does not enjoy attending a multitude of activities, especially where a lot of people are gathered. I started getting more selective of outings, especially on weeknights. And I realized I appreciated the spaces between activities, even started craving the downtime.
When retirement was imminent, I was often asked what I would be doing. I boldly and emphatically replied, “Nothing!” Even though I gave myself permission to do nothing, a lifetime of inculcation to be a productive human being did not evaporate with retirement. It reminded me of a passage in the popular 1970 romance novel “Love Story”. Oliver and Jenny, the main characters, have fallen madly in love, and marry. They had sex prior to their marriage but felt guilty about it. After they marry, Oliver observes that the act of marrying did not automatically turn off the guilt associated with having sex. I am thinking this is true for me with retirement: it has been a process to turn off the expectation that it is necessary to be productive, to be that human doing. Instead of feeding that notion of productivity through working a job, I have now translated to being productive in our home and it’s upkeep. I haven’t thrown myself into it, so it is my current focus of guilty thoughts. I am hoping to find an equilibrium, less dissonance, between my personal expectations and my actions. Winter is an easier time to reduce the nagging thoughts, as there is little yard work to be done.
Last year, a friend introduced me to a series of books I am finding absolutely delightful. I had been reading a ton of murder mysteries series and had commented to Ken I would prefer reading a mystery book sans someone being murdered. The series my friend recommended is the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith. The protagonist, Precious Ramotswe, lives in Botswana. With her father’s inheritance, she starts a detective agency. I have read 15 books, and so far, no one’s been murdered. Sometimes the interactions or the characters’ behaviors in the books feel trite, but then there are jewels like this, from The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon (No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, #14): “There was no reason why one should always be on the move. That was half the trouble with the world, she [Precious Ramotswe] thought: not enough people took the time to sit down for a few minutes and look up at the sky or at whatever it was that was before you—a herd of cattle, perhaps, or a stretch of bush dotted with acacia trees, or the sinking of the evening sun into the Kalahari. “
Each book has similar sentiments, which I am eagerly reading to help flip that switch in my brain that productivity is the only operative way to live. In this series, Mma Ramotswe pairs her thinking time with her red bush tea, which I had not heard of. When I investigated, I found it is called Rooibos tea by the transplanted Europeans and is from a particular bush in South Africa. Here’s more information for tea lovers. I easily found the tea locally and was delighted when I enjoyed the taste immensely. It’s my cue now, to brew a cup of Rooibos and contemplate the ease of just sitting and being. I have not released all of the work ethic inculcations of my childhood, but I am eager to continue to “work” at it.