When we lived in Russia many years ago, we rented some rooms in a dacha, an old wooden house in a village outside Moscow. We would spend weekends there, doing what you do at the dacha: helping our Russian landlords harvest their apples and berries, taking walks in the forest, having long leisurely meals outside and, whenever possible, reading a book or falling asleep in the shade.
It all made perfect sense, until the weekend we invited along a friend, an intelligent and accomplished American journalist. After lunch, when we settled onto our lawn chairs to do little more than digest our food, he bounced around nervously.
"What do we do now?" he asked.
"We do this," I said, stretching my legs out and closing my eyes.
"I brought travel Scrabble," he said. "Or should we play cards?"
At the time, I found it odd that our friend did not know how to do nothing. Looking back on it now, I think my jittery friend was just ahead of his time.
It seems that every week I can add another person to my list of friends who proclaim, more proudly than sheepishly, that they "do not know how do nothing." And between work-work and housework, kids' homework, school events and sports, exercise, errands, volunteer commitments (no, that's not an oxymoron), helping out aging parents and taking care of financial matters present and future, doing nothing is rarely a realistic option anyway.
But what's disturbing is that the more time you spend being extremely busy, the less comfortable you are when the music stops. The other day I got a text from a friend whose son was on my son's travel baseball team until both boys left for camp. "You're not going to believe where we are," she wrote. "We're at the game." Of the travel team her son was no longer on, because he was away at camp. I think it was not only team loyalty that got my friend and her husband to drive across the county to watch other people's 13-year-old sons play baseball. It was also the habit of being busy; they were so used to going to baseball games that they couldn't stop cold turkey. They needed to transition, to wind down and remember what to do with their own time.
My kids are the same way. They rarely have the opportunity to do nothing. If there isn't something they have to do -- homework, baseball practice, walking the dog -- there are a million things beckoning to engage them: the computer, the television, the cellphone, the PlayStation, the iPod Touch. They are so constantly occupied, entertained, online and in touch with their friends that they are at loose ends when you pull the plug.
Last week, as we were packing for six days at the beach, I shocked my sons by telling them they could not bring their laptops.
"But there's a lot of downtime," my older son said. "We'll be at the beach all day and when we get back to the house, what will we do?"
"Exactly," I said.
They did complain from time to time about being bored. And they still had their phones, which meant more than a little "downtime" was devoted to texting. But they also sat with their boredom a little, and lived to tell the tale. They played catch. They practiced shooting targets with the airsoft guns they can rarely use at home because of what they deem our unfortunate proximity to small children. They read books. They walked around and through the marsh, and watched ospreys nesting on a pole.
And they spent a good amount of time in the best do-nothing enabler of all: the hammock.
There is something magical about a hammock. It's not just how it rocks you like a cradle, but how it provides just enough semblance of doing something to do...nothing. What am I doing? I'm resting in the hammock. Looking up at the trees. Feeling the wind. Wondering if those little drips I feel are rain or if there is sap coming down from the pines. Pine sap? Does that even exist? How would it taste on pancakes?
You get my point. You don't let your mind wander because it leads to great thoughts. You let it wander because it needs to. You need it to, whether you know it or not. If you're lucky, it wanders somewhere interesting. Four days into our vacation, my husband told me he knew he was relaxed because he woke up thinking about evolution. Four days for the imagination to assert itself against the pull of work, the email, the iPad, the to-do list. How often do we give ourselves four days? How often do your children get that?
We all work so hard to help our children be good at things, but they are usually tangible things. Math and earth science, sports and music. There's nothing wrong with that, but we should also make sure they know how to not accomplish anything. How to be at peace with themselves, in stillness or silence. They should know how to do nothing, and maybe even be proud of that. They should be good at hammocks.