On Idleness

When we first iso­lat­ed in our homes dur­ing the onset of the pan­dem­ic, many of us boast­ed of all that we would get done with our time — the home projects that we would take on, the exer­cise regimes we would under­go, the sec­ond lan­guages we would com­mit to learn­ing. I know I did. I enrolled in a few online class­es and start­ed sev­er­al ambi­tious per­son­al projects. Of course, in the end, many of us found that we didn’t have near­ly as much free time as we thought we would, and these ambi­tions fell to the way­side fair­ly quickly.

This was cer­tain­ly the case for me, and con­sid­er­ing the dis­card­ed projects I failed at, I feel a cer­tain amount of guilt at my lack of pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. And I still feel this…as if I failed to seize an oppor­tu­ni­ty to bet­ter myself. Why is that? Why do we have such a hard time embrac­ing a bit of unstruc­tured down­time? The old say­ing “idle hands are the devil’s work­shop,” reflects our dis­dain of peo­ple with too much time on their hands.

Amer­i­cans, espe­cial­ly, are obsessed with pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. We are one of the most over­worked nations in the world: Amer­i­cans work 137 more hours per year than Japan­ese work­ers, 260 more hours per year than British work­ers, and 499 more hours per year than French work­ers. Most indus­tri­al­ized coun­tries get at least 20 vaca­tion days (we aver­age 13) and we are the only indus­tri­al­ized nation that doesn’t have legal­ly man­dat­ed leave. And it’s only get­ting worse: the aver­age pro­duc­tiv­i­ty of the Amer­i­can work­er has increased 400% since 1950, mean­ing that we have to work longer and longer hours to retain the same stan­dard of liv­ing.[1] Even our chil­dren can’t escape the church of work. When they are not at school, their time is packed into after-school “enrich­ment” activ­i­ties: dance class­es and recitals, sports, and tutors.

Is it any won­der that the pan­dem­ic and the thought of chil­dren stay­ing at home is send­ing the nation into a tail­spin. What will kids do if they can’t go to school? What will they do with their time? What will we do if we can’t send them some­where so that we can work? What will our coun­try do if we can’t get on with the busi­ness of get­ting on?

Apart from the eco­nom­ic dan­gers of idle­ness with­in our coun­try (which is a whole oth­er sub­ject for anoth­er time), we view too much free time with sus­pi­cion. We find our­selves increas­ing­ly inca­pable of relax­ing, let­ting minds, bod­ies, and spir­its breathe. What lit­tle free time we do have is tak­en up fran­ti­cal­ly check­ing our phones for the lat­est texts, tweets, the inces­sant doom­surf­ing and the tik tok­ing, as if we are afraid of what the voice in our head would say if every­thing else were quiet.

I get it. Our species and civ­i­liza­tion wouldn’t sur­vive with­out work. Who would grow the food, lay the roads, build the hous­es if we all lived a life of leisure? And grant­ed, there is integri­ty in the work that we do, sat­is­fac­tion in a day worked well.

And yet the things which make our civ­i­liza­tion great would not be pos­si­ble with­out idle­ness. Think of the art that is cre­at­ed, the lit­er­a­ture and the philoso­phies that are writ­ten by peo­ple who have the lux­u­ry of time. Now grant­ed, a lot of great artists and thinkers were his­tor­i­cal­ly of a priv­i­leged class. Their wealth and sta­tus afford­ed them the means and soci­etal per­mis­sion to the spend their days strolling in the gar­den of ideas.

The rest of us have to work. But let’s take a few min­utes to con­sid­er the virtues of idle­ness, even for us. The ways in which our down­time is nec­es­sary for a bet­ter world and a life well-lived. And maybe we might feel com­pelled to work less inso­far as we can…and enjoy more moments of inten­tion­al purposelessness.

It is a well-known fact that own pro­duc­tiv­i­ty suf­fers when we are per­pet­u­al­ly busy. Stud­ies have shown that long hours of work with­out suf­fi­cient breaks makes us less effi­cient. Time to decom­press, let­ting our minds wan­der, gives rise to cre­ativ­i­ty and “eure­ka” moments. In addi­tion to allow­ing us to work bet­ter, idle moments ben­e­fit us in oth­er ways. We are free to con­tem­plate our lives and sit­u­a­tion, reflect on our own sat­is­fac­tion, hap­pi­ness, or lack thereof…and fig­ure out ways to make it bet­ter. We can reflect on our soci­ety, our world, the ways in which it is unjust and how it can be improved. How can we make our­selves bet­ter, our world bet­ter, when our lives are so busy and fre­net­ic that we scarce­ly have time to reflect, much less have time to make sub­stan­tive changes? Idle­ness is a tool of spir­i­tu­al­i­ty, a tool of self-improve­ment, and a tool of jus­tice, too. Waste time for your­self. Give your­self the time to get up to no good.

And yet…while these ben­e­fits of idle­ness are impor­tant, we should be care­ful that we don’t couch its val­ue in the ways in which it can make us more effi­cient machines. That’s real­ly the same trap. Idle­ness, by its def­i­n­i­tion, is activ­i­ty with­out pur­pose. To look for the good it gets us rather miss­es the point!

If we look at the moments that give our lives mean­ing, most often they are the small moments where we are spend­ing time doing noth­ing in par­tic­u­lar. The lazy Sun­day morn­ings spent lay­ing in bed with our mates and our kids. After­noons in in the grass, mean­der­ing con­ver­sa­tions with friends, qui­et sun­sets on the porch. These — not the moments fran­ti­cal­ly spin­ning on the ham­ster wheel — are what we live for. Idle­ness reminds us that our lives are a good in and of them­selves. That we are more than what we pro­duce or bring to the table. The great­est gift idle­ness can give us is the reas­sur­ance that we have intrin­sic value…that we all have worth just by living.

This is impor­tant to remem­ber when con­sid­er­ing peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, chron­ic dis­ease, age, or cir­cum­stance that ren­der them unable to work. This mes­sage is essen­tial when there are voic­es clam­or­ing to get every­one back to work, even if it puts lives — espe­cial­ly the lives of the vul­ner­a­ble — at risk. As if our lives are expend­able if we’re not earn­ing our keep. They’re not. You’re not.

And again, I do get it. There is cer­tain work that must be car­ried on if we are to sur­vive, much less thrive. And most of us don’t have the lux­u­ry of a choice to stay home. But per­haps a per­spec­tive shift is in order: we are not machines whose inces­sant hum­ming must keep the world run­ning. The run­ning of the world is not the point. We are the point. And the world is just there to make our lives possible.

So remem­ber this when it is sug­gest­ed that we sac­ri­fice lives for the econ­o­my. Remem­ber this when cooped up in your house, feel­ing unpro­duc­tive and use­less. We have the right, if not the respon­si­bil­i­ty, to claim our time as our own. So, give your­self per­mis­sion to sleep in late. To read trashy nov­els. To take aim­less walks. To med­i­tate. To spend after­noons mak­ing bad art and singing off-key. Or Sun­days doing noth­ing in par­tic­u­lar with friends. To have fun. Pre­tend that your life, and the lives of oth­ers, depend on it. Because it kind of does.

On Motherhood in a Time of Uncertainty

Two months ago my grand­moth­er (and the woman who raised me) passed away. I rushed to go see her before she died, and then spent a scant few days pro­cess­ing her death with fam­i­ly before dri­ving home…straight into the whirl­wind of a pan­dem­ic that has not come close to abat­ing. I feel like I have not had the time (or the emo­tion­al resources) to tru­ly grieve, and now I’m against Moth­er’s Day, sit­ting with the empti­ness of my mama’s absence.

This empti­ness is stark against my daugh­ter’s con­stant pres­ence. Sofia and I have not had an hour apart since we’ve all had to iso­late our­selves. As we’ve had to adjust to home­school­ing, work­ing non­stop from home, adjust­ing to a new day-to-day, pro­cess­ing the changes it’s made to our lives and to our world, Sofia has become increas­ing­ly needy…even as she’s demon­strat­ed incred­i­ble resilience and adaptability.

She begs to sleep with me, begs to cud­dle with me. She curls up in my lap, promis­ing to nev­er leave me, stay with me for­ev­er and ever. I tell her that she won’t want to stay for­ev­er, and that this is okay. We all leave. We can’t promise for­ev­er. Espe­cial­ly daugh­ters and moth­ers. There will be a time when she will leave home, and there will be a time when I will leave her behind as well. But in this time of chaos and uncer­tain­ty, what can I promise her? What can I teach her?

I can promise her that I will always love her. That while I am here she will always be seen, always be heard, always fought for. That till my last breath she will in some way be teth­ered to me, nev­er adrift, nev­er alone. No one ever should be.

Per­haps that is what my ten­der and fero­cious love for her can teach the both of us dur­ing this dark time: No one should ever be alone, adrift. I can use this oppor­tu­ni­ty to teach her the foun­da­tions of duty and care. How even in this time of iso­la­tion we are deeply depen­dent on each oth­er. The biggest gift we have is our capac­i­ty to give to the world, and the best mes­sage I can hope to give her is that we are behold­en to one another.

Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in the Sto­ry Box blog: https://jointhestorybox.blogspot.com/2020/05/on-motherhood-in-time-of-uncertainty.html

10 Ways to Eat Ethically, Cheaply, and Well

Michael Pol­lan said it best: “Eat food. Not too much. Most­ly Plants.” I am a firm believ­er that eat­ing health­ful­ly is ulti­mate­ly uncom­pli­cat­ed: the earth is brim­ming with nat­ur­al foods that make our bod­ies thrive. Below is a col­lec­tion of tips for eat­ing in a way that not only ben­e­fits our bod­ies, but ben­e­fits our souls and taste buds as well. Feel free to chime in with your own sug­ges­tions for eat­ing eth­i­cal­ly, cheap­ly, health­ful­ly, or deliciously!

1. Buy local.

On aver­age, pro­duce in the Unit­ed States trav­els 1,500 miles to get to your local gro­cery store. While this might be a con­ve­nient way to pro­vide us with a vari­ety of cheap food, it is ter­ri­ble for the envi­ron­ment and tax­ing on our nat­ur­al resources: More fuel is need­ed to trans­port the food from oth­er states or coun­tries, and more pol­lu­tion is pro­duced in the process. Not to men­tion our food is far less fresh, as it makes quite a long trek from its ori­gins to our plate. And let’s not for­get the warm, fuzzy feel­ing we get when we sup­port small, local busi­ness­es. So, check out your local farmer’s mar­ket, or join a CSA, and par­take in the gas­tro­nom­i­cal joy of local food.

2. Grow your own food.

Even bet­ter than buy­ing local food — grow your own! No fos­sil fuels wast­ed in trans­port­ing the food. No pack­ag­ing dis­card­ed and fill­ing a land­fill. And, best of all, you can’t beat the cost! Of course, it takes some skill and land to grow your own food. (My own adven­tures in grow­ing toma­toes were less than boast-wor­thy.) If you are intim­i­dat­ed by the idea of gar­den­ing (as I am) and/or you have lit­tle land to do so, you may start with a mod­est col­lec­tion of herbs on your win­dowsill. Even if the cost sav­ings are neg­li­gi­ble, there is a dis­tinct aes­thet­ic plea­sure in snip­ping off some fresh, ten­der basil leaves from your herb gar­den to use in a fra­grant pas­ta dish. Self-suf­fi­cien­cy, even in its tini­est forms, embold­ens the soul.

3. Eat less meat.

Until quite recent­ly in human his­to­ry, meat was a lux­u­ry that was enjoyed on occa­sion. Now (par­tic­u­lar­ly in the U.S.), meat is an every­day sta­ple, and it is tak­en for grant­ed by many that meat is a part of every meal. In fact, some peo­ple con­sid­er it down­right unpa­tri­ot­ic not to embrace the “meat and pota­toes” phi­los­o­phy of the Amer­i­can diet. But such enthu­si­as­tic con­sump­tion of meat strains the envi­ron­ment and our waist­line. Much more land and water is need­ed pro­duce meat than is need­ed to pro­duce the equiv­a­lent in grain, and bil­lions of tons of ani­mal waste are dumped into our water­ways every year. Even if you don’t switch com­plete­ly to a plant-based diet, you can reduce the neg­a­tive impact on your health and the envi­ron­ment by cut­ting down your meat consumption.

4. Buy fair trade and organic.

Buy­ing fair trade and organ­ic food lets you vote with your dol­lar for a bet­ter world: a world in which farm­ers oper­ate under fair labor con­di­tions and are paid fair wages for their goods, a world in which food pro­duc­ers work with the earth, rather than against it, and in which we need not fear the tox­ic effects of pes­ti­cides and growth hor­mones in our pro­duce and meats. We vote for a world that not only pro­duces healthy sus­te­nance for our­selves, but also nur­tures the envi­ron­ment and sup­ports the peo­ple that pro­duce it.

5. Keep meals simple.

While com­plex recipes laden with exot­ic ingre­di­ents may seem impres­sive, sim­pler meals enjoy dis­tinct advan­tages: As they require few­er ingre­di­ents and spices, sim­ple meals are gen­er­al­ly cheap­er. They are, for the most part, eas­i­er to pre­pare. And there is some­thing to be said for an uncom­pli­cat­ed dish in which you can taste the indi­vid­ual ingre­di­ents: the tang of the lemon, the bite of the salt and the sweet pun­gency of the cilantro. Sim­ple dish­es high­light the ingre­di­ents used, because they aren’t lost among a pletho­ra of oth­ers. There is a cer­tain aes­thet­ic beau­ty to a sim­ple dish — which is that much more enjoy­able when you can save time and mon­ey in its preparation!

6. Avoid processed, packaged foods.

We all know that fresh food is best. Pack­aged foods try to trick you with claims of health­ful­ness: “High in Fiber” or “Good Source of Iron”, but scan the label and you will most like­ly find a food that is high in sug­ar, high in sodi­um, or which includes a long, scary, cryp­tic list of ingre­di­ents. Of course, I am over­gen­er­al­iz­ing here: there are some healthy pack­aged foods. But, for the most part, the clos­er a food is to its nat­ur­al source, the bet­ter it is for you. The more you process food, the more fiber, vit­a­mins, min­er­als, and phy­tonu­tri­ents are lost. The more you process food, the more ques­tion­able ingre­di­ents are added. And, to top it all off, processed foods gen­er­al­ly include more waste­ful pack­ag­ing: box­es, pouch­es, and plas­tic bot­tles and con­tain­ers. Be kind to your body (and the earth): eat whole, fresh, unadul­ter­at­ed food from which your your body is designed to draw nourishment.

7. Eat less.

There have been stud­ies that indi­cate that decreased caloric intake increas­es lifes­pan. You may or may not agree with this con­tro­ver­sial claim. But, giv­en an obe­si­ty rate of over 30% in the U.S., many of us would enjoy health ben­e­fits from eat­ing less. Admit­ted­ly, this is a hard one to imple­ment. (Believe me, I know!). But, think about it: not only will our health prob­a­bly ben­e­fit from avoid­ing that sec­ond-help­ing of lasagna dur­ing din­ner or that hand­ful of Hershey’s kiss­es at work, but we will also spend less and waste few­er resources by doing so. Of course, I am not sug­gest­ing that we go hun­gry, or dras­ti­cal­ly deprive our­selves, but con­scious­ly cut­ting down a bit on what we eat dur­ing the day is worth the effort, and has cumu­la­tive effects in the long run.

8. Eat slowly.

With no dis­trac­tions — no tele­vi­sion, no radio (and cer­tain­ly, no dri­ving!). Turn­ing our atten­tion to our meals, chew­ing slow­ly, savor­ing the fla­vors of our food, not only makes the eat­ing expe­ri­ence more plea­sur­able, but gen­er­al­ly makes us eat less. It is com­mon­ly known that those who scarf down their food end up eat­ing much more than those who take their time, but med­i­tat­ing on your food also lends to long-term sat­is­fac­tion from food. If we tru­ly expe­ri­ence the fla­vors and tex­tures of the the food, we derive more plea­sure, more sat­is­fac­tion from our meals…our minds more deeply reg­is­ter that we’ve eat­en, and we are thus less like­ly to reach for those pota­to chips lat­er. Addi­tion­al­ly, if we extend that atten­tion and focus on how our food makes our bod­ies feel after­wards (the slug­gish­ness we feel after a fat­ty, salty meal, vs. the vital­i­ty from some­thing health­ful), then we are more like­ly to change our eat­ing habits for the bet­ter. Slow eat­ing puts us more in tune with our food and its inter­ac­tion with our bod­ies, yield­ing a more holis­tic under­stand­ing of our eat­ing habits.

9. Ignore hype.

Trans fat. Low-carb. Low-fat. Antiox­i­dants. Whole grains. Heart-healthy. The food world is a whirl­wind of nutri­tion­al claims, promis­es, and sound bytes: much of it good, some of it sus­pect. And even the well-sup­port­ed claims will quick­ly be exploit­ed by food com­pa­nies who want you to buy their stuff. My advice? Ingore it. Just con­cen­trate on eat­ing a vari­ety of unprocessed, organ­ic veg­eta­bles, fruits, grains, and beans, and you’ll do fine. Even if Acai berries are chock-full of antiox­i­dants, the hum­ble col­lard green is just as pow­er packed (and much cheap­er!). Ignore food trends and crazy diets that promise unre­al­is­tic tran­for­ma­tions: real nutri­tion is time­less and com­mon sensical.

10. Say grace (or a secular equivalent).

In oth­er words, pay homage to the spir­i­tu­al and phys­i­cal sources of your food. Be grate­ful that you have food to eat (many do not), and acknowl­edge the long jour­ney that the food has tak­en from the sun to your plate. Your nour­ish­ment is a prod­uct of lives and labor…your life is indebt­ed to the nat­ur­al, spir­i­tu­al, and eco­nom­ic cycles that under­pin our world. Our food runs deep, and pay­ing rev­er­ence to this fact can help us pay clos­er atten­tion to the things that we eat, and to focus on con­sum­ing things that are spir­i­tu­al­ly and phys­i­cal­ly nourishing.

More resources:

  1. The Omnivore’s Dilem­ma: A Nat­ur­al His­to­ry of Four Meals
  2. Slow Food Nation: Why Our Food Should Be Good, Clean, And Fair
  3. One Bowl: A Guide to Eat­ing for Body and Spirit
  4. The Slow Down Diet: Eat­ing for Plea­sure, Ener­gy, and Weight Loss
  5. Unplugged Kitchen: A Return to the Sim­ple, Authen­tic Joys of Cooking