Tuesday, May 11, 2021

il dolce far niente

“I'm going nowhere
And I'm going to take my time;
All the questions in the world
I can leave in my mind.
I'm waiting on the sunshine;
The sunshine.”

~ Sixpence None the Richer, Waiting on the Sun


Writing daily in a journal as I’ve been doing for many years, I’ve come to use my dated entries as an archival chronicle. As with most any manuscript archive, the journal entries are first-person and in real time, bit by bit amounting to something encyclopedic. Surely I’m doing more writing than reviewing with my journals, though milestone anniversaries are what send me back into my own words past. Often, they are very interesting to read. I’ve used journaling to write through events in order to try making sense of what I witness and experience. The more descriptive, the better. The arrival of the spring season reminded me that the pandemic has cycled into its second year. I re-read what I wrote in February 2020 and because the writing was in real-time, I was using terminology used back then, when many thought of this as a passing “flu panic,” along with describing the intense uncertainty of the extent of things to come. My entry on March 13th describes the national state-of-emergency and the frenzied supermarket-ransacking that followed. That was last spring.

11 March 2020 : "It's as though horizons are closing."

Now a year later, I’m comparing then and now, remembering my first weeks of working from home (which has become much smoother, quite normal, and remarkably productive). Throughout these times, I’ve become aware of the accompanying pandemic inertia that has also become part of life. Last year, because I was struggling to describe it, I referred to my sudden, reluctant, and stifling boredom produced by quarantining, curfews, closures, and no-travel regulations. The overpowering boredom was something as unexpected as it was unfamiliar. Obviously during my on-the-clock workplace hours, I’ve never had to scrounge for projects and duties, and I’ve been grateful to have that constructive framework to stay focused. But outside of those hours, the old compulsion to redeem the time combined with contending with uncharacteristic confinement. After the Philosophical Society conference to which I had been invited last year at Oxford University was cancelled, I had to cancel my travel plans along with scores of people like me around the world having to cancel all kinds of plans of their own. The conference seminars were later held via Zoom- and I did “attend” and participate, albeit beginning the days at 3am Eastern Time. Having that connection gave me needed energy to continue my own studies at home, fueling my insistence upon getting through the pandemic with more knowledge and insight to share than before. I have also continued teaching. Studying has been more of a nourishing means than ever, during these times.

All the while, these times have forced self-confrontations of varying degrees with the incidental aspects of doing nothing. It’s easier for some than for others. Descriptions of that state of being which Italian-speakers call “the sweetness of nothing-doing” has found its way (ironically) to more computer newsfeeds lately. I remember how when someone would ask me, “whatcha doin’?” and I’d answer with “Oh, nothing, really,” the connotation was one of embarrassment at the admission of not being constantly constructive in every sphere of life. The covid era has everyone reckoning with the passage and the uses of time. A culture that increasingly celebrated “extreme” sports, raising the bar with every physical fad, has quieted the quarantined to consider simpler pastimes- including baking, sewing, puzzles, writing, absorbing the outdoors safely. And doing nothing- just being. Simplicity, for many, has become as much choice as necessity. I spoke by phone with a colleague and friend about the recognized value of not-doing. Her response included the merits of simply sitting outside, and that “doing nothing is all right.” It’s a reckoning for my friends, too, as another said, “you know, it’s ok to be bored.” This was journal-worthy, as I’ve never heard anything like this before.

One of the last places I’d expect to see a celebration of nothing-doing is the industrially high-minded Wall Street Journal. This recent March 16th the WSJ published an article about the connections between accomplishment and doing nothing. “Giving your brain a rest” means giving yourself unstructured time to regroup, gather thoughts, and rejuvenate. Admitting that too easily we turn everything into some kind of competitive task, the author suggests doing something essentially mindless, such as taking solitary walks and just sitting down. “Absorb the scenery in silence,” wrote the journalist Annemarie Dooling. I am now more aware of this, and have taken to recollecting with my books closed- or in my own combined way, writing slower in my journal. In appreciation, I’ve become less berating and remorseful about puttering at my writing table and taking aimless bicycle rides. The mind and spirit need to do their own versions of breathing, especially amidst stress. The article quoted a neuroscientist who said, “Rest is one of the most important ways to enhance the neurological flexibility to build the kind of conceptual understanding that is related to identity and purpose.”


A cursory online search reveals an abundance of new articles endorsing a “practice” of nothing-doing. The benefits of doing nothing, published by the Erlanger Health Institute, advocates unplugging from technology and “sitting alone in silence” for a while. They also cite the Swedish expression, lagom, which is to say “moderate” oneself (sounding like the way I intersperse some “nothing” with writing). The health institute lures readers by saying that integrating nothingness into our days can reduce stress and boost creativity. I agree, though it would be a conflict in terms to say “I’m going to immerse myself in a state of nothing-doing, in order to be productive.” On a practical level, there are also short “time out” periods, though I’ve never found regulated time-outs to offer enough space for mental meandering. One true and leisurely luxury is to not think about what time it is.

The quotable business school aggregate IvyExec also published an article about the benefits of doing nothing. A more universal appreciation of the Italian “il dolce far niente,” translated as “the pleasantness of doing nothing,” is portrayed as helping multitasking individuals maintain a sustainable pace in their lives. The pandemic has clearly forced reconsideration of how we’ve been doing things, constantly “being busy” to the extent of avoiding healthful stillness and extraneous “screen time.” “Unplugging is difficult,” the article states. “In many ways, it is easier to stay busy than to do nothing.” We are left to wonder about the qualitative aspects of the “busy” of our pre-pandemic compulsions. Further, the article admits how “this culture exalts workaholism,” and that “people feel guilty when they are idle,’ reminding me that I’m far from alone in suddenly having had to deconstruct my breakneck paces. Allowing oneself to do nothing and not feel embarrassed about it, the mind has opportunities to process experiences, make sense of memories, and derive the learning. By our very nature, our imaginations will find ideas and inspirations that may have been smothered under the busyness that we intentionally interrupted.

Lao Tse famously reflected about how a person can accomplish much by not overdoing. His quote is often loosely paraphrased as: “Doing nothing is better than being busy doing nothing.” Having grown up and formed in both European (French) and American (Northeast) cultures, I’ve had my own interior ways of observing the differences and the common points as I found them, amalgamating what I’ve admired along the way. In the U.S., hyperproductivity is the stuff of heroism, and we are identified first by our job titles. Evidently, we are the tasks we do. In western Europe, relaxation is essential- even if it’s simply sitting outside. The articles I’ve found about the merits of stillness point out how the time-honored European custom of “just being idle” is an event in itself that needs nothing else. I’ve always admired how Parisian cafés stay open until late hours, filled with people just sitting with their small coffees (and not in “grab and go” thermal cups) and facing out toward the streets, just being. This is also one of my favorite journaling settings. On this side of the pond, having no utilitarian purpose makes Americans uneasy. Generally speaking, our puritanical selves need to have our dithering tendencies condoned. If constructively doing nothing sounds ironic, so does the idea of not being able to hide from ourselves during our pandemic quarantining. Under the limitations of these times, I’ve been using my paid-time-off to give my musing as much perimeter as I can provide. As weather permits or deters, I’ll choose to perch on a rock along the ocean, the front stoop, or my candlelit desk, and simply be.


This time last year, many of us at our jobs and schools heard about a hiatus of a couple of weeks. Then a month. Then more. Then it became realistically impossible to predict a duration. Then the word “hiatus” ceased being used. Much of this world has had to move with moving targets, while we no longer hear about the novel virus and the new normal. Everything has had to change, and it remains to be seen whether there can be any reverting back to “before.” How will our societies be affected in the long term? We are yet to see whether our forced “idling” will permanently become part of how we live our lives, and how the adapting we’ve had to do for our survival will alter us.

Photographic paper processor- with the lights on and doors open.

The other day, I was explaining to a friend that I saw a metaphor in something from my days in the custom photofinishing industry. Handmade color prints were individually imprinted in darkrooms with enlargers, lenses, and easels. The paper had to be carefully carried in a lightproof passthrough box into another completely dark room that included the entry for the paper into a roller-transport developing machine. These machines had two modes: Constant Run, and Automatic Standby. We always used the standby mode, to be energy efficient: when there was no paper in the machine, the rollers would go into an idling standby while the chemicals continued to pump at the regulated temperature. As soon a sheet of photographic paper was fed into the machine, the drives would start roaring at full-tilt, taking the machine out of standby, and running the print all the way through the process- as we used to say- “dry to dry.” This present odyssey has taken many people from constant run to automatic standby, and I’ve been in a state of preparedness to have to return to full perpetual motion as needed.

Stillness also becomes an unlikely way to find solutions and even resolve. “Sitting with one’s fears,” means ceasing the flailing and to visualize better outcomes. It doesn’t have to be quite as rarified as it sounds. I had a neighbor on my block who regularly sat out on the front stoop of her building with a cup of coffee and her everpresent cigarette. Of the latter she would say, “they’re what I’ve got.” This was shorthand for describing how she needed to just think, simply sit with her thoughts, and the cigarettes bought her some time and airspace to be able to ponder. Nowadays it may be easier to find this sort of time, yet the stresses of pandemic life can clutter the sanctified stillness right out of the day. Inhabiting a “holding pattern” is very different from reflective time. And these days demand a distinction between hypervigilance and wise caution. Somewhere, in between rocks and hard places, living and looking forward have to continue reaching up. I’m among very many that have had to acclimate to “bubble” work environments for safety’s sake, stricter physical boundaries, leaning heavily into my creative imagination to positively persist. Off-duty hours have had to comprise healthful idleness, and at best the time spent in solitude becomes an investment toward well-being.