The beauty of sitting around and doing nothing

Jenny Morber is a science writer whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Slate and elsewhere

Like most of us in 2019, I am busy. Days can feel like a race to complete an always-accumulating list of now, soon and must-do-sometime tasks for my business, my kids, my animals, my home, my relationships, my community, my parents and my health. There is always, always something to do.

But recently, my dog had surgery. It’s tough to put an animal under the knife. You can’t get consent or explain why you are causing them pain, and that it is temporary.

And because of this – because during recovery Mackie was wobbly and slow and needed comfort – I found myself sitting next to him in the clover, facing out over my garden. As I looked around I saw work to be done. I saw invading weeds and thirsty plants and garden tools that have been sitting out for a week. I remembered the things that needed wiping down, the messages that needed to be sent, and wondered if any editors had gotten back to me about new story ideas. But I also knew that if I got up, Mackie would get up, and getting up would cause him pain. So I stayed. Just sitting. And it was beautiful.

We sat there for a long time. I wanted my phone. Slowly, my mind calmed and I began to notice things.

I noticed the insects at their work. Butterflies, honey bees, bumbles, mason bees, wasps, hornets, moths pretending to be bees and moths unashamed of being moths extended their long tongues and pressed them into flowers like a kid with a thick milkshake. Did you know that clover is not a single flower, but a group of fingerlings? I had forgotten.

Sometimes a bee or butterfly hopped from one sort of flower to another. Sometimes it focused on a single source. Some blooms it quickly rejected, and from others, it deeply drank. Later another insect would find the rejected bud interesting, but ignore its predecessor’s favourite. There seemed to be no pattern. Was the nectar used up? Was it preference of taste? What does anything taste like, to a bee?

I ran my hand down Mackie’s velvety fur. I felt the sun-warmed grass underfoot, soft and prickly.

I noticed the sound of the wind. A rush of transparent molecules rubbing against a million points of bark and leaf created a sound like a powerful exhale. It began as a whisper, built into crescendo, dissolved and began again. The sound lagged the movement, a whooshing cascade. I watched it transfixed.

Matching my breath to the tempo, I realized it mirrored the meditations my son uses to quiet himself for sleep: in for six, hold for four, out for six. Scientific studies have found that living near water, listening to the ocean or even just picturing a large body of water can increase happiness and reduce anxiety. Perhaps it is coincidence, but I think not, that the wind sounded like water, and the waves like slow breathing.

Mackie’s nose twitched. I inhaled, too: scents of grass, dirt, cedar, salt water, wet cement, clover, wood stain, rotting algae, jasmine. I felt jealous, knowing he was getting a richer bouquet.

Around the trees the birds called and flew. Some scientists remain skeptical, but I think birds have true language. There are clear differences in calls of greeting, alarm, aggression and GOODMORNINGIMNOTDEAD! And that’s from just a casual listen.

This day, as I watched the chickadees, robins, hawks and eagles flap and soar, I wondered what it felt like. Does air feel “thicker” to a bird than us in the same way that water must feel less cumbersome to a fish? I decided it must. It would be useful for a bird to sense the texture of air, like we do the ground, as spongy or gritty or uneven. And if that is true, what must it be like for the fish to break through the water’s surface into the relative vacuum of a single atmosphere? It must feel like weightlessness. Like space.

I thought about this for a few seconds or several minutes. I lost time. How good I felt, just sitting. The space to have these thoughts, to notice, to imagine was something I haven’t enjoyed, with a few exceptions, since childhood. It was thrilling.

In Round of a Country Year: A Farmer’s Day Book, a beautifully written account of four seasons on a farm in Ohio, author David Kline mentions ending the day on the front porch with his wife, just sitting. There was a time when many of us did this, I think, but at least where I live houses do not feature front porches. Instead, ours has an electronic doorbell that allows us to talk to visitors through our phones in the bathroom, or a hundred miles away. “Welcome,” the sign on the front stoop says. “I don’t want to see you,” the bell says.

I have never yearned for the work necessary to run a farm. But to be able to observe things such as “Every summer, a single monarch butterfly comes to that same branch of the maple tree for the night” feels different from “Every evening, I drink some wine and answer 50 e-mails,” doesn’t it?

Just sitting is something I think we are forgetting how to do. I know I am. I have more than once lost half an hour on my phone, finally coming up for air to wonder what I was doing. Afterward, I am irritated, depressed. It feels terrible, like part of me is drowning.

I do not suggest that we should all quit our jobs and buy a farm or spend all day outside staring at the sky. But an hour here or there spent just sitting is a delicious gift we should serve ourselves more often. It is good for us to notice, to imagine, to lose time, to let our minds out for a walk, whether or not we have a convalescing dog to share it with.

Mackie, by the way, is doing just fine.




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