Lately I find myself staring wistfully at my cats. Sasha, curled up in her bed atop my desk, basking in the warmth of my desk lamp for hours on end. Mimi, stretched out on the back of the sofa, staring out the window at everything and nothing. They eat, they sleep, they wash, they run around a little bit, ask for affection when they want it, and make their own fun — knocking over my water glass, eating Spanish moss out of the houseplants, chasing a long-lost chess pawn across the dining room floor. Sasha loves water; she bathes in the kitchen sink while we’re doing dishes and keeps the kids company in the bathroom during bath time. Then she goes off to find yet another cozy spot to take a snooze.
It’s a nice life.
Not that I would trade for a cat’s life permanently, but gee, a day or two would be awfully nice, wouldn’t it?
One sign that my stress level is getting way too high: I become resentful of my cats’ unencumbered lifestyles. My resentment is a helpful stress gauge because really, the insomnia, heart palpitations, and facial twitches aren’t clear enough indicators. Even though I’ve made recent progress editing my to-do list and scope in an attempt to focus on what really matters, each day is still about 10 hours too short. I used to think that I could just sleep less and steal “extra” hours while everyone else was tucked up in bed, but chronically working into the wee hours comes with a price — a price that I don’t want to keep paying. I’ve found that migraines and other health issues become frequent occurrences when I don’t get at least 7 hours of sleep a night. I can feel myself aging. So I decided that sleep simply must become more of a priority. In the past few weeks since I started going to be earlier, I’m more clear-headed and healthier (although not, ironically, that much less tired).
Aside from the freedom to sleep at will, what I admire about the life of a cat is the license to do nothing. Dogs aren’t like that. Sure, dogs sleep a lot (at least mine does — she’s a Newfoundland), but dogs have more of an agenda than cats do. Dogs work. Dogs feel obliged to do this or that — greet you when you come home (even if that means waking from a deep sleep and rising from a warm bed), bark when the doorbell rings, try to eat the mailman — whatever. Cats may or may not try to eat the mailman, but you can be sure that it won’t happen on cue. A cat will only try to eat the mailman if she feels like it. No robotic force of habit at work. No slavish worship to “shoulds.” Because as we all know, dogs want to please their owners, and cats don’t give a damn.
Being agenda-free does have its appeal. Oh, to have nothing to do! The prospect is dazzling. The more I feel overwhelmed by my to-do list, the more that curling into a ball on a patch of sunny carpet — utterly without guilt or angst — seems like the obvious, appropriate response to any situation.
While I realize that I’ll never have the feline’s ability to simply suit myself — everyone else (husband and five kids) be damned — there are lessons to be learned from the cat. Doing nothing is a good thing, at least in small quantities. And I don’t mean vegging out; I mean studiously doing nothing and letting magic unfold where it might. No agenda. No shoulds.
Kids are good at showing us how “doing nothing” can turn into an adventure. On Sunday afternoon I followed my toddler (who is peg-legging around on a full leg cast) into the dining room, where he found a ball hiding under the piano bench. For at least 30 minutes, he entertained himself by climbing onto the piano bench (with a lot of help, as climbing onto a piano bench is life-threatening difficult in a full leg cast) and sitting down, throwing the ball across the room, getting back down, peg-legging over to fetch the ball, bringing it back to the piano bench, and repeating the process, with or without a little piano playing in between. As I sat there, helping him up and down, I took in the afternoon sunlight on the wood floor and realized that I was about as close to doing nothing as I can ever be. No electronics droning the background; just family noises and the scraping and thumping of my toddler’s cast dragging across the floor. OK, so that last part wasn’t so idyllic, but still.
Eventually my son made his way into the hallway and decided to go upstairs to where his brother was playing. We found ourselves loitering on the landing at the top of the staircase. I settled on the top step, serving as barricade. Before we knew it a family game had evolved — my toddler and 5-year-old throwing a small ball, a cloth Spiderman face mask, and a parachute guy off of the balcony down onto my husband, who returned the toys in long aerial passes, trying to avoid the hallway chandelier. The boys thought this was hysterical, especially when my husband missed and the ball or parachute guy ricocheted off the balusters. Good clean fun, which never seems to grow tiresome. (Well, my husband’s arm got a little tired after half an hour, but the boys were still enamored.)
On a Sunday afternoon, passing an hour or two doing almost nothing feels awfully nice. I try not to think of the frightening to-do list that looms over my head like a tidal wave. The work, the book (the one I’m writing), the house, the book (the other one I’m writing), the laundry, the book (the one I need to finish reading for book group), the impatient client, the empty fridge. The wave will always be there — but will never actually crash down on my head. (At least that’s what I tell myself as I try to live in the moment.) The moments of that Sunday afternoon, however, are fleeting. Doing “nothing” makes for memories that have long lives and crystalline edges.
Of course, I’m not the only person who thinks that doing nothing is good for you. Doing nothing is by extension part of the slow parenting movement (and the slow movement in general). The brain needs to be left to its own devices on occasion in order to stimulate creativity (and, I would add, well-being). By doing nothing, it turns out, you often end up “doing” wonderful things without even realizing it — because your focus was entirely on the moment and evolved into enjoying a process, rather than being focused on the outcome. (This is also why I’m a big fan of Montessori education. It’s all about the process rather than appending meaningless rewards to performance. The process itself is the reward.)
Phew. That’s way too much thinking for someone who was trying to do nothing. Now, about that nap….