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Miranda: I want to do NOTHING. Meow.

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….

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. I love this post, Miranda. I agree – the process is *way* more important.

    For me, I think stress can be also related to my mind going top-speed – thinking of all that I need to do, instead of just focusing on what I’m doing right now. Taking one thing at a time can be akin to the cat’s outlook. Right now I’m sleeping. Next, I’ll get up and stretch. No hurries. No thoughts of what I’m going to do the next minute. Maybe I’ll get up and run around. Maybe not. Who knows? That moment’s not here, yet.

    I love that there’s a slow movement – slow food, slow technology, etc. I hate the plugged-in-ness, the instant gratification, the hurrying through life like there is always somewhere much more important to be, much more important than just here. I’m so happy that there’s a slow movement, I could just dance for joy.

    (And, I hope your little one is okay! What happened?? Poor thingie). 😦

    March 29, 2010
  2. excellent post! but i’m a little taken aback by this bit:

    ‘And I don’t mean vegging out; I mean studiously doing nothing and letting magic unfold where it might. No agenda. No shoulds.’

    for me, it’s when i veg out that the magic happens. something about the studious nothing is just kind of inherent to my multi-track brain.

    i find that when i tell myself to stop and breathe, enjoy the simple games with the kids, or the sarcasm chuckles wit the teen, that the rest of the tracks move into the back ground.

    i’m all about not overscheduling the kids, real foods, etc that the slow parenting movement supports.

    for all of the above, cats are an excellent metaphor and one of my favorite quotes about them is appropos here:

    “it is in the nature of cats to do a certain about of unescorted roaming.” adlai stevenson

    we have to open our minds to the possibility of going offtrack, or the whole concept of being on track sucks the life out of us. at least for me…

    March 29, 2010
  3. oops, coffee has not fully kicked in after a thunderous night of house rattling – in the quote from adlai stevenson – about should read amount

    March 29, 2010
  4. kellyTpottery #

    Wow, do I ever love that rug!! I want one!!

    But really, I also love the idea of slow living and doing nothing. It is so essential to my well-being and creativity. I also have a toddler and find myself just playing with her during the day. It’s just awesome. Hope your toddler is okay with that cast. Sounds a little dreadful…

    Love the kitties. They do have a good life.

    March 29, 2010
  5. Perfect Post Miranda…I often admire my cat and dog for just taking in the moment.

    March 29, 2010
  6. Cathy, I don’t understand your comment. The items that you counter with seem to be exactly the point of my post.

    Perhaps we have a semantic difference of opinion over what “veg out” means. To me, “vegging” means “entering vegetative state.” As in, cessation of brain function. To me, that would be watching TV, mindlessly stuffing your face until you enter a carbo-coma, or reading People magazine. Those things may all have value from time to time, but they aren’t “doing nothing” as I’ve described it here. Watching TV isn’t doing nothing because it doesn’t allow the mind to meander, free of boundaries and without external stimulus. Vegging out is anesthesia; it’s about turning off everything organic, isn’t it?

    Vegging out and “studiously doing nothing” are different, at least to me.

    March 29, 2010
  7. i think i was trying to unparse it in the rest of my comment. it was a semantic difference.

    March 29, 2010
  8. I find myself battling this need to constantly be stimulated-reading, blogging, cooking, creating all in a flurry and all under the guise of trying to be efficient with my time. And then I wonder why my brain won’t turn off when I hit the pillow. This afternoon, my little one wanted to sit and snuggle for 20 whole minutes! And I MADE MYSELF DO IT! And then I read this post. I guess I made the right choice? 😉

    March 29, 2010
  9. oh yeah, meant to ask earlier:

    what happened to the little guy’s leg??? i hope it was adventurous living.

    March 29, 2010
  10. Thanks, everyone! My little guy is fine; he has a “toddler fracture” from some mysterious twisting injury that we were unaware of until he started dragging his leg behind him. Never complained at all. Cast comes off in 8 days — can’t WAIT. Poor little guy. He’s desperate to be able to walk properly, play outside, and take a bath.

    Mary, wouldn’t it be nice to have full days of unplugged-ness? No e-mail, no TV, no computer, no iPhone….I am often nostalgic for what raising kids was like way back in the 90s (with my first batch). I certainly wasn’t ignoring my children to run off and check my e-mail. I have to say that it was cozier and felt more centered. (Then again, I barely worked at all during those years — which may account in large part for the lack of fragmentation.)

    Kelly, that rug was from Pottery Barn — alas they stopped selling that pattern this year: I see there are various places where you can still get one online, however, depending on your commitment 😉

    Thanks, Sarah — animals do make life nicer, don’t they?

    Robin, nice going. Hope it was reinforcing to see we’re squarely on the same page 😀

    March 29, 2010
  11. I am a workaholic. I have to be busy all the time. I never have nothing to do. I need to slow down a little, when my partner calls me the energizer bunny at 11PM that should be a clue that I am pushing the envelope.
    As a typical teenager, my grandmother used to tell me all the time that I wasted my time. I think I did then, but her words caused me to be an adult that does just the opposite.
    Waking up at 3AM, I often think, what a great time to get up and do any of a number of things, house quiet, animals sleeping, but then I will not be worth a darn the next day so I pass that opportunity by.
    I can fully associate your cat comments. I too have cats. One that likes to sit under my desk lamp also, then stretches all over my papers and then just for spite smacks me leaving yet another claw mark. Then off she goes and usually another replaces her.
    Not exactly the same situation with my son, but at 3 he had to wear braces constantly, even to bed, to straighten out a sever pigeon toed walk. I commiserate with your, glad your little one will be fine. Great article enjoyed it.

    April 1, 2010
  12. Ruth I loved your comments about your cats-I had no idea that cats were so HILARIOUS!

    April 1, 2010
  13. oh to have the life of a cat. or dog… my husband and friends all say that we they then they want to come back as one of my animals. i’m late to this but i can totally relate to your entire post, miranda. i’ve been run ragged lately with entirely too much to do between work and art business and kids and… trying to slow down and sometimes I manage to, and then other times, I don’t… so much more i could say here, but think i’ll go eat dinner instead. 🙂 loved the post.

    April 2, 2010

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