After we recently collected our 12-year-old son from a summer boarding camp he’d attended for several weeks, he got to choose what to do when he returned home.
What he decided to do, after dropping his dirty laundry near the front door and slipping off his shoes, was nothing.
Nothing, in other words, that might be considered constructive, educational or deep. He watched cartoons, surfed the Internet, swam with his friends, ate cake for breakfast.
Camp had been rewarding and fun, but ordered, as camps inevitably are, by hours of self-improvement and official enrichment. A month of following a schedule tacked to a dormitory wall made him long for what we all desire from time to time — a summer day that’s ours and ours alone.
What I’m arguing for here is what I also championed in a column last summer, the forgotten art of doing nothing at all. The subject came up last year in a beach vacation with my in-laws — a time when our kids, after daily itineraries filled with road trips and shopping, rose for breakfast one morning and asked what we were going to do next.
“What we should do,” my mother-in-law suggested, “is nothing. Doing nothing is what vacations are supposed to be about.”
“Summer is ideally about this very thing — the escape from schedule, the retreat from obligation, the freedom to let the mind wander,” I told readers last summer. “In practice, though, summer tends to shape itself to the clock and the calendar like the rest of the year, even in the hours we’re away from the office or school. Children’s day camps, with their typical view of the day as a series of instructional blocks, can condition a youngster to think of summer as a box to be checked, not a season to be indulged. And those grim, what-I-did-this-summer essays from English class also incline us to think of summer as an action verb, something to do rather than be.”
Maybe the ability to take a summer day as it comes was easier in previous generations. “My grandfather and I would sit on the porch in the still Georgia heat and count the cars as they whizzed by,” author Alice Walker recounts in her new book, “The Cushion in the Road.” “He’d choose red cars, I would choose blue or black . . . hours could go by and we were perfectly content.”
The odd title of Walker’s book describes the age-old tension between sitting and going — between resting on a cushion and engaging the world. She quotes from an ancient Eastern poem: “Sitting quietly, doing nothing, spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.”
The point of the poem, apparently, is that our busyness can be a kind of conceit, an assumption that the world needs all of the hurry and worry we lavish on it.
In truth, the world will probably do just fine if we step back from it occasionally and do nothing — preferably, on a summer day when this kind of thing is more easily forgiven.
So, consider this a public service announcement. Summer is nearly half over. Get busy doing nothing while you can.