Sometimes when I’m at work enduring a painfully long, aimless meeting, I think that this whole stable, responsible, grown-up lifestyle is keeping me from experiencing a life of complete joy and fulfillment. Like every other working stiff, I look forward to 5:30, can’t wait to make it to the weekend, and daydream about retirement. I fantasize about how much I’d enjoy my time if I had complete freedom over how I spent it.
On rainy days at work, I look out the window and envision myself at home in bed, spending the entire day sipping hot chocolate and reading a novel.
Then I get a weekend or, even better, a glorious week off, like the one I’m currently basking in (the week of campus close-down for the holidays is, by far, the best part about working in higher ed). I pick up my phone in the morning to do a quick check of news and weather and social media (okay, and Modcloth sales), and before I know it, two hours have vanished, with nothing to show for it but a bunch of new worries about the state of the world and a screen headache.
I try to enact the cocoa-sipping-novel-reading fantasy, but after an hour, I start to feel guilty about the pile of unwashed laundry in the other room, the unfinished piece of writing, the unscrubbed tub, the file full of collage materials waiting to be glued down, the legs under the blanket getting twitchy and restless from lack of physical exercise. That, or I fall asleep and wake up in horror over the fact that I’ve just spent a chunk of my priceless weekend afternoon unconscious.
No matter what I do with my free time, I can’t escape the nagging sensation that I’m not doing enough with this precious resource—that I’m not being productive enough or creative enough or useful enough. Then, before I know it, it’s Sunday night and there’s nothing left but to prep the week’s lunches, brush my teeth, crawl into bed, and try not to weep over the tragic, premature death of yet another weekend.
That’s when I realize it’s not my job that’s standing between me and a state of perfect contentment—it’s me. Somewhere along the way, I have lost the ability to waste time and not to feel bad about it.
And I used to be really good at doing nothing and doing it blissfully. Up until I graduated from college, I could spend entire days staring out the window, or sitting outside alone just letting my mind roam, or listening to music, or reading a whole novel in one sitting. I don’t remember worrying about being productive. Time felt like an inexhaustible resource back then, and I was able to squander it without the slightest twinge of remorse.
One of the first “silver lining” thoughts I remember having three years ago as I sat in the nurse navigator’s office and listened to her tell me I had cancer was, “Well, at least now I’ll get on the ball and stop frittering away all my free time.” But I’ve proven to myself I can waste as much time as ever. What I’ve lost is the ability to kill time while simultaneously maintaining peace of mind.
But there’s hope for me. I decided to spend this week off studying the art of remorseless time squandering under two of the world’s greatest masters: Noche and Smidgen.
I have learned that their mornings are spent meditating on the screened porch and their afternoons drowsing in a patch of sunlight. They invest countless hours in watching the slowing shifting patterns of light and shadow on the wall, blinking slowly and pondering mysteries beyond the comprehension of the human brain. Their days are consumed with the research they’re conducting as part of an exhaustive, longitudinal study of all the various napping surfaces in the condo and the optimal times to sleep in each spot. When the sun sets, they have nothing to show for their day, having produced nothing except a stinky turd or ten and, on special occasions, an artistically shredded-up roll of toilet paper. Yet they never show the slightest sign of guilt over how they’ve chosen to pass their time.
My week of vacation is drawing to a close too quickly, and so far I have failed to embody cat nature. But like all masters, my cats’ instructional methods can be frustrating for the beginner. While Noche’s teaching style is nurturing—he is always ready to provide a head butt and a purr if you ask for one—Smidge has more of a tough love approach, swatting your toes or attacking a pile of collage materials or walking across your keyboard if you should backslide in your practice of doing nothing and attempt to be productive.
I can only attempt to continue my studies in the hopes that I will be fully prepared to joyously fritter away my days when I become eligible for retirement from the state in eleven relatively short years.*
*assuming that the state retirement plan, Social Security, Medicare, and breathable air still exist in 2027. Who am I kidding? I’ll probably be working till I draw my last breath.