When I was a little kid, my parents had these friends they hung out with. We would go to their house, and the adults would sit around the fire and play guitars and drink beer, and we kids would play in the yard, and there were sing-alongs and sometimes marshmallows. It was such fun for 6-year-old me. But then Dad quit drinking, and the people with the guitars did not, and we did not go to the singalongs anymore.
As I sit here, searching my memories, those singalongs are the closest I can come to remembering an example of what I would now call relaxation in my childhood. We were poor – things like off-time were not for leisure but for fixing broken things, making extra money, or collapsing from sheer exhaustion. We did not have hobbies – we had responsibilities.
We did not watch sports. Dad built things, but things we could use. Mom cooked, but not for fun, but because we needed calories. A weekend did not go by that we were not working on one of our cars, but that was not a love of mechanics but a desire to have a working vehicle.
The end result of this sort of rearing is that while I know how to survive, I do not know how to rest.
* * *
A lot of my life right now is one on one meetings. The other day, I was trying to set up a meeting with someone, and we were comparing calendars.
“What about Tuesday,” I asked.
“No, I can’t do Tuesday. It’s my birthday.”
“Oh, Happy Birthday. Are you going on a trip somewhere?”
“Oh no,” she said. “I just don’t work on my birthday.”
I had never heard of such a thing. Not that I’m against it, per se. It was just a new concept for me.
I’ve never been one to take off work. In fact, I have a hard time sometimes not working.
The last time I was in Asheville, NC, I went with some friends to an improv show. The cast was pretty good, and I enjoyed it a lot. One of my friends said they thought I would enjoy taking improv lessons. My gut reaction was no, but I wasn’t sure why, exactly. Because I probably would be good at it, and I probably would enjoy it.
Eventually, I came to terms with that in the end, the issue is that I can’t justify it – the time or the expense. I have a problem doing things that are not useful.
I’m not saying there is anything wrong with improv. It’s me. There’s something wrong with me.
In the lovely book Gilead, the Rev. John Ames, a 76-year-old preacher in 1956 Kansas, leaves his 7-year-old son a diary as his inheritance. And on its final pages, he tells his son:
I love the prairie! So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turn radiant at once, that word “good” so affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing. . . . Here on the prairie there is nothing to distract attention from the evening and the morning. Nothing on the horizon to abbreviate or to delay. Mountains would seem an impertinence from that point of view.
I’ll pray that you grow up a brave man in a brave country. I’ll pray that you find a way to be useful.
I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.
That’s all I ever wanted, really. To be brave and to be useful. I don’t really know who I am if I’m not doing something.
“But Hugh! You have hobbies! I have seen the gardens! And the wildflowers! And the woodworking!”
Yes, I manage to do useful things in my nonworking time, because I can then convince myself I am not being lazy, playing with my flowers, but rather am building a wildlife habitat, or creating a pollinator garden for endangered insects, or growing food we can eat, or furniture we can sit on.
That thing where you do a thing for sheer joy that will never be productive or remunerative or useful to anyone? Stamp collecting? Role-playing games? A friend told me he spent the whole weekend playing video games. I cannot imagine such a thing.
And if I have a surplus of spare time, I catch myself adding projects until I feel busy again. Some days I sit at my desk the whole day, from 6 AM until I go to bed at ten that night, baring meals, because I’m working on my blog or my newsletters or my regular job or planning a new flower bed or sketching out the garage project.
In my defense, I happen to like the useful things I do in my unpaid time. They are not chores. But neither are they relaxing.
At this stage of my life, I’m trying to fix that. I’m trying to learn how to relax more. To build walls between work and not-work. To create a structure that encourages relaxation and rest. I’ll probably be talking about this a lot over the next few months as I try to develop patterns and routines that take this desire into account.
I don’t know that this means we will have a singalong in my backyard one day soon. But I’m not ruling it out.