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Relax

On the real joy and difficulty of doing nothing.

Mel Hattie
Mel Hattie
4 min read
Relax

This week we’re taking it easy (in a sense). I have a new story for you, but it’s not quite ready yet. It’s like Jell-o I just put in the fridge. I could serve it to you now, but neither of us would really be happy. You’d have to pretend to like it, and I’d be forced to serve it out of a feeling of responsibility, knowing it would have been so much better if it had just had a bit more time.

What I’m saying is, I’m letting this story gel a bit more before I share it with you. It’s a good one, one that I started in one place with two characters and went somewhere I totally didn’t expect it to. The characters started out a bit one-dimensional and ended up being more beautifully complex than I imagined. So they need more time, I need more time and goddamnit—I’m giving it to myself. The piece will come next week instead of this week.

This is very hard for me.

At my last session, I talked to my therapist a lot about responsibility and the heightened emotions and self-valuation that, for me, are tied up in it: I can be counted on. I deliver. I do things on time. I have the thing I said I’d have.

Part of this internalized equation of value with productivity was probably heightened during my professional upbringing as a journalist and agency content person, when (especially as a younger employee) your full value was calculated upon your ability to deliver. But, truth be told, it’s a mindset I sort of brought to the table, anyway.

I’ve always been extremely motivated to complete tasks. Maybe it’s from my old gamer or competitive classical flute days, maybe it’s just how my brain is wired. To do something a hundred, thousand times so that you can do it ‘right’ when called upon. To perform on stage.

Having this internal impetus as a character trait, I think, in a professional and personal context has served and scarred me, in equal measure.

When I do things right, I’m amazing, I’m bang-on, all the training has paid off and I’m reaping the rewards and praise, I’m flowing, I’m untouchable, I’m making ca$$$$$h money.

When I do things wrong, or I don’t deliver, I’m a worthless failure and should be taken out behind Old Yeller’s doghouse and… well, you know the rest.

That sounds extreme, but it’s something I’ve really struggled with. I have to do well because I don’t do well when I don't do well.

To put it plainly—I’m bad at losing. And not in how I treat other people, but in how I treat myself. And you know, that’s not the greatest way to be. In fact, it’s an actively self-destructive, toxic mentality. I know I’m not alone in dealing with this issue.

Something I’ve been working on is fighting back against that voice and all the pain and paralysis it causes. I’m practicing to (as Elsa would say) let it go. I’m trying to find grace.

I went to the teahouse today, and we spent five minutes sitting in silence, several minutes heating three types of incense and then taking time to smell it. We then entered the tea room and admired the calligraphy scroll set in the tokonoma, drank tea, and then spent several more long minutes admiring the bowls the tea had come in. An hour and a half meditation in movement. What a delight.

Speaking of ‘delight’ - this week on the radio I heard poet Ross Gay talk about the radical delight of loitering. To paraphrase, he said something like:

“Sitting around with other people, doing nothing, enjoying yourself, subverts the notion of productivity in our society, and that’s really important to do.”

I’ve been practicing doing nothing and becoming better at losing. At having more grace for myself.

So far, it’s actually brought me a lot of peace. We should teach our kids these things. Who cares what your GDP is or how many awards you have if you have no peace?

Ross spent a whole year in contemplation of willful gladness, which became The Book of Delights (I haven’t read it yet, but if it’s anything like what his words sounded like on the radio, it will be magical).

His take on the joy of just ‘hanging out’ as being subversive in the context of our late-capitalism-internalized desire to commoditize or be productive our every waking minute… it’s spot-on. It’s radical to take time for yourself. It’s radical to not ‘always be optimizing’ (thanks, Jia Tolentino). This radical action for you can be found hanging with pals, or staring at a tea bowl for ten minutes.

Time spent in contemplation, doing nothing with friends, is not a waste. It’s an expression of our humanity.

All this to say—I’ll see you next week with a piece of fiction I’m excited to share, and in the meantime, be radical and take time for yourself (you can only take it, not make it). Be easy on yourself, and question those voices in your head.

Allow things time to gel. Let the stew sit and thicken. Take the time to do nothing but let time flow through you.

With love,

Mel

P.S. A test. I dare you to spend 30 minutes doing nothing but watching this relaxing video. DARE you. It will be hard, but I believe in you.

Blanket Fort