Loafing and Idling

Never start on an expedition without the trusty thermos

Paul and I have many things in common, and one of those is the passionate pursuit of the idle life. We like slow. We like quiet. We like pottering and wasting time. We like stopping and chatting. Paul is a champion chatter and can talk to just about anybody about anything, at great length. We never go to the movies, or to restaurants, because we just don't feel like it. We like messing about in the garden, and if we are doing a job, we stop a lot to make tea, or because it's wine and cheese time.

When we go out somewhere, we take a picnic and a thermos, and a picnic blanket and some rugs and some cushions, and sometimes a book. Then it is an expedition, which is exciting, because who knows what will happen? We planned an expedition on Sunday. We planned the picnic, and what we were going to bring, but not where we were going. When we got in the car we still didn't know where we were going.

"Where are we heading?" I asked.
"No idea!" said Paul, happily.

We meandered aimlessly up the river, going by all the back roads and looking at the boats and Paul told me about his little boat and where he had moored it, and when I asked what it had looked like we were driving past the boatyard where he used to work on it, so we turned in and mooched around the quiet Sunday afternoon yard, with its litter of ropes and lines and piles of scrap, paint tins and the old tractor that tows the boats up the hard. Paul showed me the little clinker-built boat that was like his, and told me about the working bees they would have on the boats that turned into parties at which more drinking than working was done. We talked to a nice old man about his cray boat that he fishes from out of St Helens, we inspected an old Chinese junk being smartened up and repainted, we watched the old boats slowly rusting into the ground in front of our very eyes.

Further up the river we discovered Patricia's Beach, a little spit of sand and bush. Just big enough for a picnic blanket and a nap while watching tiny birds in the flowering tea-tree, cormorants and seagulls flying by, and the white sails of yachts tacking up the river. The Tamar is a tidal river and we watched it come closer and closer until we decided that discretion was the better part of valour and packed up to come home.

I remember I was going somewhere with this tale, but there has been so much meandering I have temporarily lost my bearings.. loafing and idling - yes, and the value of doing nothing. This expedition is was one of the more energetic ones we have undertaken. Sometimes we walk a hundred metres from Paul's mountain cabin and lie on a giant boulder for the afternoon and listen to the birds. After twenty years of sitting on a mountain listening to birds, Paul can actually speak Bird, and he tells me what they are saying. Today he rang me to tell me that the birds had been yelling that there was a snake, and he went outside, and sure enough, there was the snake. It takes a lot of years of idling and loafing and listening carefully to learn to speak Bird. Since I have had my verandah built I have been spending many hours watching and listening to my city bird friends. I can recognise them all now, by their calls, and have noticed that some of them are seasonal. Who knew? Birds say different things at different times of the year.

Another wonderful thing I have started to do up on the mountain is to find out what the wild flowers are called, and write a list of when they flower. Paul has set up his microscope so I can look at the flowers in minute detail. I have discovered that a single wattle blossom looks like a bouquet of orchids under the microscope. It is a whole new world of marvellous.

There is a whole world of busy out there for those who want it. There are endless ways to spend money in order to have 'fun'. Me, I love to spend what time I have to spare lying about and listening to birds, idling away an afternoon on a picnic blanket with a cup of properly brewed tea. I say, if you are tempted by the idle life, create some space for loafing about. Turn off your screens and lie in a hammock. Find a small, absorbing, cheap hobby that takes you outside. Birdwatching, finding out the names of flowers, identifying edible weeds, looking at creatures in rock pools, star gazing, finding shapes in clouds, reading poetry under a tree.

Hammocks make idling at home into real luxury. I recently put up our old hammock between our new verandah posts, and life suddenly got so much better. Idling is now possible just a step outside the back door.

Idling and creatively doing nothing very much seems to be a bit of a lost art in a world devoted to productivity. But I commend it to you as a way of sinking slowly back into yourself, finding pleasure in the small and insignificant details of life and rediscovering the joy of naps.


Beznarf27 said…
What an absolutely, scrumptiously delicious post Jo. I hear you with the bird songs. We have been living out on our rustic (that's a nice way of saying "difficult") 4 acres on the river now for 8 years and in that time we have gone from wide eyed city folk to learning the value of slow, understanding the birds and communing with them (at the moment they are communing with me saying "put some sodding cheese cubes on the windowsill woman!"), feeling the changing seasons and watching the landscape and the garden respond to them. Well we WILL be doing that when we are finally shot of this (sodding, bollocky swine of a ) course. We are trying to wade through the murky depths of learning JavaScript and your wonderful post has just reminded me of the value of a thermos and removing yourself from stressful situations. Idling is an art that has become seriously lost in a sea of rushing here and there pretty much accomplishing nothing in the scheme of things. Give us 3 1/2 weeks and we will be joining you! The garden is calling...
simplelife said…
I don't even know where to start or how to respond to this post, so so calming and beautiful but at the same time I'm crying.
You are living the way I want to live, idling through the days and being proud of it. I just can't seem to allow myself to do it, I feel as though I will be judged by, probably everyone, for choosing to be idle when my garden and yard is a weed and blackberry infested jungle, my house is never spotless or even all that clean really, so what right do I have to sit around and be idle. I know it would actually be good for me, lately as the sandwich generation, an ageing dad and young adult students I feel pulled in 50 different directions and so so stressed. Anyway I'm off and talking about myself again, just wondered have you read any of Tom Hodgkinson's books? I read How to be Idle years ago and loved it.
Keep on idling because it's people like you setting a good example for people like me who might just change the world.

cheers Kate
Jo said…
Fran, ugh, java script sounds painful. Still, by contrast, getting all sweaty and dirty in the garden will be sheer bliss:) I am enjoying studying birds. From the hammock. It is the best. And pleased to be of service by lying in hammock. Any time:)

Kate, dearest, clearly you need a hammock. Or a blanket spread under a tree in the garden with a cushion and a good book. Of course, you are stressed. We lead stressful lives. That's why idling is so important and necessary. Also cheaper than a nervous breakdown or stomach ulcers.
Note: nothing can ever be perfect, so let's not try. Let's celebrate good enough. Despite writing about housekeeping, which I often regret, truth is my house is mostly dirty, especially the floor, the bathroom and the windows, which are truly deplorable. At least half my garden is a weed-infested jungle. I used to to feel bad about this sort of thing, but now I truly don't care. As far as I know, we get one life, and you and me are both at the point where there is likely less life ahead than we have already lived. We do what we must for those that we love because we love them, but then we MUST do what we want in order, when we get to the end of our lives, to be happy that we really lived (to paraphrase Thoreau). And to be happy today that we have really lived. You know really that it's not that hard for any of us. We just need to turn off that screen and go outside..
Tom Hodgkinson, yes, I liked his How To Be Idle - that's where I got the term 'idling' from:) - but I LOVE his book How To Be Free. It's one of my favourite books of all time.
Anonymous said…
Another delightful post. I love slowing down life, and listening to the "wonderous" around me. It restores my life force, which tends to dwindle with the constant marketing of what life should be. Life is to be lived.
Be well.
Patricia FL/USA
Jo said…
Patricia, that is an excellent way to put it. There are things which increase life force, and things which diminish it. It is so important to our well-being to determine what it is that increases our well-being (she says as she peruses facebook and photos of other people's new puppies. Note to self - actually go and meet new puppy IRL).
Pam in Virginia said…
Hi, Jo!

What a blissful outing, and just reading this was blissful. Thanks!

Anonymous said…
Your response made me laugh! Also wonderful for the life force!
Patricia/Fl USA
simplelife said…
Thanks for your response to my comment.
I need to surround myself with more people like you.

cheers Kate
Jo said…
Pam, it's so easy to have blissful outings when you like picnics, birds and naps:)

Patricia, :)

Kate, you know, I was thinking how lovely it is to be writing for people like you all, who absolutely identify with what I like to write about:) because, you know, sometimes when I hit 'publish' I think, 'Well, I wonder what they will make of that..?'
Anonymous said…
Lovely post, Jo. I think idling, like reading, should be a normal part of all our lives, and not something that needs to be planned or organised or pushed aside because the skirting boards are dusty. We should never feel guilty about time spent in a bit of idle contemplation. In the end, there are friends, family and the beauty of our world, and it's surely a good thing to enjoy them all while we can.

Linda in NZ
Hazel said…
I do idle, a bit, but I usually feel guilty, And then I think, if I was more organised and more efficient I'd be able to idle without the guilt and so then I feel guilty I'm not more efficient and so it goes on...
I know it comes from my mum and her disapproval of people with Nothing Better To Do. I know she's wrong (and she's certainly no happier than the people taking it easy) and I'm trying not to pass it on to my own daughters.
simplelife said…
I hear you hazel. Although my mum's saying was the devil makes work for idle Hands.
Cheers Kate
Treaders said…
I'm like Kate - feel guilty for idling even though my husband is gone and my kids are off my hands. Can't wait to quit the commute from hell at Christmas and live on a lot less but happily. Actually I do have a hammock - fell out of it a few times but by the time I got the hang of it I realized that hooking it between the cherry tree and damson tree just got me covered in berries, leaves and birdsh+t! Gotta get this idling figured out - you seem to have got it down pat and are lucky to be with someone who feels the same way. Well done Jo.
GretchenJoanna said…
I'm getting sleepy just reading your treatise. "Creatively doing nothing" can be very productive -- of health and serenity. Thank you for an inspiring exhortation. XO
This is marvellous. I feel very much the same. Laziness is next to godliness.
Jo said…
Linda, yes, 'enjoy life while we can' - oh, absolutely, because who knows what tomorrow what will bring? Let's live today:)

Hazel and Kate, mmm, those insidious inner voices telling us how we should live our lives.. I hit the jackpot here because my mother hates housework and cooking and is always sneaking off to read a good book. She was a great role model! Any way we choose to live differently from our parents or community involves a great deal of cognitive dissonance and pain. we have to decide whether it is worth it or not, and choose which voices in our head we are going to listen to. All the best, my lovelies xx

Anna, I have had many years of practice:) I wish you great success in your study of sloth and idleness. Btw, idling is brilliant for living on less. You already have the hammock, so no extra outlay necessary:) :)

Gretchen Joanna, 'inspiring exhortation' - yes, I had to go and lie down after all that effort xx

Jonathan, you are so right, laziness is next to godliness. Think about it - which great religious figure ever discovered enlightenment while running around to committee meetings? No, they were generally sitting under a tree at the time, or wandering around unproductively in the desert.
Jennifer said…
This. is. heaven. What a wonderful excursion - I love reading this, it makes me feel so calm as I face my busy week. Thank you!
Jo said…
Jennifer, so pleased to be of service! Loafing for the good of the community:)
Anonymous said…
If you had a week left to live would you spend it mopping the floor and mowing the lawn? I doubt it! We are working on doing the necessary things within a particular time frame so that the time left is ours to do as we please. We have experimented with having a 'sabbath' day where you may not turn on the washing machine, hoover, shop etc...wonderful!

Yesterday I idled by crawling into the spare bed with a cup of tea and hot water bottle (unexpected cold snap here) and watching a long episode of Downton Abbey - sheer bliss! Later while my wife was mowing the lawn I.....lay on the couch and looked out the window! This is something I am new at, resting whilst someone else is still being effortful. I was brought up in a house where everything was spotless and there was NEVER a dish left on the sink. The bathroom was cleaned daily and the floors vacuumed 3 times a week. All this was done by a full-time working mother! Needless to say it has been a long recovery process but I am finally getting there!

Jo said…
Madeleine, I love your idea of reintroducing the sabbath. I have been contemplating the exact same thing. A day devoted to family, friends and play with no housework or shopping. So often we fill up the weekend with executive tasks to get us ready for the next week of work. Such a terrible waste!
I have enormous admiration for people like your mum, who manage to get so much done. I have a theory though, that maybe it is easier for the habitually idle, like myself, to get minimally organised and do some work occasionally, than it is for a habitually on-the-go person to slow down occasionally. I have the advantage that when I work hard I feel noble, but for a busy person, slowing down induces guilt..
Congratulations on your new idle practice! You are doing so well, and get extra credit for idling while your wife was working. That's taking loafing to the next level:)
simplelife said…
I was impressed with Madeleine's next level idling too. Go girl. I love the idea of a sabbath but truthfully I don't know if I could actually do it. When I do have slow weekend days with no commitments I'm fidgetty, on edge and anxious by mid afternoon. So unaccustomed I am to free time. The reality is I do have a lot of free time now and it's confronting. I think you are right Jo about it being easier to get organised when required than to relax. Or maybe that's just me.
Cheers Kate.
Jo said…
Kate, that is such an interesting problem to have: you are feeling stressed, sandwiched between ageing parents and young adults (I do agree about the stress factor there), you are in a place where you have more free time, and the free time itself is contributing to your stress.
Hmmm.. so the question is, do you need to unwind and relax or would you derive more benefit from doing something? Loafing and idling needn't involve lying in a hammock. What about taking the middle path of doing something that you really enjoy - maybe something with your hands that will relax your mind, like kneading bread, knitting whilst sitting in a chair in the garden, constructing haiku poems, making a fiendishly difficult secret sauce, whittling spoons out of blocks of wood. Whatever floats your own little wooden boat. My mum does thousand piece jigsaws. One of my friend hunts for liverworts in the forest. Humans are infinitely varied and quite odd, so it's something different for each of us which makes us supremely happy.. go find your happy place, Kate, with much love and encouragement from me xxx
simplelife said…
You know jo, my son said a similar thing to me recently. Perhaps being still isn't the best way for you to relax mum, perhaps you relax by going for a walk or going to the beach. I think you are both right, I do find creating with my hands relaxing, and I used to love doing jigsaws or crossword puzzles. I also find getting away from the house relaxing as then I'm not noticing all the things that need attending to and feeling as though I should do them before I can relax. Thanks this has turned into a bit of a therapy session. Sorry to hijack, but youve saved me a fortune with your wisdom and guidance .Thanks.
Cheers Kate
Jo said…
Kate, there you go, sounds like you have resolved that problem yourself - crosswords at the cafe, walks on the beach. Now, book it in:) No slacking off with the loafing this weekend:) xx
simplelife said…
Challenge accepted
Cheers Kate
Linda said…
I was brought up to be busy and still aged 71 I feel guilty if I'm reading a book during the daytime! Getting better at it, but it still feels 'wrong'. However, I have a great hobby, Patchwork and Quilting, so I can create and relax whilst I'm doing something worthwhile. A happy compromise!
Angus Wallace said…
Hi Jo,

Glad to hear you're living the dream :-)

I've borrowed "how to be free" from the library -- I think you recommended it? I'm enjoying it!
Have you read "the art of frugal hedonism"? Another good one.

I haven't been that active online, but do read your blog fairly regularly and glad to hear that life's treating you well.

Cheers, Angus
Jo said…
Linda, reading is my 'thing' but it isn't everyone's. Patchwork and quilting are definitely 'guilt-free' in that they are so useful. And beautiful. If only I could sew and read at the same time..

Angus, yes, How to be Free, see review next post! And I lOVE the Art of Frugal Hedonism. Another keeper. I will be reviewing that soon. I would love to see what you have been up to on your wee suburban permaculture paradise experiment. Have you read David Holmgren's Retrotopia yet? I got it from the library then ordered it on sale through my permaculture group. Although, to be honest, you are probably way ahead of the curve with the whole retrofitting for energy descent future thing..

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