Ode on Indolence

Some warm morning, nearly 200 years ago, John Keats was lying outside enjoying the breeze:

“My idle days?  Ripe was the drowsy hour;
The blissful cloud of summer-indolence
Benumb’d my eyes; my pulse grew less and less;
Pain had no sting, and pleasure’s wreath no flower.”

Into this lethargy crept an image of three figures: Love, Ambition and that demon Poesy, who disturbed this bliss by stirring in him the desire to, well, do something. Like write poetry. He was not happy:

“O, why did ye not melt, and leave my sense
Unhaunted quite of all but – nothingness?”

Of course, he did go on to do something, namely get up and pen his “Ode on Indolence,” a delightful poem written in iambic pentameter, following a somewhat tricky ABABCDECDE rhyming scheme. He did this despite his warning to the figures that:

“Ye cannot raise
My head cool-bedded in the flowery grass.”

In other words, he got up and did his work, but like all of us, he liked to complain, and so his Ode on Indolence survives as an argument that lying in the grass on a summer day doing nothing is a great use of time.

And you know what? I totally agree. Keats’ poem arrived in my in-box the other day from a friend who was reading through 168 Hours, and thought he’d send me the counter-argument. Time management often gets a reputation as the discipline of scheduling every minute and always being “productive.” Many of us viscerally don’t like the idea because, like Keats, we find lying in the grass doing nothing to be quite pleasurable. We also recognize that these fallow times are when our best ideas can come to us; Keats scorned his three visitors, but he did write a great poem about their appearance. We complain of being starved for time because we don’t spend much time lying in the grass letting the ideas in our brains sprout as they will, and therefore like to assign blame – to society, capitalism, the monster under the bed, whatever – for this state of affairs.

But this argument is problematic for a few reasons. For starters, we have plenty of time for indolence. The easiest place to find it? The 19-24 (or 30, if you believe Nielsen) hours per week the average American spends watching TV. Keats lived before the electronic age, an age in which a spot of boredom could not be immediately ameliorated with 500 channels piping in everything from sex to murder to home repair, or email, if there’s nothing on. We may claim to like indolence, but we certainly don’t choose it when it’s an option.

Second, Keats, who died tragically young at age 25, never had children. Some people would argue that having a family inevitably depresses one’s creative tendencies, whether you feel the need to support the family financially (as society often asks of men) or care for the children (as society often asks of women). I don’t necessarily think this is the case, or at least I hope not given that I’m the mother of two small children trying to build a hopefully lucrative career as a writer!

But the reality is that if you want to enjoy hours of indolence as a parent, you’re going to have to schedule them in. You are going to have to create space for indolence, because otherwise it will simply get buried under the joys and needs of small children, under the demands and triumphs of making a living, or it will steal away in the arms of Love, Ambition and that demon Poesy.

And so I am trying to do this. I carve out an hour here and there just to amble outside (or run, which I find relaxing, though I realize other people don’t). I sit in coffee shops sometimes and stare at a blank page or look out my window and simply admire the brilliant canvas of a snowy day. I don’t think these activities are a bad use of my time, because I log my time and I know I’m spending plenty of time interacting with my kids and working on more concrete projects.

I hope people who read 168 Hours get that message. At least Martha Beck did! The Uber-Life Coach graciously gave a blurb for the book. My publisher had to make it short to fit on the front cover, but originally, Beck noted that while 168 Hours convinced her that she had time to read War and Peace in Russian, it “convinced me that my natural tendency—-squalid lethargy—-is also a perfectly viable option.” Indeed, “The advice in 168 Hours will suffuse every joyfully indolent hour.”

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