Over a recent holiday, my oldest daughter harps at me: “Mom, can’t you just sit still? Do you always have to be doing something?”
Secretly, I think, “Yes, I do have to be doing something. There is always something to be done: dishes to rinse, the counter to wipe clean, laundry, a million things on my To Do list for school.” I am stung, defensive. I sit meekly, noting how often I want to hop up, fetch my needlepoint, my journal, my phone, my laptop. I begin to creep towards understanding.
Most mornings, I start my day with a meditation from Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much, a gift from another Headmistress friend via another Headmistress buddy who lives in California. California to New Jersey to Ohio. Three women doing too much, thinking about education and enrollment and balancing budgets and working with a board and a faculty and, and, and…There are only plus signs. In schools, we joke—half-heartedly—that we only add initiatives, never take them away. I begin to think the equation is also true in my own life. I have added walking on the treadmill for thirty minutes to my morning routine that includes writing in my journal, checking the calendar, making coffee and tidying the kitchen. I have added talking to my oldest schoolteacher daughter for a few minutes each morning. I try to wedge in these additions to my already jammed early mornings.
A few weeks ago, parents new to our school gather for a dinner. In my after dinner remarks, I give them my list of ideas about how to be a great parent in an independent school, reprised right here in the Huffington Post, I remind parents that it’s important for their girls to see their high-power parents doing nothing from time to time, not trying to multi-task, not trying to check the email or fit in one more obligation. This is critically important for girls, so that they learn that it is okay for them to do the same. As I speak, I more the bile of hypocrisy rising in my own throat. How long has it been since I’ve practiced what I preach? Too long.
So, on Friday night, I commit to being a sloth. When I arrive home from errands, my son is in front of the television, with Alvin and the Chipmunks underway. I join him, hands idle. I note what a mess the family room is. I shudder thinking of the holiday Open House we are soon to host.The ottoman is stacked with the detritus of a too-busy fall: the Game of Life ironically supports my Stabilo markers and Mindfulness coloring book. A day-glo orange fly swatter nestles next to the thick volume describing the making of Hamilton. A wooden dagger, my needlepoint, a back issue of People—my guilty pleasure—two gift boxes of tea from Trader Joe’s intended as teacher gifts and a canvas box full of hard plastic animals have all taken up residence on the ottoman along with an old paperback of Homer Price. Last week, I had asked my son to put away the items that belonged to him. He hadn’t. But, for once, I decide not to nag. I don’t spring off the couch to fold up the fleece blanket lying in a heap on the floor. I see it. I leave it. It’s a choice. I don’t even feel too tense. I watch Alvin and Simon and Theodore. Theodore is my secret favorite. I note what a jerk Dave is. Later, when Atticus is hungry, we inspect the freezer together and choose an all carbs, all the time meal. First, we eat a frozen pizza; for a second course, we have tortellini. I feel guilt and joy in equal measure. Atticus squints at me over his second bowl of tortellini.
“You okay, Mom?” he inquires.
“Yep. Why?” I ask.
“I don’t know. You’re just—just not like you usually are.”
This is code, I think, for not nagging, not popping up and down like a Jack-in-the-Box. I am getting in touch with my inner sloth.
“Yeah,” I assure him, “I know.”
“I like it,” he confirms. “It’s just pretty different from always.”
Pretty different from always. Even in the midst of my commitment to do nothing, I feel wary, on guard. My shoulders inch towards my ears. I have a gorgeous meditation practice in the quiet dark of winter mornings. I am trained as a drama teacher to know how to be present, to be emotionally available. I adore improv and think of myself as flexible and creative. But, it turns out, that I’m not so great at doing not much of anything.
Alvin ends and we roll into a truly terrible film featuring some white puppies, who escape from the North Pole with Mrs. Claus, whose crimped hair is like nothing in nature. They are, all of them, trying to cure a “Christmas Cold” that afflicts a town. I am tempted to invent some tasks, just to escape truly mediocre acting, but I force myself to sit on the couch, to let idleness overtake me. By the film’s merciful conclusion, I declare my experiment less than successful. I am increasingly curious about and irritated with my reluctance to veg out.
The following night, I wipe out at the mall, falling hard on my right hip and too- recently re-habbed right shoulder. When we arrive home, I take to a chair in the family room, icing my hip. I stay there for three hours. We watch The Crown. I do some needlepoint, sign some holiday cards, feel virtuous about doing nothing in order to take care of my injured self. “Ahh,” the revelation comes. If I’m doing something in order to take care of myself, like icing my hip, forced inactivity is okay… fascinating. Some puritanical piece of my DNA decides when being slothful is okay and when it is not. There is more to learn about this phenomenon, more to unpack. But, in the spirit of investigative journalism, first I plan to take a nap.