Journal of a Solitude: #A-Z Challenge

“I always forget how important the empty days are, how important it may be sometimes not to expect to produce anything, even a few lines in a journal. I am still pursued by a neurosis about work inherited from my father. A day where one has not pushed oneself to the limit seems a damaged, damaging day, a sinful day. Not so! The most valuable thing we can do for the psyche, occasionally, is to let it rest, wander, live in the changing light of a room, not try to be or do anything whatever.”

Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton

Sarton wrote these words in her sixtieth year. They communicate a reality that is true for so many of us, whether we are retired or in the workforce.

Sometimes I wonder if the daily routines I wrote about yesterday are a defence against the anxiety and boredom experienced during empty days. Yes, even the pleasurable routines like RAW NEWS.

Benefits of Empty Days

Sadly, it doesn’t seem that resting one’s psyche is enough justification for an empty day.

Five minutes of research into the importance of empty days results in a shopping list of ways to fill up that time with: “learning, creativity, and doing things at a higher quality”; engaging in deliberate practice and testing new ideas, and solving problems or having creative breakthroughs.

If you’re in the workforce and need to justify some breathing space in your day, all of the above are legitimate outcomes of empty time. But if it’s the weekend, or if you’re retired, how about doing nothing for the pure joy of doing nothing?

Dolce Far Niente

If you don’t speak Italian, but remember this phrase, it’s probably from reading or watching either Eat, Pray, Love or Under the Tuscan Sun. It means “the sweetness of doing nothing.”

Every time I hear the phrase, I swoon. Empty days would be great. Far, far better, however, would be feeling genuinely okay with those empty days.

It’s unfortunate, I think, that my culture and family background makes it so difficult to embrace even empty minutes.

I do know that my productive, driven way of being has afforded me a life that I love. But now that I’m retired, I’d like to be start asking myself the question “What would feel good right now?” And I hope that if the answer is, “to live in the changing light of the room,” I’ll do just that.

Do you have trouble giving yourself empty days, or even empty minutes? Why? What might you do to embrace dolce far niente?

 

 

 

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51 comments

  1. I had an ‘empty day’ yesterday, Karen. I knew I didn’t need to go anywhere and had no deadlines. I did have trouble as the day went on, but I forced myself into a chair looking out at the yard. And I read a book of fiction – it took a while to settle into but once I did it was fantastic. I thought about taking a nap when my eyelids grew heavy, but didn’t allow that. Progress for me will be when I can let myself take an afternoon snooze!

    1. I’m a big fan of the afternoon nap, Molly, and wrote about its benefits in this post that I think predates your time with Profound Journey – https://profoundjourney.com/recharge-batteries-power-nap/ I’ll look forward to the update when you allow yourself a nap 🙂

      Other than your refusal to nap, it sounds as if you had an excellent empty day. Like walking, I hope you’ll find that it recharged your batteries and inspired lots of new creative thought.

  2. I wrote a post on Dolce Far Niente ages ago because I loved the concept. Since I’ve reduced my working days down to a delightful two a week, I’ve set Thursdays aside as a day I make no plans to leave the house. I use it to blog, to read, to watch TV, to journal, and to waste time. It has become my favourite day of the week!

    Leanne | http://www.crestingthehill.com.au
    J for Just Do It!

    1. Two days a week of working does sound like a delightful way to transition to retirement, Leanne.

      You and Molly have both commented on your empty days revolving around not having to leave home. That’s true for me too. I love, love, love long, uninterrupted blocks of time at home. But let’s both of us try to shift our thinking a bit – we are not wasting time. We are living Dolce Far Niente, a very important use of time indeed 🙂

  3. I used to have a real problem doing nothing for an hour, let alone a whole day. There’s a lot more I could say, but I’ll save that for my L post. I learned a while back to create blocks of nothing on my schedule – especially when I feel mentally exhausted and pressured to perform. Taking these breaks always enhanced my energy and creativity more than just pushing myself to continue ever could. (Still, It took a long time to learn to like doing this AND get over the ensuing guilt.)
    And my idea of a perfect weekend is when I park the car at home after work Friday night and it doesn’t move again until Monday morning’s commute!

    1. I’ll look forward to your L post, Deb. You’ve made me very curious.
      It’s wise of you to put those blocks of nothing on your schedule. I still haven’t learned that particular lesson. I think I’ll need pointers – another reason to be keen for the L post.
      As for the perfect time as being at home, I’m definitely with you on that one. Wreaks havoc with all of those social connections we’re supposed to be treasuring as we age, but I adore my alone time at home.
      Have a great day.

  4. Hi
    A couple of thoughts. When we are traveling we always book the third day as our day of doing nothing. If we were to force our way through that third day with more travel, our enjoyment of the fourth day would be diminished.
    I must admit I am a bit in a quandary about the term doing nothing. Even if you do not have anything to do on a day, you are doing something. Whether it is observing or thinking or sitting.
    Personally, I think I valued a day where I had nothing to do more when I was working and had to cram everything else into my days off. Now I get some enjoyment out of spontaneous procrastination. There is always tomorrow to do that job. Now I have to go and do a task I put off until today-peeling wallpaper off the wall.

    1. That’s brilliant, Fran – to take your third travel day for doing nothing. It had never occurred to me to do that, but I can absolutely see how it would preserve enjoyment, not just of day four but of all of the days after that. And doing nothing on day three, rather than day 2 or 4 makes great sense. Enough time to feel that you haven’t just landed and immediately sat around, but not so much time that you’re into the mode of nonstop activity.

      I understand what you mean about nothing not ever being nothing. I think in our society we treat the word ‘nothing’ as meaning the opposite of deliberate activity. But I do take your point that it isn’t really accurate. Maybe we’d feel less guilt if we used different words, like “I think I’ll spend some time observing today.” 🙂

      Oh I detest peeling wallpaper, especially wallpaper that has been on a surface for a really long time. I’d be procrastinating on that one forever. Do you have a steamer? Have you watched YouTube videos about the best way to hack this particular job? I’d be looking for all of the advice I could get because I don’t think it’s ever easy. Notice I’m not volunteering to drop everything and come over to help you peel. Sorry, Fran. I think I just found a limit to friendship 🙂 Good luck!

  5. My friend has a No Plan day each week…when she suggested it to me, I was appalled! An empty day each week?!?! Maybe I could pull off one a month… a few moths later, she asked me how my No Plan days were going… oops, I’d crossed out one day and then forgot about it! Perhaps I need to do that right now, for the month of April. Hmm, my only option is April 30. Done.

    Beth
    https://bethlapinsatozblog.wordpress.com/

    1. Oh, I’m glad I’m not alone in this, Beth. I do that all the time too – have these ideas of things I should do for good self-care, daydream about them, write elaborate plans in my journal, and then promptly forget completely and totally. It’s maddening!
      Good for you for blocking out April 30th. Maybe look ahead at May and grab a couple more days there? Just a thought 🙂

  6. Can I just say I love the picture up there of the red boots against the grass background? I need to find a pair of boots like that! I have saved the picture to my Profound Journey Pins on Pinterest so I can remind myself what they look like when I go looking for boots at the store. 😉
    As for the subject of Dolce Far Niente, I have no trouble spending days doing nothing. If my videos are scheduled for weeks ahead of time for my YouTube channel and I have nothing that must be done immediately I could sit and read the day away while the light in the room changed. I would love days like that but sadly I am still under the crunch of deadlines, of making and stockpiling my videos on a schedule, doing taxes, doing other paperwork, answering emails, working on stuff for the church (laptop and soundboard and very soon a website). I also need to keep practicing my guitar playing for Powassan Jammers, my YouTube audience and to justify spending the money on it that I have. I would SO love days filled with nothing – the only guilt I would experience would be the guilt others try to heap on me for “being lazy.” At this point, though, I am so tired of the endless list of commitments and duties that should anyone dare try to lay a guilt trip on me they would not find me passive in accepting their labelling of me as someone who is lazy!
    Thanks for reminding us, Karen, that we all need at least a bit of nothing to rest, relax and recharge. Speaking of recharge I went back and re-read the napping post and realize that only you and I are in the comments on that one. I think more people need to read that one so I am happy to see you link back to it here for those that may not have been on PJ during those early days of it being founded.

    1. Hi Susan,
      Your to do list sounds so exhausting, although I do understand that you find it exhilarating.
      Here’s a thought, for what it’s worth. How about looking at your calendar and picking a day that you will make your empty day. I know you’re going to immediately object that you can’t ignore YouTube for a day, so here’s another thought. You could do a video post about the importance of an empty day. You could challenge your viewers to have one too. And you could ask them to come back 24 hours later and join you in the comments section of your channel where you, and they, can report on what it felt like to have an empty day. If people know that you’re not going to reply for 24 hours and they know why, I’m sure they’ll understand. Consider it a mini-vacation.

      1. Hi Karen,
        I do find my to-do list exhilarating and exhausting (you are right, there)! I have considered narrowing down my commitments but I do like how I feel when I do them. If something was not fun I would drop it in a heartbeat.
        You know, I think I will follow your suggestion of doing a video explaining the importance of an empty day. I love to interact with my audience in the comment section so I will throw the challenge out there and see how many will take me up on it. I will let you know how it goes. For now, it is in my YouTube binder where I keep a list of the videos I post -titles, dates and size and a separate list of video ideas. I have a few more videos to post first but will happily make a video on this subject. If it is okay with you I will put a link to this post in the description box of the video so anyone interested can hop on over here and visit you too. I will, of course, mention that this is a site for women (insert your tagline here). I will emphasize that I am not being a Feminist (with a capital F) and guys can take an empty day too but this site happens to be centred on women.

          1. Hey Karen,
            It is April 16, 2018, and I just wanted to give you an update. I have posted my video on my channel about The Mental Health Benefit of Empty Days. So far I am getting a lot of comments in favour of taking time out for yourself. None so far are arguing for the opposite theory of busy, busy, busy as the way to go. I was going to post a few other videos first before this one but ultimately decided that this topic couldn’t or shouldn’t wait.
            I included links in the description box to three places on Profound Journey. The main website link, the Profound Journey Website Walkthrough video I did 17 November 2016 (296 views currently BTW), and the link to this post so they can read more about the subject.

            1. Thanks for the update, Susan, and thank you for mentioning Profound Journey to your viewers.
              I hope that the video about the benefit of empty days also gave you license to give yourself a bit of empty time, not disregarding your viewers’ comments but maybe not feeling pressured to answer within minutes.

  7. I have no trouble “doing nothing” except for the guilt. Except for the knowledge of all the things I could be doing or should be doing. Except for voices from long ago, admonishing me for my laziness. I think that you – and many of the people that have already responded here – have the key: name it, plan it, schedule it, embrace it. Do it for your health, your sanity, and your peace of mind. From now on, I’m going to think of “doing nothing” as a positive rather than a negative! Thanks!

  8. I love that expression. It speaks to me not only as a driven Type A, but also as someone who needs those empty spaces to recharge. Without them, I start to fray pretty badly.

    The thing is, ‘doing nothing’ is a relative term. To me, it’s doing anything that isn’t compelling or important, but gives me simple pleasure.

  9. I can’t think when I’ve had an empty day. I got the work ethic from my mother (rather than May from her father). Now that woman worked! In fact, I enjoy it. But I do take a reading day occasionally, couched in ‘reading in my genre’!

    1. Ah…those reading days. I love reading days. I’m waiting for a day of nonstop rain. Isn’t April supposed to have a lot of rain, rather than these gale-force winds? Anyway, a rainy day, curled up on the couch with a bag of Ripples BBQ chips, a fire in the fireplace, an afghan over my legs. Heavenly, and a perfect ’empty’ day by any other name.

  10. I thought about my do-nothing days, and they really are not do-nothing. I read. I nap. I journal. I cook. In Florida, I go shelling or watch the water. I’ve learned to appreciate these days when nothing seems to be in a rush. Empty days have no time tables, no appointments, no must do. But they are not do nothing.

    1. Hi Pat,
      I agree with you and Fran and Joanne. They are not nothing days. They are days of simple pleasures, as Joanne put it. Whatever we want to call them, they are delicious indeed! And so much more plentiful now that we are retired.

  11. This is why I love vacations. We take lots of them, too. It’s not so much what you do or where you go, but the break from normal obligations that is important. This year we are taking a staycation to string these days out in our own home town. A day here, a day there, exploring places as a family. Most important, not working or dealing with stress. Have a great day!

    1. I think if staycations didn’t already exist, for the sake of everyone’s mental health we would need to invent them. Although far from do absolutely nothing days, they still honour the intent of those days – the break from normal obligations and all of the attendant stresses.
      I hope you’re having a great day too, Heather. I hope your continuing education work is going well.

  12. Hello Karen – I have been reading your blogs for over a year, with great interest. Although I have read some of your recommended books and implemented some of your ideas, I have felt somewhat of a voyeur reading all your thoughts and the thoughtful comments of your other readers without having made any comments myself. So, thank you for sharing your thoughts and ideas, and here I am commenting!
    For instance, your reference to May Sarton today got me thinking – I read her many years ago, when I was still single and working and childless. She was recommended to me by some 60-something female colleagues, and I would like to reread her as a retired 66-year old, empty-nest, long-married mom, comparing my thoughts then and now.
    I was quite driven during my career, earning a second Master’s degree in School Administration while working full-time (started coursework while my child was still in preschool, finished when he was in elementary school), teaching, mentoring, administering, volunteering at church and with Sister Cities, etc.
    Now, after three years of retirement, I am finally happy to have ’empty’ days. I swim a half mile 3-4 times per week (unscheduled, whenever I like), take a yoga class once a week, and walk the dog about 5 times per week (about 1.5 miles. My husband walks him the other days.). I pray about 5x per week – its like meditation. I practice piano (taken up after 40 years) 3-5x per week; I’m only intermediate level, and I’m not pushing myself, but really am practicing my scales. I still teach Sunday School, and tutor through Literacy Volunteers. Other activities, including museum visits, lunch dates with friends, kayaking, lots of traveling to family and friends, Netflix, reading, cooking, are scheduled whenever I feel like it! I clean the house when it gets dirty (unfortunately, frequently, due to a large, muddy dog).
    So, with all that, I always have 2-3 empty days where I am accountable to no one. (I am in charge of nightly dinner as my husband still works.) I am a reformed Type A personality, and I love it!
    I follow a piece of advice from a very wise high school friend who just retired after a long career in HR. Her advice:
    “Do these three things every day: one thing for someone else, one healthy thing for yourself, and one fun thing for yourself. ” It seems simple, but if I do that, I feel like I have had a very productive day, even the ’empty days’. I love her advice!

    1. Hi Carol,
      Thank you for being a member of the Profound Journey tribe! I appreciate so much that you have been a loyal and interested follower of my posts. And while I routinely tell people that they should never feel any pressure to comment, I have to tell you that having you take the time to comment today is like icing on a cake–and icing is my very favourite part of a cake 🙂

      It sounds as if you’ve got some great routines going, routines that benefit mind, body, and spirit. We’ve both been retired for three years and I’m nowhere near as active yet as you are. Something to aim for!

      I love the advice of your high school friend. Three things to do each day is very reasonable and those three particular categories of things are simply brilliant. Please tell your friend how much I appreciate her words and, with your and her permission, I won’t be the only one. If you’d be willing to give me your friend’s first name, I’d like to recommend her advice, as learned through you, to all Profound Journey tribe members.

      Again, so happy you connected, Carol.
      Best,
      Karen

  13. I like empty days – they make the full days so much more enjoyable. There is something wonderful about waking up in the morning and not having to do anything – except what I want to do.

    1. So true, Anna. Without the contrast, we wouldn’t enjoy empty days near as much. I remember a high school English teacher telling me that once. I was upset about something and she said that without sadness, happiness would have no value. Wise words.

  14. I try (not always successfully) to have one day a week completely to myself with nothing scheduled. I’ve followed the conversations above and agree these “nothing days” are not really nothing, and I’ve learned (quite easily!) since I retired not to feel guilty about them.

    1. I don’t know if you schedule your day a week, Anabel, but it occurs to me that doing that might help to reduce guilt for those of us who feel it. After all, when it’s on the schedule there’s no choice!

  15. Karen,
    Having been egged into workaholism in my 20s with phrases like “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop” and “You’re thinking too much — go do something productive to distract yourself”, I have spent years de-programming. I reserve Thursday as a common day off with my husband and take long walks or bike rides in nice weather just because…

    1. Funny. That word deprogramming is so associated with cults. But then I suspect you might have intended that. The cult of workaholism is certainly a real thing. We both know it.
      Your common day off sounds wonderful, Janet.

  16. Hi, Karen – I too wrote a past post about “Dolce Far Niente.” It is not an easy concept for me either. But I believe that it is an essential part of finding/maintaining balance. This concept is also used by our local animal shelter for our rescue dogs there. The “Do Nothing” exercise is where the dog is alone with his/her trainer in a quiet room and has the chance to truly ‘do nothing’ – not engage, not perform, not be on guard….just be! It is wonderful to witness these dogs finally have a chance to relax so deeply!

    1. What a wonderful idea for the rescue dogs, Donna. When I stop to think about it, that’s exactly what has helped Shylah trust and bond with me. Just being with her in a quiet room with no expectations. And as an added bonus, watching her relax into a deep sleep, always helps me feel more relaxed too.

  17. I’m a fan of empty days, hours, any empty moment I can grab to rest my mind, let it wander. Not happening enough these days with a teen at home, but we try to make it happen. I look forward to more such days, then, again, I’m sure I’ll miss all the crazy excitement. 🙂 For now, the empty moments are mostly before bed.
    I so agree, tho, we need them. Thank you, Karen, for a great post and idea.

    1. You make a good point, Silvia. The promise of an empty day/hour/minute is made sweeter by its rarity. It sounds as if you’re able to ‘be here now’ in enjoying the time with your teen. That seems a wise place to be.

  18. what a delightful phrase – never heard of it – the sweetness of doing nothing – I love it . I am busy as one is when one does nothing with family with writing with work with home but i have practiced and learnt this art. If I plan at all I plan to have as many days at home as possible and I forego many social interactions because it is the soliltude I want -it is the nothing which is never nothing but always something. I want to drink at the well of emptiness again and again – it is not empty it is full and rich and unknown . boredom bring it on – if I find myself bored I get excited – it is a prelude to something or a moment to be still and that is great too.
    terrific posts karen thank you

    1. In response to your Jellybean Road post, I said that you celebrate better than anyone I know, Sandra. That’s the truth and it’s emphasized again in this comment. The way you write and therefore the way you think is so different from what I usually read. I’ve been wondering why I find your writing so evocative and so appealing. In this comment, I’ve discovered the reason.
      I too love solitude for all of the reasons you mention. Your writing/your life beckons me, shows me a way to be in the solitude. You’re further along on the path than I am and you are serving as a wonderful mentor. Thank you, Sandra.

  19. I’m not sure what truly doing nothing feels like… aren’t we always doing something? I’m definitely not a Type A personality, but I feel as if my days are full… even if they are full of reading, writing, or planning an upcoming celebration of a friend’s milestone birthday. Even when my husband takes his (almost) daily nap, he’s doing something. If we are talking about unscheduled time – bring it on! Too many commitments during the week make me nuts!

    1. I think we are indeed talking about unscheduled time, Janis. Consensus of comments is that’s a much better way to express it than either Sarton’s ’empty days’ or the Italian phrase ‘Dolce Far Niente’.

  20. Hi Karen over the last few months I have actually been trying to incorporate empty days even just one day per week. I used to feel so guilty if I sat down or laid down and read a book. I’m retired and feel that I need to fill every moment of every day to justify existence. Now I realise that yes I have plenty of time and I can still do all I want to do but from a mental and physical health point it really is good to have an empty day. Thanks for the reminder. xx

  21. As I (we) get older, time seems to fly by faster. Part of me is happy that I have realized time is precious from a relatively young age, but the flip side is that I feel rushed and urged to be productive. To live life to its fullest.

    My mind explodes with projects and if I don’t achieve anything, I am less satisfied. I agree that days of doing nothing are important, to charge your batteries and just be. But, then again, on those rare days or moments, my mind would go crazy about my memoir, story ideas, blog posts, thoughts about the future,… Those times, in a way, also are productive and therefore not restful. Yes, I know, relaxation exercises might work, or going for a walk, but, guess what, those are once again activities and not “doing nothing”!

    My days of doing nothing work best when “forced” into it, like being sick, needing to stay in because of bad weather, while having planned an excursion, or long plane trips and the necessary layovers. Those are “negative” experiences turned into positive ones, because I feel I have extra time, and therefore, I can relax and am totally OK doing nothing or little. They are “free” days. 🙂

    1. Really interesting point, Liesbet, about ‘free’ days. I’m feeling exactly that way right now. Heavy rain and freezing rain are forecasted for the weekend and people are told to avoid driving unless it’s absolutely necessary. I hope that we don’t get the power outages that are being anticipated, but otherwise am so looking forward to a couple of very relaxing days.

  22. I read Sarton’s quote as referring not just to unscheduled time, but to periods of time that are not driven by the necessity of being productive. As a Type A recovering workaholic, I have learned to relish unscheduled time. But I have along way to go yet before I will be able to feel okay with spending time in a way that does not seem to be productive. Perhaps that is why I have struggled with meditation and with morning pages. Despite all the benefits of meditation that I have read about (and have even noticed in myself when I do it), I can’t help but think, “why don’t I just go for a walk instead? I’d be enjoying nature all around me and getting exercise at the same time.” And when I tried morning pages, I thought, “this is too aimless. Instead of wasting my time, why don’t I go do some productive writing?” As you can see, the drive to be productive has a strong hold over me!

    Jude

    1. You could try a walking meditation as a compromise, Jude. Nice and contemplative in nature, but the walk is so slow it doesn’t count as exercise. It barely count as movement! So scratch that. I’ve tried walking meditation and it made me crazy.

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