A Delicate Balance: the summer of living softly

Canadian old women reading book

This summer I’ve decided to devote myself to doing as much of nothing as I possibly can. I realize I’ve been advocating for a purposeful, meaningful, busy, active retirement or “unretirement.”  I haven’t changed my mind about how critical it is for retirees to have a crowded social calendar and a purposeful life. At the same time I don’t believe it’s wrong to find a balance between busy and doing nothing. It’s summertime and according to the song, “the living is easy.”

In a recent article in the Globe and Mail, “The Sweetness of Doing Nothing,” the author contends: “When it comes to summer vacation, there’s no such thing as wasted days. Doing nothing is good for you, but it’s time we relearned how to do nothing properly. Our aversion to conspicuous leisure is deeply embedded in the puritan work ethic, yet it’s necessary, now more than ever.”

Could this opinion be right? Isn’t doing nothing against the rules of the engaged boomer? Aren’t we to ensure that our days, summer or winter, be filled with work or righteous acts of charity and volunteering or at the very least, pursuing a hobby? Yet, there’s another way of regarding retirement. It can also be a well deserved opportunity to kick back and relax and what better time than summer to do exactly that?

Others agree. In another article, this one is the New York Times, the author talks about “How to Make This the Summer of Missing Out”. It’s really about how to manage digital time with you making the decisions about how often to participate rather than the siren call of your phone pinging you to attention each time you receive an email or a text.

This author’s advice is to “manage people’s expectations of you
(and set them low). Begin to cultivate the expectation that you may take a while to respond to text messages and emails. If you feel undue pressure from family and friends, you can let them know ahead of time that you may not always be available.”

Last fall, after I returned from a long holiday in Europe, I must have been overcome with guilt. I’d mistakenly deleted emails without reading them.  I’d been out of the country for six weeks, enjoying myself, drinking wine with dinner every night and listening to chamber music played by the Furiant Quartet upon returning to the ship from the day’s sightseeing. The glorious music opened my heart to different ways of being.

On land I couldn’t help but notice how superbly the Spaniards live, including the expats among them.  There are Catalonian towns and villages where the siesta is still observed: a good long nap in the middle of the hottest part of the afternoon, dinner after 9 p.m., children included. The European continent has sped up since I first fell for its charms in the late 1970s. Yet, when searching for it, the old Europe can be found. Along the Iberian Peninsula, and the Balearic islands, life moves at a leisurely pace.  People walk slowly, dress beautifully and spend inordinate amounts of time chatting under the broad umbrellas of outdoor cafes. They stay up past midnight to socialize –rather than being glued to their personal computers.  Only tourists are in a hurry, snapping endless shots with their cell phone cameras.

It was pleasant for me to emulate the local way of life while in Europe but the minute I returned to Canada, I jumped headlong into work and it wasn’t an elegant swan dive.  At home in Canada, I created a grueling working schedule with daily to-do-lists, religiously checking off each task as completed. Projects not finished were recorded in red for the next day. Between January and June, I managed to fill two-ruled notebooks of to-dos mostly related to promoting my new novel.

By mid-June, when the bulk of the promotion for the book was done, I was exhausted. What I’m learning is that I cannot maintain the pace I did when I was 40 or even 50. Quite possibly I don’t need to. There are ways to work more slowly and they might even be as successful as the mad-dash-to-the-finish-line-model that I’ve followed for years.

This summer, I’m in search of living softly, while re-discovering the sweetness of doing nothing. I’m committed to taking days off, just relaxing on the terrace of my home, admiring the view of the lake and finding time for a late afternoon cocktail. Home as cottage with no exasperating drive getting there.  You’d think it would come naturally, but after decades of going full speed, it’s more complicated to unwind than I imagined it could be. I wasn’t always like this.

When I was an adolescent, I enjoyed reclining on a chaise lounge in the backyard, and listening to my transistor radio while leafing through Seventeen magazines. I had not the slightest trouble doing nothing for days on end. Activities included strolling over to my friend’s back yard swimming pool, driving in fast cars with boys during the languid summer nights that enveloped everyone in a misty, muddled heat that warmed the senses.  Root beer at the A&W drive-through window quenched our thirst. And there was always a triple movie bill at the drive-in at the edge of town for entertainment.

Last week, I enjoyed a leisurely lunch with my longtime friend Pam. We grew up together in Windsor and she reminded me of the time my parents took us to Miami for March break. We were 16, and entirely, absurdly certain of ourselves in the way only inexperienced teenage girls can be.

The weather in Miami was hot and muggy, but Pam and I both recall sunning ourselves all day, swimming in the ocean and staying up half the night having fun. Back then we’d perfected the art of doing nothing. It was the last time I embraced doing nothing without ambivalence.

I’m old enough to realize that it’s unrealistic to emulate those youthful days before ambition and the work ethic permeated my consciousness. What I’m searching for this summer is a delicate balance. That sweet spot where the present is embraced for what it is, and the urge to excel doesn’t matter.

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