Returning home a few days ago, I found our teenage son’s cello lying on its side in the dining room, like a cat curled for a nap. Just beyond the window, a hoe rested on a bale of straw waiting for our daughter to resume the new garden she’s been planting, off and on, along the patio. At the garden’s edge, a length of oak leaned on a lawn chair, left by our son as he built a bird house.
Our family landscape these days looks like a case study in Attention Deficit Disorder, with leavings here and there of a hundred summer projects started, a much smaller number finished.
I’ve had my own mental meanders, too. During an extended Fourth of July holiday, I mixed readings of poetry with ponderous articles on foreign affairs, purged a few shelves of things no longer needed, stirred the compost, binge-watched Netflix. Summers seems to boil my brain cells, thoughts fizzing in multiple directions. Instead of seeking a cure, I’ve contented myself with the notion that this random firing of neurons is a cure in itself — an antidote to the bonds of routine that define my life the rest of the year.
The kids have seemed liberated by the change of pace. Like most boys his age, our son orders much of his life around an academic calendar, his hours claimed by curriculum. Our daughter, freshly graduated from college, begins a new career this fall, starting her job with weeks of professional training. But in between, there’s been this summer pause, the luxury of letting a moment — or even a day — unspool at its own speed, without the mincing hands of a clock directing its flow.
That kind of freedom is rare, which is why it should be savored when vacation season brings it to our doorstep. Or so I’ve been reminded by Patricia Hampl’s “The Art of the Wasted Day,” a new book that’s had me under its spell this summer. Hampl, an accomplished teacher and writer, is surely no slacker, and she understands that work is important for a fulfilled life.
But in middle age, she’s learning the value of time apart from the grind of appointments and to-do lists, too. “This isn’t sloth, it isn’t laziness,” she tells readers. “It isn’t even exhaustion. It is a late-arriving awareness of consciousness existing for its own purpose, rippling with contentment and curiosity.”
Walter Isaacson, of New Orleans, sounds a similar theme in his recent biography of Leonardo da Vinci. Unstructured time, Isaacson argues, helped the famed artist and inventor succeed. “Get distracted,” Isaacson recommends. “Leonardo’s willingness to pursue whatever shiny subject caught his eye made his mind richer and filled with more connections.”
No one in our family seems to be a Leonardo da Vinci in the making. But maybe Isaacson’s real point is that an unscheduled moment is a masterpiece even a simpler soul can embrace.
Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter @Danny_Heitman.