Sunday, August 02, 2009

Burnin' Daylight

As read in today's edition of Small Town Newspaper:

My daughter and I were floating around in the pool the other day, and we remarked to each other that we were spoiled. It was a sunny day in July, the birds were singing, a pleasant breeze was brushing over the tops of our heads and we were doing nothing more than relaxing with a book in hand.

Since then, I’ve been wondering why it is we think we’re spoiled. Is it because not everyone has a pool to enjoy? Or is it because not everyone has time to laze around on an afternoon, especially during a recession when people are scrambling to work as many hours as possible just to cover the basics? Or maybe our slight sense of guilt runs deeper than that, and the Midwestern work ethic I learned as a child is so engrained in us that not spending every waking moment in productive activity seems wrong?

My father used to employ various phrases to wake his daughters in the morning. On some days, he would knock on our bedroom doors and yell, “Get up, you lazy bums! You’re not worth a dime.” Sometimes our value would be compared to a plug nickel, which is apparently worth less than a regular nickel. On other days, he would knock and then shout, “Get up, girls! You’re burnin’ daylight.”

This admonition to not waste daylight, as if laboring from dawn to dusk is some kind of moral imperative, suggests anyone who doesn’t work while the sun is up is not pulling his weight or serving his purpose.

I believed that for the longest time, that people were meant to work and that just enjoying the day without earning your keep was a sign of laziness. But in my middle age, I have come to a different conclusion. I have decided that idle hands are not the devil’s tools after all, and that sitting—or floating in a pool—in quiet contemplation can be as productive as completing just another task on a long list of tasks.

Reading a book is as valuable an activity as toting that barge, and sitting quietly in order to imagine or daydream the way only humans can is as legitimate a pastime as lifting that bale. It has taken me some time to come to this conclusion so that, finally, relaxing during the day no longer seems offensive, although knitting is still reserved for restful evening hours. I am learning that we are more than our jobs, and time spent not earning money does not need to be justified.

Compared to citizens of other developed nations, Americans spend far less time in leisure or on vacation. We average two weeks vacation a year, and those weeks aren’t mandatory so that if we are offered them by our bosses, many of us don’t take the time off. We claim we can’t afford to take vacation time, or we fear we'll lose our jobs if we don’t prove our exceptional diligence.

Citizens of EU countries, on the other hand, are given a mandatory four weeks vacation a year—time to spend with their families, to recharge and to pursue interests beyond employment.

For all of our extra hours of work, Americans are no more productive and no happier. In poll after poll, we describe ourselves as being more discontented and tired and worried about the future compared to our counterparts across the ocean.

Not everyone can have a pool in his own yard, and not everyone can take an afternoon in the middle of the week to do nothing but read a book or think out loud or completely empty his mind of troublesome worries. But everyone can find time, even just a moment’s worth each day, to sit still and to breath in and out and to do nothing but exist.

Maybe we’d be a healthier and more satisfied bunch if we redefined what daylight is for, and if we understood that burning it doesn’t mean you’re necessarily wasting your time even if you’re just floating. And maybe allowing for a break now and then, even in the middle of the day, is not something worthy of guilt but worth every dime in the bank.


kyle@sift said...

Most of us spend our leisure time catching up on all the things we can't do when we are at work. Cleaning, mowing, tending the garden, laundry and the list goes on....I haven't had a vacation in nearly nine years. But then there are days when we float around in the pool, hike in the woods, lay in the hammock or run barefoot at dusk, chasing the fireflies...and all the stuff we should be doing will still be there when we get back.

Lynn said...

It must be the pool rather than the time, Robyn, since if we had the pool, we'd move heaven and earth to find the time.

Lucky you! Not spoiled, just having some well deserved Robyn time. Lovely.

Your descriptions, the personal ones, are so interesting. I've always thought a harsh wake-up call is not kind and unnecessary. I continue as I did when my boys were tiny and still go in to them with a welcoming drink, sometimes breakfast and a very soft "Wake up, darling, it's ... o'clock." One shouldn't wake to noise or jolts, I feel. :) There is enough stress in the world...

Lynn said...

Ha ha I've just remembered one exception though. My son had to get up and kept falling asleep when I left the room. In the end, I put his computer on and switched his playlist to mine. Enduring Celine Dion, Savage Garden and Frank Sinatra got him up pretty quickly!

RoverHaus said...

The only thing I like better than your perspective on this is the fact that you have a respected platform in your local paper in which to share it.

What is interesting to me is how the leisure enjoyers are loathed by the folks still under the false impression that they have to work their lives away.

I'm glad you are enjoying life. And no, you're not spoiled!

MmeBenaut said...

This wonderful piece really resonated with me, Robyn. I so often feel guilty when I spend time at the computer instead of toting that bale, even when my pain limits have been exceeded. I don't live like an invalid, yet medically I'm classified as one. I guess I've just become accustomed to pain being part of my life and I can't sit while there is work to be done. Perhaps that is why I enjoyed my snow holiday so much. No cleaning or cooking, just skiing, sitting in the hot tub, eating, talking, reading, enjoying the delightful "silence" of the snow.