The Reluctant “Day Waster”


Patricia Hampl in The Art of the Wasted Day invites us to consider leisure, as a way of being. Turn away from the “to do” list, electronic gadgets and simply daydream, think, provide space for not accomplishing anything. The chuta life is what she calls it (the cottage life) of weekends tending a garden, lying low, sketching the bird you see while sitting on a bench. Patricia seems to be inviting us to waste time, live this simpler life in the throes of our modern ones.

Waste is a loaded word for me. I don’t want to waste a thing. The thought of wasting a day seems like the opposite of what I am trying to do. I want to use them carefully.

But Patricia maintains that in regard to time, it will be fruitful for the creative life to give up our “to do lists” in favor of leisure, getting lost in thought. She wrote Baby Boomers Reach the End of Their To-Do List, an opinion piece for the New York Times that irritated a lot of us baby boomers who defend our lists.

I have the opportunity for this chuta life at our cabin in northern Wisconsin– a small interior space attached to a much large exterior of lawn, forest, and water. I just spent 10 days up there with my husband. No Internet, spotty cell reception.  I felt restless and panicky that I was leaving  behind too much of what I needed to do, that depended on  electronic connection, access to the communication, news and information that seems to be a basic requirement for living.  The emails will go unanswered, the newspapers unread in the driveway, the Facebook posts unliked, entire news cycles muted. Is it FOMO, (fear of missing out)?

My son and his girlfriend and our daughter from Chicago joined us for a few days and on their way spent the day at a coffee shop in Duluth with Wifi. It had to be dog friendly too, because K has a dog.  Granted, they had to work, but I couldn’t help but feel if only we had internet at the cabin they could have been here. Why not plug in, give over to that flashy fiber optic cable that lies waiting for connection just beyond our driveway that could make this magic happen?

I want it. But Patricia says no. Husband Phil says no. It is good to unplug, allow the mind to be free and open to fresh air, away from screens and to do lists. 

In her book, Patricia introduces us to this dreamy life through two Edwardian ladies who run away together to the wilds of Wales in pursuit of self-improvement. And they weren’t lollygagging, they were quite regimented. The ladies pursued the rural life by gardening, learning Italian and Spanish, drawing, writing letters, transcribing admired texts.  Patricia recounts a visit to her aunt who lived behind the “Iron Curtain.” Its restrictions allowed focus and mastery of the small pieces of daily life. They used expanses of time not to blunt oneself to simply endure limitations, but focused on the bounty of what is there. Apricots for perfecting a pastry, an afternoon for drinking wine under the trees, the fragrance of sitting in the grass at a picnic. She calls it the littleness of the moment. These little things blossomed into a beautiful life, a personal freedom available to each person.

That sounds good to me. But it isn’t easy to achieve in small snatches of time.

The trip to the cabin is 3 1/2 hours from home. We might stop at Duluth Grill for a late breakfast or early lunch, at the President’s service station to fill the gas can with non-oxygenated gasoline while I get a sandwich from the sub shop across the street, to share in the car. “Is it clear on the right?” Phil asks as we take the off ramp to the quieter route of Highway 13.   We watch out for hawks, Sandhill Cranes, wild turkeys in the flat farmish stretch. There are deer, cows, sometimes fox. I locate my favorite cabin, a red one that sits on a stretch of beach with only sand, sky and water. A place reminiscent of the seaside cottage Anne Morrow Lindbergh writes about in Gift from the Sea.

But somehow when we get here after unloading the cooler, tidying and putting away the items on the list from last time, I don’t flop in a chair and grab a book. Phil launches in to mowing or raking, stacking wood, checking on the seedlings to see if the deer have been at them. I usually take a walk, see what is blooming in the ditches and lawn and cut a few blossoms to take inside.

There is a push/pull between activity and rest. Some of it a should–the canoe on the slough on an afternoon such as this, how many more days will we have when the water is calm, no black flies to swat. A bike ride around the point would be good, after tires are pumped and water bottles found. Between solitary and social, making plans or staying open to what moves us at the moment. Should we have invited friends to join us?

It takes me a while. I don’t want to give up planning my time here. Trips to town for fresh fish? Mentally pairing it with the provisions we have, the potatoes we brought from home. I read a few pages of the book I brought, look out the window at the sandy strip along the cabin where Lady’s Mantle is spreading, the Horsetail and Clover springing up, some Viola that seeded itself from last year. I slip my feet into clogs and dig for my work gloves, pull a few weeds. Encouraged by how easily they slide out of the sandy soil. I uncover the thyme I planted near the thin chives.


I am beginning to understand what Phil finds here-this opportunity to tend a small patch, a place of one’s own. Where the view can be studied on a weathered glider. Being content to sit on the concrete apron of the garage and have smoked white fish from the wrapper and play a hand of cribbage without planning the next thing. Knowing it will simply unfold without a great deal of effort or fuss.  That we will find a rhythm that we can rely on to be here, without thinking too much about what came earlier or what to do next.

I did go to Washburn one afternoon after the kids left where there is a lovely brownstone library with free Wifi.  I sat at one of their computers and started a draft of this blog post. I checked out a couple of audio books that I can take home with me for four weeks. No fines, and if I need them longer I can just let them know.  The man took my name and tried to get me signed up for a library card, but the Internet was down.  I asked him if he was sure, if I could just take the books. He said “No problem. We can take care of it next time.”

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