Patricia Hampl laughs and says, “I have a list.”
We’re talking over the phone about that bane of modern life, the to-do list, she in the kitchen of her St. Paul, Minnesota, home and me in Chicago in my own kitchen. I’ve just mentioned that interviewing her is on my to-do list for the day.
It’s humorous because the subject of our conversation is her new book The Art of the Wasted Day (Viking, $26) which is about daydreaming, the antithesis of list-making. It’s about how rich life is when one focuses, at least part of the time, on being rather than on doing.
The idea of constantly doing something, of always accomplishing something, seems to be woven into the American DNA. Indeed, as Hampl, a critically hailed essayist, poet and memoir writer, notes in her book, the Declaration of Independence promises the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Which means that, while life and liberty are guaranteed, happiness isn’t, only the job of seeking it.
“The essential American word isn’t happiness. It’s pursuit,” she writes.
Over the phone, she expands on this: “Any form of rest in our culture is seen as sloth — not just bad behavior, but close to sin.”
In fact, when Hampl was a young Catholic girl growing up in St. Paul, she discovered that, according to “The Baltimore Catechism,” daydreaming was a sin. She didn’t care, though, daydreamer that she already was. She writes:
“Daydreaming doesn’t make things up. It sees things. Claims things, twirls them around, takes a good look. Possesses them. Embraces them. Makes something of them. Makes sense. Or music. How restful it is, how full of motion.”
A few pages later, she touches on the often-frenetic efforts that modern-day Americans pursue in their search for happiness— the yoga classes, the meditation sessions, the purchases of probiotic foods — and suggests an alternative:
“How about just giving up? Giving up the habit of struggle. Maybe it’s a matter of giving over. To what? Perhaps what an earlier age called ‘the life of the mind,’ that phrase I fastened on to describe the sovereign self at ease, at home in the world when I decided to embrace that key occasion of sin — the daydream. Happiness redefined as looking out the window and taking things in — not pursuing them.”
The Art of the Wasted Day is a memoir of Hampl’s meandering reflections on the treasure that idleness and openness can be as well as the insights of such daydreaming luminaries as Walt Whitman, “that model lounger”; Gregor Mendel, the monk who founded of the modern science of genetics; and Hampl’s hero, Michel de Montaigne, the 16th century French essayist.
While it’s not the sort of self-help book that provides 10 easy steps for getting your life back on track by tearing up your to-do list, Hampl’s book suggests, in its elliptical, lollygagging way, an approach to life that has to do with rising above — or putting to the side — all the busyness that engulfs all of us.
When Hampl suggests wasting time, she’s not talking about filling hours with mind-numbing surfing on the internet or binge-watching television or shopping for the sake of having something to do. Instead, it’s about being still, being aware, about hearing sounds, really hearing them, about seeing what is in front of your eyes, about being open to what one thinks and remembers and feels. The whole range of emotions, even sadness.
“I liked having him around”
The Art of the Wasted Day was the result of a lot of daydreaming by Hampl, and, in the midst of the project, her husband of 27 years, Terrence Williams, died unexpectedly of heart failure. Although he’d been ill, “we thought we could keep him running,” Hampl says.
Later, when she got back to her book, she found that she was incorporating him into the text, most often by directly addressing him as if he were there hearing her tell her story. “It wasn’t planned that he would be part of it,” she explains. “I just liked having him around again.”
Hampl tells me that she made a conscious decision not to discuss the details of his death in the book. His entry into the book, she explains, was through her own daydreaming, her being face-to-face with his absence and her desire to remember him as he was and as he would have been if still alive, the two of them engaged in the normal give-and-take of being a couple.
“A kind of floating”
“What happens with this kind of daydreaming,” she says, “is a kind of float, a kind of floating.” It’s beyond simple happiness or sadness. It’s an openness to the fullness of life, the vastness of life.
It is “just being — the float of being.”
Patrick T. Reardon