A friend of mine, a magazine editor, told me recently how difficult she found it to leave her job behind. We were sitting in a restaurant in downtown Manhattan, and she was aware that she was constantly noticing the clientele, the décor, seeing if there was any angle that might work for a piece in her magazine. She longed to be able to sit down at a table without her work, to have a conversation with a friend that promised no more than the pleasure of their company. Yet her mind wouldn't let her agenda go.
We each in our own ways have an agenda. We are all lobbyists for our own cause, our own opinions, aspirations, status, or career. While there's nothing wrong with getting ahead, whatever that may mean, it can also be an enormous relief now and then to lay down our own cause and enjoy wherever we find ourselves on its own terms.
You might think that all you need do to have no agenda and do nothing in particular is to allow yourself to sit down one morning in a spontaneous sort of way in the local café without looking at your watch. And, perhaps, to ask for a china cup.
It's true that the cup matters. It not only affects the coffee, it confers stability on your person. It means you are here to stay, at least in the short term. It means you are likely to be around for as much as the next half hour; that you are willing to be part of the quiet bustle and spectacle of the café terrasse. On a terrasse you are an observer and a participant at the same time, and you don't have to do anything for the privilege except to sit there. A café offers one of life's rare opportunities to happily do nothing in the company of others who are also doing nothing more useful than sipping coffee. American civic life could derive only benefit from switching to china, though I don't expect it to happen anytime soon.
Café life, without question, is one of the more enjoyable benefits of civilization. You can sit at your table for half an hour or more and watch the world go by, all for the price of a cup of coffee-or tea, if that is your preference. I know there's an irony in speaking of coffee and doing nothing in the same sentence; but the café isn't really about the coffee or tea at all. It's about the sitting there, hearing snatches of conversation, having your own thoughts, being aware of the other customers around you, watching the passerby, eavesdropping on the waiter's repartee.
Yet we are so good at being busy, we can even turn a cup of coffee into something to do. You may seem to be sitting there innocently sipping, but all the time you may be preoccupied with waiting: not just being there, but waiting for a certain amount of time to pass; waiting for your date, or for the train. Or you're busy sizing up the opposite sex. That may not seem far from doing nothing, but even so, it's not quite the same.
When you sit there and do nothing in particular at all-no waiting, no Palm Pilot, no cell phone, no agenda, nothing that will get you anywhere anytime soon-then a space can open up in your mind. Thoughts can float by without the habitual impulse to jump on their back and ride them for all they are worth. It may even happen that the taste of coffee gives way to the taste of yourself-the delicious relief of being-in-yourself.
It's not what you don't do...
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Outside there was the Louvre to visit, the Opera House to gaze at, that delicious sense of forgiveness that invades the mind in any great city away from home. I am typically full of curiosity and enthusiasm for the new, but that day I felt no movement in me to get dressed and open my door. I could hear the city of cities outside my window, the drone of traffic, the tolling of a distant bell, the sporadic shouts and cries of human voices.
I knew I could accuse myself of wasting time. I knew there was the beautiful Place des Vosges to visit just around the corner, the Seine to stroll along, the wonderful district of St. Germain to meander through. But none of it seemed worth getting out of the bath for. Not that day. I must have daydreamed of this and that, the way one might also do in a comfortable armchair in front of a warm log fire; but I don't remember a single thought of any significance that passed over me during that hour or so. No, mostly I was vacant. Not in a way that was unconscious, of half-asleep, but in a way that transferred the locus of my unconsciousness from my mind to my body. I became a floating, wrinkly breathing white body, with arms languishing along the roll top of the tub, toes flat against the end under the old chrome taps. It is a marvel, the human body, how it can lie there happily undisturbed for as long as you care to let it, soaking in the pleasure of hot water and an empty mind, empty and alive.
An hour in a bath may not be your idea of a good time, but the point is not the bath but the rested mind that, in my case, it gave rise to. We all have our own ways. It's not what you don't do, it's the way you don't do it.