Power Lounging

Power Lounging

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Reader's Choice 20th Anniversary Edition

Power Lounging

Take rest; a field that has rested gives a bountiful crop.

~Ovid

I used to think of Sisyphus as the patron saint of workaholics, one of whom I provisionally consider myself to be, though more out of economic necessity than compulsion. That is, freelance writing is a heavy stone, and demands a steady labor to keep it rolling.

Lately, though, I feel I’ve been overlooking the true instruction of Sisyphus’s life, which is that each time his great grindstone rolls to the bottom of the mountain, he is granted a rest while he walks back down to retrieve it. Though he must work for all time, according to the myth, he does not work all the time.

Nor, I decided recently, should I.

Having completed a book that took me fifteen months of twelve-hour days, I suddenly hit a wall I had never hit as a working man and a freelance writer — burnout. The thought of doing another day’s work on anything even remotely related to the machinations of career-building, income-producing or generally “getting ahead” was nearly enough to buckle me at the knees. As it was, in the waning days of the book project, I pulled myself up to my desk each morning as if to a chin-up bar.

After such an intemperance of work, no trip seemed too extravagant or protracted, no binge too vulgar, no amount of goofing off too unreasonable.

So I decided to take a break. In fact, I decided to extend the spirit of Sabbath to outlandish proportions — by taking four months off, living off savings and for a brief period here in the middle of my work life, seeing what it would feel like to simply not work, to make time for the kind of creative idleness that an acquaintance of mine calls “power lounging.” For someone who had just finished a book about how to survive as a freelancer, taking a break of such duration seemed contrary to my own advice, but I simply had to do it.

Toward the end of the book project, in fact, I discovered that writers have their own patron saint, Saint Francis de Sales, who exhorts his flock to practice “simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.” And I felt that when the disparity between my work ethic and my desire for simplicity and balance grows too large, as it had during that year spent writing the book, then I begin to feel like a man with one foot on the dock and other foot on a boat that is slowly drifting out to sea.

What I needed was what people so obliquely refer to as space, a distance from what was pressing in on me, a penetrating quiet inside. And I needed to hold that silence up to my ears, like an empty shell, and listen to the roar of my own life. I needed time to reacquaint myself with some non-work modes of expression, to open myself to some of the things that gave me joy as a child, to savor the benediction of play, to read a novel again — and to await further instructions.

And I wanted time, unencumbered by economic concerns, to experiment with my writing — a luxury I rarely grant myself when on the treadmill of earning a living — and by doing so to make out what direction my writing wanted to take next, and where I was willing to be led.

When I told a colleague what I planned to do now that the book was done, he asked, “What are you, rich?”

“No,” I replied. “Desperate.”

The first phase of my vocational celibacy was marked by the postpartum depression that followed the delivery of the book. A big project, to say nothing of a lifetime of working, generates a tremendous momentum that doesn’t end just because the work ends. It’s a bit like a head-on collision. The car stops, but the passenger doesn’t.

This seemed to set the tone for my entire sabbatical: a delicious and bewildering freedom marked by a maddening restlessness that routinely propelled me back into my office as if in a trance, despite my policy statements to the contrary. There I would sit for sometimes hours, twisting slowly back and forth on my chair and pulling anxiously at my lower lip, listening to the blathering traffic of noises in my head, while my legs vibrated like tuning forks.

“This is what it must be like when men retire,” my partner Robin declared after a morning of watching me pace around the house aimlessly, opening the refrigerator half a dozen times.

The pull of work, the rhythm of the nine-to-five world, exerts a force that is nearly tidal in its irresistibility. Cut off from it, I felt adrift. This was exacerbated by being in a profession in which there is such a thin, porous line between life and work. Simply to be a writer is to always be at work. Vacations turn into assignments, lunches with friends become interviews. I study movies instead of just enjoying them, and my office is at home. As a writer, to be is to do, and without a clear sense of where one leaves off and the other begins, it is almost impossible to punch out.

Thus, unconsciously and instinctively, I began reestablishing order, ebb and flow, routine. Before I knew it, I had managed to fill half my time with busyness that looked suspiciously like business: sending manuscripts out to magazines, doing market research, feeling behind, worrying about what would happen when the four months were up. I felt as though I were cheating on a fast, or taking my briefcase with me on vacation.

What I began to realize with crackling clarity is that I come from a long line of doers, starting with a workaholic family that hardwired me to excel, to stay on top of things, to expect that hard work and material wealth would put me in line to receive the key to the cosmic washroom. On his deathbed, my grandfather asked my mother what day it was. “Tuesday,” she said.

“Pay the gardener,” he instructed her.

His obituary was like most others, betraying the compulsive preoccupation with work, and helping me to understand why I had such a devil of a time not working. Obituaries are little more than posthumous résumés, lists of accomplishments: books authored, titles held, military ranks attained, degrees earned. They are summary statements of our lives, testaments to what we hold in esteem, and there are no hallelujahs for idleness, for time spent with family, for afternoons given over to long, dreamy walks.

Droning away in the boiler room of the culture is a juggernaut of a machine, one that heaves out a message strong enough to pump cement through my veins: Work! Value adheres to what I produce, so I’m constantly doing. And when I’m busy doing, I don’t have to be busy feeling — feeling that maybe I’m burned out, that I need a change, or that my work, which normally offers me a sense of control over my life, has instead made my life feel like a parody of being in control, like I’m frantically trying to shovel coal into a furnace that’s burning it up faster and faster.

About a month into my leave of absence from writing, I had a dream that was to prove pivotal. A Zen monk gave me a large block of wood to sand down to nothing. As I neared the end, and began to look forward to the project’s completion, the monk came back and took my sandpaper away, telling me to use only my fingernails. The point, he said, was the process, not the goal. Every life ends the same way, I understood him to be implying — the hero always dies — so why be in such a hurry to get to the finish line.

With that dream, something shifted inside me, and I became determined to not only take the full time off, but to use it well — to return the free to freelancing. Although it was a tremendous discipline to not be disciplined and goal-oriented, to stop looking for work, to stop feeling like I was wasting time (when really it is time that is wasting me), I slowly began immersing myself in the kind of activities I had originally intended for my sabbatical.

The day after the dream, I succumbed to the lazy lure of a spring afternoon spent in my own backyard, watching the shadows of clouds bend in the folds of the hills, the hawks and vultures sweep into view on long, slow arcs, the tomcats stalk birds in the low branches of the fig. And for a brief spell I was released from being pinned to the ground by the gravity of my endeavors.

Over the next three months, as the days flicked by like white lines on the freeway, I took great long walks by the sea and in the forests, lost myself in epic novels, wrote poetry again, traveled, and stopped postponing jury duty. I went surfing, joined a men’s group, got to know my friends better, and even did my exercises with greater observance, not so grimly and perfunctorily. I felt expansive and that life was full of possibilities.

I not only discovered that I can stop work for months at a time and my life doesn’t crumble, but that having my nose to the grindstone, my ear to the ground, and my shoulder to the wheel is, for long periods of time, not the most comfortable position. Sometimes lying in the bathtub is.

As my time off drew to a close, and I prepared to reenter the world of work, to start writing in earnest again, I felt as I usually do at the end of vacations: not ready to come back, but renewed nonetheless. And though I saw that I’m not quite the master of my fate that I claim to be, I also realized that my life utterly belongs to me, and that it is meant to be savored and not just worked at.

~Gregg Levoy

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