5. Make Room for “Fruitful Monotony”

russellThis is topic #5 in my year-long project, drawn from this post on Brain Pickings. Topic #1 focused on cultivating honest relationships, #2 was about experiencing what is actually happening, #3 was about being patient and loving the questions, #4 was about the moral weight of the stories we tell, and this one is about the detrimental effect of passive entertainment on happiness.

As always, I begin with the relevant excerpt from the Brain Pickings post:

“In a chapter titled ‘Boredom and Excitement,’ Russell teases apart the paradoxical question of why, given how central it is to our wholeness, we dread boredom as much as we do. Long before our present anxieties about how the age of distraction and productivity is thwarting our capacity for presence, he writes:

We are less bored than our ancestors were, but we are more afraid of boredom. We have come to know, or rather to believe, that boredom is not part of the natural lot of man, but can be avoided by a sufficiently vigorous pursuit of excitement.


As we rise in the social scale the pursuit of excitement becomes more and more intense.

Many decades before our present concerns about screen time, he urges parents to allow children the freedom to experience “fruitful monotony,” which invites inventiveness and imaginative play — in other words, the great childhood joy and developmental achievement of learning to “do nothing with nobody all alone by yourself.” He writes:

The pleasures of childhood should in the main be such as the child extracts from his environment by means of some effort and inventiveness… A child develops best when, like a young plant, he is left undisturbed in the same soil. Too much travel, too much variety of impressions, are not good for the young, and cause them as they grow up to become incapable of enduring fruitful monotony.

I do not mean that monotony has any merits of its own; I mean only that certain good things are not possible except where there is a certain degree of monotony… A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow processes of nature, of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.

The more I engage in this project, the more curious I become about Maria Popova, creator of Brain Pickings — and not just because of the 16 choices she made, but also of how she chose to summarize each one. “Make room for fruitful monotony” is taken directly from Russell’s words; the central comparison he thinks about is this:

Boredom, however, is not to be regarded as wholly evil. There are two sorts, of which one is fructifying, while the other is stultifying. The fructifying kind arises from the absence of drugs, and the stultifying kind from the absence of vital activities.

So he’s saying to make room for the kind of boredom that comes when you don’t take drugs? My understanding, after reading the whole chapter (included at the bottom of this post if you want to read it — and it’s often quite funny!), is that his real concern is the stultifying kind of boredom. In this chapter, Russell thinks through the importance of not filling every moment with passive entertainment. If you spend too much of your time in that kind of stultifying boredom, you lose something essential. He thinks it’s especially important for children, and I agree.

But no matter how old we are, don’t we all talk about wanting to put down our phones, get offline, turn off the television? I think he would be appalled by the way we’re now so completely tethered to our electronic devices, and I doubt too many of us would disagree. Setting aside the way we are left disconnected from other human beings, and setting aside the health effects of all the sitting and absorbing passive entertainment, his concern is that it leads to unhappiness. And I think it does too — he’s right, even if it’s sometimes hard to step away from the electronic world. In the chapter he says that we are so afraid of boredom that we pursue excitement relentlessly, and that “certain good things are not possible except where there is a certain degree of monotony.” Poetry, art, creation, insight, we distract ourselves away from the quiet monotony that gives rise to these possibilities. Russell sees this outcome:

“…a generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow processes of nature, of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.”

YES. Little men. He makes a frequent connection to the earth, to nature, as a source of experiences that energize and create happiness, and again I think he’s right. It’s kind of like we’re setting ourselves up to become smaller and smaller and smaller: we stare at screens inside our homes, absorbing ‘entertainment’ created by other people, and often uncritically. We become mole people. For myself, when I’ve done that too long — easy to do, since my work is on the computer and I work most waking minutes — I end up feeling hollow and soul-empty. Time whizzes past and it’s gone and I don’t even remember how I spent it. In the very rare time I have a break from work and just have a day to spend however I wish, I get so much more bang for my buck by being in silence and away from electronics. The hours are so slow and thick, and my pleasure in spending them is palpable. I end the day with a very deep satisfaction and happiness, always.

You know how when you’re thinking about something, you start seeing it in a variety of places? I’m reading Per Petterson’s stunning Out Stealing Horses and came across this passage. His elderly protagonist, Trond, had just moved to an isolated cabin in the wilderness:

“I did not bring a television set out here with me, and I regret it sometimes when the evenings get long, but my idea was that living alone you can soon get stuck to those flickering images and to the chair you will sit on far into the night, and then time merely passes as you let others do the moving. I do not want that. I will keep myself company.”

(I’m sure I’ll write about this book, it’s so beautiful and a meditation on the past and trauma.) Anyway, I have more things I want to do than time to do them (c’mon lottery!!), but I do slip into a rut of electronic background distraction now and then. It happens much less often since I undertook my anti-flailing project 18 months ago and accidentally started doing only one thing at a time, but I can still slip into the multitasking habit if I’m not paying attention and what pulls me out of it is the awareness of feeling bad — ah! No wonder!

How often are you at home without the television going? Without music playing? With your phone and computer put away? How often are you in silence? NEVER? Is that how often? I wonder what would happen if you did that for one hour. Does the idea make you nervous? I suspect it makes many people nervous, and for a similar reason that meditation makes people nervous — having to come face to face with yourself in a sustained way, OY.

To me, this one feels like a real resolution, like a deepening understanding of something I’ve been working with already. So to date, my understanding of the five ‘resolutions’ I’ve been thinking about is:

  1. Cultivate honest relationships.
  2. Experience what is actually happening.
  3. Be patient, and live and love the questions.
  4. The stories you choose to tell have great moral weight.
  5. Be alone with yourself, without distraction.

And now I’m off to topic #6, “Refuse to play the perfection game” by the most excellent Ursula K. Le Guin, whose thoughts on this issue are not just inspirational, they’re quite moving.

OH! And by the way, I found the whole text of the Russell book online here, and in case you want to read the chapter yourself, you’ll find it below:

Continue reading “5. Make Room for “Fruitful Monotony””

silence and thinking

So obviously I’m having a hard time coming here to write. I think the truth is that I’m in a bit of discomfort with an unexpected consequence of the changes I made more than a year ago. Most of the consequences have been remarkable, and positive, and self-reinforcing. But you know what’s really weird? The quiet inside me doesn’t feel uniformly good. Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising — nothing is uniformly one thing — but still, it surprises me.

I’ve been waiting, letting this discomfort be, because for all I know it’s just that I’m not used to peace! I’m not, that’s true. So prolonged periods of peace and quiet make my nerve endings start to itch just a little bit. I don’t want to stir up trouble, it isn’t that; it’s more like I’m waiting for that shoe to drop, the one that hangs over my head like a piano dangling on a hair-width thread. I’ve been just letting this discomfort be as I adjust to this new version of normal. Of course the shoe drops in everyone’s life, and it will drop again in mine, and that is just the truth of the world. Just like breathing, and loving, and laughing.

Another aspect of it is that inner quiet, in my life’s experience, has come along with the black dog of depression. One version of it brings a blank mind, a blank heart, that kind of bleak emptiness that isn’t the huge pain of other versions, but is its own kind of pain. I’m not depressed, but that quiet has always been part of that depression — so I have also been just letting it be so I can learn a new association with it, break the link that inner quiet EQUALS depression. I wondered if, with enough time, I wouldn’t still have that whispered wondering . . . no, my quiet is just quiet. It isn’t that depression is slouching around in the corners. It’s just quiet.

And maybe it’s also just so incredibly new, even as it’s been part of my inner make-up for just over a year now. So in a 57-year life, one year has been quiet inside, but the other 56 were thrashing! I have so much experience with a frenzied inner life, a racing mind, and only one year of experience with this quiet. Just because it’s generally good, that doesn’t mean it’s immediately and happily incorporated. It’s like walking around with a quiet little pea in my shoe.

So I feel unsettled a little bit. I still feel suspicious of it, a little bit. I frown, turn my head slightly and squint my eyes out of the left corner as if I can get a closer look. What is this? My old-style thoughts arise, thoughts I have neurotically chased around trees, around and around and around, but they now seem obvious, already understood, trivial, temporary, unimportant, whatever. Bubbles.

I have a couple of little thoughts to share, recommendations, etc., so here goes:

  • Make this recipe immediately. Use fresh corn on the cob if it’s available — in a pinch you can use frozen, if it’s winter for instance, but the fresh corn really makes it. Fresh lime juice. Good avocados. Cilantro. Red peppers. Olive oil. Black beans. Garlic and shallots. My goodness. Everyone I make it for goes nuts for it (not my recipe, I just follow the instructions), and it’s so so easy to make. You can also add some sliced cherry tomatoes if you like, I’ve done that and it’s good, but all the variations I’ve tried have not improved the original recipe. I’m not even a fan of red bell pepper but it’s so great in this recipe. Dang. And yum.
  • I always feel a bit anxious saying something about “who I am” because it might just be my little fantasy of who I am, and maybe your eyes will grow wide and you’ll think, seriously?? You are the opposite of that! I thought about this when I saw a man I know post something on Facebook about how being a gentleman is a matter of choice, and he makes that choice every day. Eyes wide, right here. I met him when I first moved to Austin and was as devastated as I could be. We met in a social group and he started hitting on me, HARD, and I told him I was only looking for friends, absolutely nothing more. He agreed and said he was too, and then he went right back to groping me. And every time we were in the same space he groped me. Once he just showed up at my house uninvited and unannounced. Perhaps we just have different meanings for that word. (But seriously, if I ever do that, just nudge me and say, “eyes wide right here” or something.)
a glimpse of the timeline view
a glimpse of the timeline view
  • I have a fabulous gratitude app to recommend! It’s called DayOne, and it’s free, and I’ve used it for the last 229 days, ever since Laura recommended it to me. I loved the old one I used, but the site closed down. One thing I love about DayOne is that, since it’s a phone app, you have the ease of adding a photo to each day’s entry. The photo doesn’t necessarily have to be the thing you’re noting gratitude for, of course (took me a long time to realize that, silly). You can also tag each entry, so if, for instance, I want to see all the posts I’ve written noting gratitude for Katie, I can tap that tag and see them one after another. It’s fantastic, no kidding.

My bad tummy the whole time in NYC was probably due to the fact that I ate 30 pounds of Marc’s amazing homemade pickles. Plus two pounds of his gravlax. And otherwise, I ate nothing but enormous raw salads — his Greek salad three times, huge chunks of cucumbers and tomatoes and onions, with dill and pepperoncinis and olive oil and kalamatas, and feta; his amazing Caesar salad twice, with homemade dressing, that coddled egg, lots of garlic, and fresh parmigiana, and anchovy, and olive oil. Morning green smoothies, yeah, but otherwise it was just lots and lots of cucumbers in various forms. (Seriously, I ate 30 pounds of pickles. I’m not kidding about that.)

Aside from that, here are a few pictures of the last few days of my life:

driving home from Dallas under that huge blue sky
I just never, ever get tired of a Texas sky. Never.
after all the pickles, it’s a relief to juice — this was carrots, cucumbers, celery, ginger, strawberries, and a dash of turmeric.
the reason for my quick round-trip to Dallas — lunch with my beautiful, dear Dixie and her daughter and grandchildren. Plus her husband, taking the picture, and her father-in-law. It was a table full of beauty. (And aren’t I a giant?)

OK, so HI, I’ve missed you, I’ve missed wanting and needing to write, and I hope you’re having a good Saturday. Hope to write again soon. xoxoxoxoL

stepping back with intention

it really does feel like this inside me
it really does feel like this inside me right now.

I don’t mean stepping back from writing here on my blog, though it has been very quiet here for quite a while now. For a while now, it seems like all I’ve had to say was that the changes I’ve been making are so very good. And they still are, and it’s quite still in my mind, like a deep clear lake. Occasional small ripples from a breeze, not more. Big blue skies above, reflecting on that lake. It’s wonderful, and I share this post in case any piece of it is useful for you.

The style of yoga I do is vinyasa, which focuses on the breath and coordinating it with a flow of poses. It feels quite beautiful to do it (and at the same time I’m glad there isn’t a mirror nearby to show me what I actually look like doing it…), and I am enjoying feeling and seeing my muscles change, become toned, work more smoothly. Vinyasa relies on a specific kind of breathing called ujjayi pranayama, and it makes a bit of sound. It’s like whispering in your breath, there in the back of your throat. It’s a long, deep breath, in, out, coordinated with the poses, which are typically arranged for the in-breath then out-breath. Breathing is something I’ve always had trouble with, as in I forget to do it and I do very tiny little shallow breaths when I do breathe. It turned out to be a great thing that it was vinyasa yoga that drew me in, because this focus on the breath and this specific kind of conscious breathing has helped me off the mat, too. (It’s fascinating the way each little thing ripples out so far.)

My morning ritual has expanded a bit too, and while it’s much harder to maintain in NYC, it makes me so happy and starts my day so beautifully in Austin I’m more determined to find a way to do it there. (There are so many fantastic things about living alone, I’m telling you!) My alarm goes off at 6:30 and I lie in bed stretching a little bit and thinking about what I want to accomplish in my day — but not in a to-do list way. Here’s an example from yesterday, when my to-do list included making a carrot cake, washing my hair, working for several hours, and going to Katie’s house for Halloween night. What I wanted to accomplish, though, was to enjoy making that cake, enjoy the fantastic smells of fresh grated ginger, carrots, pecans toasting. Enjoy the transformation of ingredients into a gorgeous batter. Be present on my yoga mat. Just be there for Oliver’s first Halloween, my mind and heart there, with my family, present. Relish the giving of some carrot cupcakes to my most wonderful friends Nancy and Bob, just a little bit of pleasure for me and for them. That’s what I thought about yesterday morning before I got out of bed.

the dropdown box shows some of the kinds of classes
the dropdown box shows some of the kinds of classes; click to enlarge if you’re interested.

Then I stood up, did some long body stretches reaching my arms up, leaning back, moving my shoulders. Drank some room temperature water with lemon squeezed in. Brushed my teeth, changed into my yoga clothes, and went to the mat. If you are interested in developing a yoga practice at home, I can’t recommend YogaGlo enough; it’s the best $18 I spend every month. SO many classes for all levels of ability, for so many durations (all the way from a 5-minute session to some that are 120 minutes long), dozens of teachers and a variety of styles. And you can combine filters to see just the classes that might work — a level 2, 15-minute, working on balance session, for instance. The 30-minute practice I did yesterday morning was a reverse energizing flow, kind of GENIUS. It started lying on the mat for a few minutes, the way most sessions end. And slowly, slowly, the poses required a bit more. Lying down, then some lying-down twists, then some hands and knees, then some lunges, then sun salutations. By the time my little practice ended, my heart was working and I felt so ready to get going. And it was just after 7am. Most mornings I just do a 10- or 15-minute practice in the morning, but yesterday I had time and wanted to do more since I was not sure I’d do a longer one when when I got home much later in the evening.

That gets my day off on just such a beautiful note. My body is warm and I’ve decided to take care of myself and my world, just for that day; I know what matters to me for that day; any kinks and hurts are helped, if not removed. After that I make my beautiful pot of French press coffee (oh the sound of the beans grinding, the sound of cold water going into the kettle, the smell of the grounds, and then the plunging…oh, and the drinking 🙂 ) and get to work.

I also developed a nightly ritual that means a lot to me. Sitting on my mat, I hold my singing bowl in my palm and tap it, feeling the vibration in my hand. When the vibration dissolves, I place it on its little pillow and meditate for at least 10 minutes. I close that little practice with another gong on my bowl and then place it on the shelf. Make-up removed, teeth brushed and flossed and mouthwashed, house (and mind) settled for the night (locks checked, lights out, thermostat set, ceiling fan on), and I tuck myself in. Bedside lamp off, no television or cell phone, and a bit of Kindle reading until I fall asleep. It’s a quiet and peaceful routine and I go to sleep with everything cared for and in its place.

This quiet and stillness is helping me step back and think about what I want to do next. I have a book idea, a non-fiction book, and I’m putting the pieces together in my mind, at the high level. My life is about to get very busy — my birthday next week, a long 4-day weekend to Chicago to see Marnie and Tom, back to Austin for 3 days then off to New York for a few days, then off to Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, and I won’t be home until December 9. And then, of course, the holidays. So I’m not expecting a product of any kind from myself, I’m allowing myself the time to mull and ponder, the space for something new to arise, and the pleasure of the process.

It’s the first of November, another year is starting its slow winding-down, its settling-in, its immersion into quietude (well, in the northern hemisphere anyway). I love this time of year and hope you are finding some peace and pleasure of your own, however it may look. xo


Lately, as this astonishing period of peace and happiness just keeps going and going and going, I’ve found myself a little itchy. So I sat with that, wondering if it was something about needing a little trouble, just a little, because I’m so used to living with trouble. I hoped that wasn’t the case, I really did. I’ve known people who seemed to have to stir things up all the time, and I never thought I was one of those but you know, sometimes you can be the last to know things about yourself. At least that’s true for me.

we kinda revel when it rains
we kinda revel when it rains

And then several days ago it was a luscious day for those of us in drought-stricken Texas. At least in Austin, the temperature dropped 25-ish degrees and it rained, a slow and quenching rain, for a good part of the day. (And little did we know that would kick off several days of good rain, though never enough for a droughted region.) I felt re-energized by the rain and cooler weather in a particular way, and I realized what the itch was about: sameness. Every day our weather is exactly the same at this time of year: very very hot, no rain. Every day. Lots of sun. Beautiful blue skies filled with puffy white clouds. (I never get tired of that sky.) Every day my routine is the same, even if it’s differently the same in New York. But wherever I am during a two-week period, it’s exactly the same for that location. I’m feeling still and calm, and have been eating good food, doing yoga and meditation every day, the same. I see friends or family here and there, interspersed, but my days are the same, seven days a week.

So I think that itchy feeling was mostly about needing something different! Not bad, not trouble, just different. Really good information, because when I’m feeling that way now I know I should just mix things up — work in a coffee shop maybe. Go take an actual yoga class somewhere instead of just doing it at home. Nothing I can do about the Texas summer.

quiet, not bored. contemplative, not bored. happy, not bored.
quiet, but not bored. happy, and not bored.

I guess even a peaceful and happy rut is still a rut. It’s also true that the inner quiet and calm is a bit un-remarkable, by which I mean there is nothing to remark on. My experiences are not unremarkable, but I have nothing to grab my attention and get my anxieties flowing, and they are SHOCKED! SHOCKED, I TELL YOU! Except for the vague and general financial worries that all but the endlessly rich have (bubbles), and except for political worries we all have (bubbles), I have nothing to worry about. It’s very weird. I’m not complaining, not even a little bit. But it is weird. [not complaining…..]

My time in New York has been great so far — a trip to the Delaware Water Gap on Saturday, lots of walking around yesterday including a walk to Harlem and back. Lunch today with a friend, dinner on Thursday with a friend, and something fun next weekend, don’t know what yet. We were going to head out to the Delaware Water Gap next weekend but seized the pretty day on Saturday while we had it. Plenty of work this week, great twice-daily walks in Riverside Park, and peace and quiet and calm. The leaves are turning here, the light is lower and just a little weaker, the breeze carries a tiny bit of a nip. The wheel is turning.

it’s very nice being off the world!

solitude, so restorative
solitude, so restorative

Usually when I’m “off the world” it’s because I’m on the other side of the world, on vacation. But last Friday, when I finished work for the day, I stepped off all by myself. And it was wonderful. I wasn’t completely off the world, of course. I got a wonderful haircut Saturday afternoon (if you’re in Austin, this is the place — go see Natalie. Best haircut I have ever gotten, ever.). I talked to Marnie on Saturday, as usual; I had a bunch of back and forth with Katie; Lynn called and Cyndi called with good news.

Otherwise, it was just me alone in my house. The weather was kind of glum, needing to rain but it just wouldn’t, so I was happy to stay indoors. I kept the television off — usually it’s background noise, but it marks the time in such a fast way. Half-hour gone. Half-hour gone. Half-hour gone. Day, gone. I made a few playlists of quiet music for those times music would be good, but I spent a lot of time in silence. Boy did I need that.

One thing I wanted to do was get my house clean. It was all brand new when I moved in so it was shiny and unspoiled, and while I’ve kept it clean and neat I haven’t really done deep cleaning. So Friday I hunkered down and got the whole house clean. By the time I was finished, it was late to make dinner so I had a glass of wine and some cheese and crackers. A nice finish to a busy day. Over the weekend, though,  I made some REALLY good food, boy:

Miso and Soba Noodle Soup with Roasted Sriracha Tofu and Shiitake Mushrooms
Miso and Soba Noodle Soup with Roasted Sriracha Tofu and Shiitake Mushrooms

Here’s the recipe for the soup; it’s very simple, but a lot of steps. ALL WORTH IT. That was my Saturday supper. Sunday morning I got up and made my dinner because it needed to spend the day getting all married and flavorful. At the last minute I added the avocados.

Black Bean Salad with Corn, Red Peppers and Avocado in a Lime-Cilantro Vinaigrette
Black Bean Salad with Corn, Red Peppers and Avocado in a Lime-Cilantro Vinaigrette

Holy cow did that have a lot of flavor. There’s a bit of cayenne in the salad (I added twice as much as the recipe called for). Here’s the recipe — just wonderful, and simple. The most complicated part was boiling the corn and cutting it off the cob.

I wrote a lot. I read a lot. I made things. I meditated. I did some yoga. I took a long hot bath with lavender salts. I made some little floor blankets and bibs for Oliver, since I loved doing that kind of machine quilting for his giant quilt. I ordered the little foot I needed for my machine and I was off to the races.

quilting in progress
quilting in progress
finished stack of baby goodies
finished stack of baby goodies

And then last night, as my weekend retreat at home drew to an end, I lit the fire, made a pot of tea, pulled out Gracie’s quilt which is unfinished, and watched Top of the Lake on Netflix. I’d been uneasy about finishing her quilt for a lot of reasons, but after talking to Katie and Trey I suddenly understood that I did need and want to finish it. And sitting there in the quiet, after my beautiful weekend, it all made sense to me in a deep way. I quilted her name into the quilt, and it felt like my way of saying goodbye to her and leaving some of my own beauty and love for her in the world. It’s my way of loving Gracie after being fully ready for our sweet Oliver, whose arrival is imminent.

handquilting, still and always my favorite handwork
hand quilting, still and always my favorite handwork

I heartily recommend taking a weekend just for yourself. Yours will look very different from mine. I feel like a new person as this busy week gets off to its start. Happy Monday, everyone. xo