"Nothing," said one.
"Have fun," said another.
"Fish," said the third.
I launched immediately into paranoid parenting mode. The specter of idle minds reared its ugly head. My kids would be slack-eyed dullards by summer's end, their mouths gaping, their brains turned to mush. Doing nothing would kill them as surely as a bullet to the head, I thought.
While their friends took computer classes, attended summer camp, played team sports and generally became model citizens, my kids would rot away in a stinkpot of lethargy.
"Chill, mom," they admonished me when I insisted they needed to enroll in something or else risk childhood dementia. "It's summer."
They were right, of course, to protect the last precious moments of lollygagging allowed them in this overdetermined life. This summer, one of them will spend nine weeks in Army basic training and will no doubt return with all traces of childhood and unoccupied summers erased. Another has a job, thankfully just a few hours a day. His brother will likely sleep most of the summer away. Family will visit us, and if we're lucky, we'll manage a day or two in the mountains. I will spend most of the summer working and trying to escape work.
To do nothing, I remember sadly, is the secret craving of most everyone I know.
I remember summers of doing nothing. I remember wandering barefoot in heat and dust until my ankles were the color of cocoa. I remember spending hours talking to my dog. I remember the slow dissolve of afternoon into sunset into evening. I remember waking up the next morning with the peace of mind that comes only from having no plans, nowhere to go, nothing to do.
The summer before I entered 7th grade, my family moved to a new town and I had no friends. I spent most of that summer in the woods adjacent to our subdivision, turning rocks belly up to release the crawly critters living beneath them. One July day I sat on the front porch and read To Kill a Mockingbird, getting up only to go to the bathroom. I read until it was too dark to see, then went to bed so sunburned on my front side I couldn't turn over. The next morning, I spread a quilt out on the grass, carefully eased onto my stomach, picked up my book and proceeded to bake the other side of my body.
The next year, nothing to do translated into wandering the streets of the neighborhood with my new best friend, Cindy Meriwether. Most afternoons Cindy and I walked to the edge of our neighborhood where new houses were being built. We wandered through the skeletal frames, imagining what the finished house would look like. We climbed stairs to open second floors, sat on the edge, dangled our legs over and let our shoes drop to the ground.
One day, in a state of euphoric boredom, we stole a piece of dry wall and climbed onto the tarry roof of a just-finished house. In plain sight of God, the birds and anyone who happened to fly over or walk by, we wrote with the chalky insides of the drywall slab in letters 10-feet tall: WE WERE HERE!
We wandered home for dinner, ate quickly without speaking to our families, then wandered back outdoors. Some nights we strung cans across the street, raised them when a car arose out of the darkness, then ran like hell when the angry driver slammed on his brakes and came looking for us.
Some nights we explored the edge of the cemetery alongside a thick gang of neighborhood kids, holding the hands of the little ones and making up tales of murder, sudden death and filmy afterlife. Other nights we sat on the front porch of Cindy's house, waiting for a dark-haired boy named Harry to walk by.
By the time August rolled around, Harry and I spent an extra hour doing nothing together before finally parting, in slow, extended motion, stretching goodbye out to include one shy, gut-wrenching kiss.
That was my last summer of doing nothing. The next year I required plans and a social life. Later years brought jobs, boyfriends, organizations, obligations, and eventually a husband, a house to keep and kids to watch over. Then, I dutifully checked the clock every hour as summer speedily ticked by. I admonished myself to keep my kids busy while they strained away from my demands.
I would take it back if I could. Every summer day would be sacred and empty, long and unplanned. Slow down, I'd admonish my children and myself, it's summer, time to plumb the delicious void of nothing to do.
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