white space

Ode to doing nothing

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In the beginning, the silence is uncanny. You can’t hear anything at all, not at first. But you have to let yourself go completely still.

Then you realise there are birds in the distant trees. Nearby, a cicada calls. Then the wind picks up and trees begin whispering to one another, and now you can hear the creaks and cracks that are the growing pains of the ancient bush. Hidden rustlings of secret creatures, the crunch of bark underfoot, the hum of something winged buzzing just past your ear.

And you realise the silence is actually a cacophony, and that the empty landscape is a crowd.

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We have been staying on a friend’s farm, in the Macedon mountain ranges about an hour outside Melbourne.

The fields at the moment are, appropriately, autumnal gold. They might be the freshly-shorn fields of an autumn harvest, but then again they might just be the visible remnants of a brutally hot summer. Either way they are, undisputedly, gold. And more beautiful than you could imagine.

Smooth gusts of wind make patterns in the grass in gold and sand, as though unseen gods are passing by and gently stroking their hands over the grass. As perhaps they are.

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In the afternoon I take a walk through the trees and then sit down amid the grass to listen to the wind. One of the horses in the bottom paddock spots me and nickers hopefully, wanting carrots. I’m empty handed, but I walk across to him and stroke his soft nose, then bend and breathe into his nostrils, the way I was taught to do with horses when I was a child.

His earthy, honey-breath is achingly familiar, and I feel a stab of love for my own beautiful old horse, Starbrow. Did you know that horse-breath smells like honey? I used to sit in the grass in our own paddock as a teenager, and Starbrow would wander over to pass the time. I’d breathe in his honey-breath, and stroke his nose until his eyelids drooped and he fell asleep on his feet, with his head in my lap.

Those were days in my life when sitting still meant actually doing nothing. I wasn’t multitasking, I didn’t carry a phone, and I didn’t even own a laptop. The only ‘data’ I was consuming was the touch of the wind on my bare arms, the sound of lorikeets bickering in the trees behind us, the sandpaper prickle of the bracken where I sat, and the scent of this sleepy old horse with his head resting on my crossed legs.

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On the weekend, we sat still again.

We sat in the shade of a tree beside the dam, while the children fed about twenty ducks that felt like a hundred ducks, three pushy ‘bin-birds,’ and one very courageous magpie. When the children were all out of food, the ducks retreated to the shade of a willow-tree on a little island, and Scout and Ralph retreated to our spot on the banks of the dam, where we all proceeded to do… nothing much.

Scout leaned against us and methodically worked away on the friendship bracelet she’d been taught to weave by the little girl at the Girl Guides stall at the markets that morning. Ralph emptied the bag of cars he’d purchased for $1 at the same market onto the ground, and began digging a dirt track in which to race them.

And Mr B and I talked. We talked like we so rarely get to talk these days, about nothing, which felt like everything. We told each other stories, shared jokes, made plans, and dreamed dreams. And as the afternoon slowly unfolded it felt as though we were rediscovering each other. Mr B and I are always good friends, but the roles we play throughout the day (our “jobs,” if you want to think about this in career terms) are so different from one another that we can easily go through life feeling more apart than we actually are. But that afternoon under the tree doing nothing was a reminder of how much we shared, in opinions and in ethics and in life, despite our separate daily experiences.

It was a lovely gift, and something we could only have experienced because we gave ourselves permission to do nothing. In that afternoon, I felt a rush of affection for the man I married.

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Right now I’m working on an article for a magazine, and it’s about the way that building “white space” into our days can free up our creative ideas and inspiration. Or, to put it in terms I heard at the My Open Kitchen gathering last year, “While ever you are consuming, you are not creating.”

It’s a subject I teach on and a subject I’ve been researching for this article. But sometimes we have to live something, don’t we, before the lesson can move from head to heart. Finally - finally - on the weekend, I stopped. At least for a little while. And I learned my own lesson.

White space - boredom - unplugging - stopping - doing nothing… no matter what you want to call it, it’s the stopping that can kick-start the new beginnings. In creativity, in ideas, in love, and in life.

Wouldn’t you agree?

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