We are lying in the grass inside Pamplona’s citadel, a retired-fortress-turned-park shaded by trees and bisected by walking paths. Davis is dozing next to me, listening to music with his eyes closed and shirt pulled up to allow the sun on his stomach. We’re breathing in the ripe smell of grass as clouds arrange themselves across the sky. The sky is more clouds than blue, then the wind shifts and it’s more blue than clouds.
The sun slides from behind its blanket and I watch the light rush toward me on the grass as shadows form like images in a polaroid. The light presses on the tops of my feet, heating them to just the point of discomfort. I flip to my stomach and the sun covers my soles like a hand.
As I read and dip in and out of sleep, I feel a looseness in my body. It’s the kind of receptivity or porousness I feel during certain kinds of pleasures, similar to the way my body goes stock-still when someone scratches my arm or the sun heats my bare skin or I hear poetry read aloud—all nerves and concentration focused on a single sensation. It’s the experience of total attention.
One of my friends recently told me she wished I was blogging about these months of travel. I’m too self-conscious to do that, but we’ve passed the two-month mark and this seems like a good time to do a temperature check.
The longest stays of our four-month trip are behind us. We’ve already spent three weeks in Mexico and a month in San Sebastian, Spain, with some domestic travel to see friends and family in between. From this point forward we are on the move, hopping from country to country each week: Portugal, Italy, Hungary, Romania, Israel, Turkey, Greece, England. Home.
This trip is something we’ve planned for and saved for and waited for over the course of almost a decade. Davis and I got married young and told ourselves, even while dating, that we would take time off for extended travel sometime in our twenties. We had a few false starts—seasons in which the timing was almost right, but then I started grad school or Davis took a new job or I liked the job I had or we just weren’t ready to leave San Diego.
Given the years of build-up, I shouldn’t be surprised that these four months were saddled with more than their fair share of expectation.
In Jenny Odell’s excellent (and very short! Go read it!) essay, “On How to Grow an Idea,” I read about do-nothing farming. I immediately like this idea, just as I like most garden/farm metaphors for the creative life, possibly because I’m really a 70-year-old lady who just wants to enjoy morning coffee in a garden.
For example, I like the idea of practicing crop-rotation in your art. That is, taking periods of time to let a patch of land lie fallow while you cultivate a different patch instead: throwing pottery, running, cooking, writing music, surfing, etc. The idea that there is value in rotating crops—value in not constantly extracting from a particular area—appeals to me, because it sounds like permission to rest. It reminds me that seasons without planting or tending or harvesting are okay. Are not just okay but necessary for good things to grow.
In the 1970s, Japanese farmer Masasobu Fukuoka pioneered “do-nothing farming” after noticing how one of his fields, left dormant for year, had become fruitful without interference. The conditions were right for the land to produce, and so it did. From that point forward, Mr. Fukuoka gave careful attention to the condition of his fields, making sure it was “tilted in favor of his crops,” and then sat back and let good things grow. It required his attention and presence, but not the constant work and frenzy he’d known before.
Jenny Odell writes: “Ideas are not products, as much as corporations would like them to be. Ideas are intersections between ourselves and something else, whether that’s a book, a conversation with a friend, or the subtle suggestion of a tree. Ideas can literally arise out of clouds (if we are looking at them). That is to say: ideas, like consciousness itself, are emergent properties, and thinking might be more participation than it is production.”
A few weeks ago, when we were still in San Sebastian, Davis and I took a bus to the next town over to hike a portion of the Camino de Santiago. The day was pitch-perfect summer, and summer in Spanish Basque Country is something else. Locals wait all year though the gray and damp to arrive here, and the reward is turquoise and cerulean water, leaves shining like jewels, everything wild and rugged and glittering.
We hiked past vineyards and apple trees on a path edged by wild roses and the heavy heads of hydrangeas. Davis patiently let me stop to admire families of cows chomping grass in the shade, the calves like oversized dogs with knobby legs and long lashes. As we walked we talked about this trip and what we’re learning and what’s been good, what’s been hard.
Given the long time it was in arriving, we both came into the season with articulated and unarticulated hopes. Perhaps me especially, because I’m great at forming highly specific and often unmatchable expectations. But what has caught me by surprise is realizing how much I hoped to get out of this trip; how much value I planned to extract. How much I wanted to make of it. I had things to accomplish, is what I mean to say.
These things weren’t career-related, necessarily, but they were notches of accomplishment all the same: spiritual revelation, relational growth, discernment about our next season, and, especially, a deepening in my writing (Essays! Articles! New artistic heights!). All of them in the vein of achievement and constant productivity. It turns out even when I rest, I don’t believe I should stop producing.
On our hike, Davis in all his wisdom said something that I’m hoping is true: the impact of this trip will continue after it’s over. We will continue to be changed after we come home. This is such a hopeful thought for me because it alleviates the pressure to wring out every last drop of value I can right this second. The writing and essays and articles and poems can come later, growing out of the soil we’re building up now. The discernment and wisdom planted during our quietness here can continue to guide us when we’re back.
Our job now, we’re both sensing, is to give attention to the day before us. (When is this not our job?) Our “work” is to be porous and receive what comes without needing to make art or meaning or to track our growth on a chart. The word I’m holding in silent prayer these days is this one: Now. Now. Now.
I think a lot about rest. Not sleep—though boy do I love my sleep, and am firmly in the Nine-Hours-a-Night Camp—but deep, nourishing rest. The kind that doesn’t exclude activity or creativity, but adamantly excludes hurry, frenzy, and a transactional insistence on productivity. (My brain, constantly: What do you have to show for this experience? Make something out of it!)
Maybe that’s quicksand for all artists: We get to make meaning, and making meaning through art requires ambition and sweat and swinging for the fences. But good art—and more to the point, the people behind it—need the other side of the coin too: the do-nothing farming. The stepping back so the soil of our lives might be reinvigorated.
When I think of it this way, I remember that I’m happiest when I’m dreamy and unhurried: a kid on summer break, someone lying in the grass with a book. That’s not realistic much of the time. But an absence of frenzy is.
Thomas Merton equated busyness with violence. Dallas Willard spoke of “ruthlessly eliminat[ing] hurry from your life.” Ruthlessness, with its violent implications, seems like an apt word. Hurry and frenzy are fatal to cultivating a nourished, creative life. That means they’re also fatal to making work that nourishes others. Constant production zaps the good and beautiful elements that I need to survive. I want to be ruthless both now and when we return by protecting spaces for stillness and pure, nourishing attention.
I guess it comes down to choosing nourishment over depletion, even when depletion appears productive and nourishment doesn’t look like much on the surface. A note I wrote to myself last week: “Trust that ideas are germinating and things will still grow. Trust they will grow more lush and wild and insistent than before, when you were forcing production and depleting your very best asset.” In farming terms, that asset is the land. In creative terms, it’s my attention.
So I’m off to go stare at more cows, and not feel the need to write anything else about it. I’ll let it be a seed or a few drops of rain in a field left to rest.