News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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July 1, 2007

The Off Season: The difference between having nothing to do and doing nothing

After my yard was mowed, my weeds pulled and my tiny garden hoed, I sat on our back step listening to the birds, staring off into the woods and soaking in the sun. It’s not that I didn’t have other chores to do; instead, I chose to do nothing. There’s a difference between the two.

A month ago I watched a movie late into the night. It was about the life of Woody Guthrie, the folk-singer activist who rode the rails of the Great Depression from coast to coast, occasionally getting his head busted for trying to help unionize itinerant farmhands. In an early scene, Guthrie, who tried to eke out a living during the Dust Bowl days as a sign painter before doing much as a musician, was shown working on a grocer’s sidewalk sale board.

Around him, ragged, dirty, wide-eyed children watched as if his paint brushes were magic wands, spellbound by a man painstakingly working to make a dime.

I’m not going to preach a sermon here about how kids nowadays can’t sit still without their video games or televisions supplying instant entertainment; I’m sure that if I were still a kid, I’d probably be as hooked on my cell phone and shopping at the mall as any young, red-blooded American consumer is. But it seems to me that in our affluence, we have allowed our imaginations, our amazement at common, everyday wonders to atrophy. I think adults are as equally guilty of the same sin.

Doing nothing is indeed an art. Years ago, I read a poem by Walt Whitman called “Sparkles From the Wheel”; it has become a favorite of mine. In it, Whitman describes how he stops along a boisterous city street to watch a man sharpen knives on a whirring stone. Along with a group of young children, he is captivated by the sparkles coming off the stone as the “sharp-chinned” old man pressed the blade across it.

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