The art of find­ing the trea­sure in life by day­dream­ing

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - REAL ESTATE - By Pa­trick T. Rear­don

Pa­tri­cia Hampl laughs and says, “I have a list.”

We’re talk­ing over the phone about that bane of mod­ern life, the to-do list, she in the kitchen of her St. Paul, Minn., home and me in Chicago in my own kitchen. I’ve just men­tioned that in­ter­view­ing her is on my to-do list for the day.

It’s hu­mor­ous be­cause the sub­ject of our con­ver­sa­tion is her new book “The Art of the Wasted Day” (Vik­ing, $26), which is about day­dream­ing, the an­tithe­sis of list­mak­ing. It’s about how rich life is when one fo­cuses, at least part of the time, on be­ing rather than on do­ing.

The idea of con­stantly do­ing some­thing, of al­ways ac­com­plish­ing some­thing, seems to be wo­ven into the Amer­i­can DNA. In­deed, as Hampl, a crit­i­cally hailed es­say­ist, poet and mem­oir writer, notes in her book, the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence prom­ises the un­alien­able rights of life, lib­erty and the pur­suit of hap­pi­ness. Which means that, while life and lib­erty are guar­an­teed, hap­pi­ness isn’t, only the job of seek­ing it. “The es­sen­tial Amer­i­can word isn’t hap­pi­ness. It’s pur­suit,” she writes.

Over the phone, she ex­pands on this: “Any form of rest in our cul­ture is seen as sloth — not just bad be­hav­ior, but close to sin.”

In fact, when Hampl was a young Catholic girl grow­ing up in St. Paul, she dis­cov­ered that ac­cord­ing to “The Bal­ti­more Cat­e­chism,” day­dream­ing was a sin. She didn’t care, though, day­dreamer that she al­ready was.

“Day­dream­ing doesn’t make things up. It sees things. Claims things, twirls them around, takes a good look. Pos­sesses them. Em­braces them. Makes some­thing of them. Makes sense. Or mu­sic. How rest­ful it is, how full of mo­tion,” she writes.

A few pages later, she touches on the of­ten-fre­netic ef­forts that mod­ern-day Amer­i­cans pur­sue in their search for hap­pi­ness — the yoga classes, med­i­ta­tion ses­sions, pur­chases of pro­bi­otic foods — and sug­gests an al­ter­na­tive:

“How about just giv­ing up? Giv­ing up the habit of strug­gle. Maybe it’s a mat­ter of giv­ing over. To what? Per­haps what an ear­lier age called ‘the life of the mind,’ that phrase I fas­tened on to de­scribe the sovereign self at ease, at home in the world when I de­cided to em­brace that key oc­ca­sion of sin — the day­dream. Hap­pi­ness re­de­fined as look­ing out the win­dow and tak­ing things in — not pur­su­ing them.”

“The Art of the Wasted Day” is a mem­oir of Hampl’s me­an­der­ing reflections on the trea­sure that idle­ness and open­ness can be as well as the in­sights of such day­dream­ing lu­mi­nar­ies as Walt Whit­man, “that model lounger”; Gre­gor Men­del, the monk who founded the mod­ern sci­ence of ge­net­ics; and Hampl’s hero, Michel de Mon­taigne, the 16th-cen­tury French es­say­ist.

While it’s not the sort of self­help book that pro­vides 10 easy steps for get­ting your life back on track by tear­ing up your to-do list, Hampl’s book sug­gests, in its el­lip­ti­cal, lol­ly­gag­ging way, an ap­proach to life that has to do with ris­ing above — or putting to the side — all the busy­ness that en­gulfs all of us.

When Hampl sug­gests wast­ing time, she’s not talk­ing about fill­ing hours with mind-numb­ing surf­ing on the in­ter­net or binge-watch­ing tele­vi­sion or shop­ping for the sake of hav­ing some­thing to do. In­stead, it’s about be­ing still, be­ing aware, about hear­ing sounds, re­ally hear­ing them, about see­ing what is in front of your eyes, about be­ing open to what one thinks and re­mem­bers and feels. The whole range of emo­tions, even sad­ness.

“The Art of the Wasted Day” was the re­sult of a lot of day­dream­ing by Hampl, and, in the midst of the project, her hus­band of 27 years, Ter­rence Wil­liams, died un­ex­pect­edly of heart fail­ure. Although he’d been ill, “we thought we could keep him run­ning,” Hampl says.

Later, when she got back to her book, she found that she was in­cor­po­rat­ing him into the text, most of­ten by di­rectly ad­dress­ing him as if he were there hear­ing her tell her story. “It wasn’t planned that he would be part of it,” she ex­plains. “I just liked hav­ing him around again.”

Hampl tells me that she made a con­scious de­ci­sion not to dis­cuss the de­tails of his death in the book. His en­try into the book, she ex­plains, was through her own day­dream­ing, her be­ing face-to-face with his ab­sence and her de­sire to re­mem­ber him as he was and as he would have been if still alive, the two of them en­gaged in the nor­mal give-and-take of be­ing a cou­ple.

“What hap­pens with this kind of day­dream­ing,” she says, “is a kind of float, a kind of float­ing.” It’s beyond sim­ple hap­pi­ness or sad­ness. It’s an open­ness to the full­ness of life, the vast­ness of life.


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