Please welcome Emilie-Noelle Provost to our content contributors. A longtime resident of Lowell, Mass., Emilie-Noelle is a writer and the author of the middle grade novel, The Blue Bottle (North Country Press, 2018). She was the editor-in-chief of Merrimack Valley Media Inc., publisher of Merrimack Valley Magazine, from 2011 to 2016. Throughout her career, Emilie has written hundreds of magazine articles for a variety of publications. Her short fiction has been published in several literary journals as well as in the anthology, Atlantic Currents: Connecting Cork and Lowell (Loom Press, 2020). Since February 2020, she has worked as the managing editor of Sensi New England magazine. Emilie’s second novel, The River Is Everywhere, will be published in February 2023 by Vine Leaves Press. In her free time, Emilie can often be found hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire along with her husband, Rob.
Emilie’s Living Madly column appeared in Merrimack Valley Magazine from January 2017 until the publication’s closure in December 2021. She is excited to continue writing the column for publication on RichardHowe.com.
Living Madly – Nothing Doing
By Emilie-Noelle Provost
It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about? —Henry David Thoreau
The week after Christmas, I came down with an annoying case of acid reflux. This has happened to me a few times before. Stress and anxiety have almost always been the root cause.
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, the holiday season, and all the cleaning, cooking, decorating, shopping, and family drama that went along with it—combined with work deadlines and household tasks—really got to me.
After hosting more than a dozen people for Thanksgiving—a responsibility I’ve taken on since my mother’s death in September 2020—I was going nonstop for more than a month. Between my job and getting ready for Christmas, there were several days that I barely sat down except to type an email.
Whenever I seemed to be making headway on my to-do list, something would come up: One of the cats needed to go to the vet. Our adult daughter, who lives with my husband and me, announced that she was “too busy” to help with chores around the house. The hot water heater stopped working. Several Christmas gifts I ordered were floating around in a post office somewhere in Missouri.
Before the acid reflux showed up, I had no idea how frazzled I really was.
While some of the stress I was experiencing was due to factors beyond my control, some of it was my own doing. I’m not good at resting. Relaxing a.k.a. “doing nothing useful” always makes me feel guilty, especially when I can plainly see tumbleweeds of cat fur rolling across the living room floor.
My efficiency-oriented work ethic is partly the result of the way I was raised: Being unproductive was almost always frowned upon. Once a task was complete, there was always something else waiting to be done.
This notion is dyed in the wool of American culture. Most of us equate busyness with success, virtue, and high status. This is especially true in New England where the lives of our Puritan forebears revolved around hard work. Many people, myself included, routinely rush from one project to another in order to cram as many activities as possible into a single day or week. For most of us, living this way feels normal.
In other places in the world, though, taking time to relax and enjoy life is viewed as essential. In Italy, for example, there is a concept called la dolce far niente. In English, this roughly translates to “the sweetness of doing nothing.”
It’s not uncommon for Italians to stop by a neighbor’s house on a whim and chat for an hour over an espresso, or take a long afternoon walk for the sole purpose of enjoying the beauty of a rose garden. For them, “doing nothing” isn’t an act of procrastination or idleness. It’s an active pursuit of the things that make life worth living.
Because the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many of us to take a hard look at our lives, several articles have recently been published praising the virtues and health benefits of making time to do things that make us happy without having a set goal in mind.
A few of these articles, such as a July 2021 piece on Forbes.com, outlined the ways in which resting and doing things we enjoy can help us realize greater success in business (this is America, after all). But many others simply discussed the reasons why “doing nothing” is good for us.
An April 2020 article on Elle.com proclaimed that “waking rest,” along with good nutrition, sleep, and exercise, is the “missing puzzle piece” needed to achieve true wellness. The author of December 2021 article in Good Housekeeping magazine wrote about how taking time out of her hectic life to meditate every day has made her realize that “stress is optional.”
Taking time to savor, appreciate, and give thanks for the good things—and people—in our lives has been shown to boost creativity, strengthen our immune systems, and help us find solutions to problems. According to a January 2015 article in The Guardian, our brains need downtime to process the nearly endless amounts of information we’re bombarded with every day. Rest also helps our brains commit the things we learn and experience to memory.
I’m probably never going to live like an Italian, but now that the holiday season is over I’m trying to make more time to do things I enjoy without beating myself up about it. So far, it hasn’t been entirely successful. It’s hard not to feel guilty about sitting on the couch thumbing through a hiking guidebook when I could be improving my fitness—and burning calories—by actually hiking.
But I’m going to keep trying. Life is unpredictable, and I know if I don’t stop to look around once in a while it’s inevitable that I’ll miss at least a few important things.