A Little More on Leisure…

Following on yesterday’s post about rest and leisure

One of my favorite bedside books is The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang. Lin gained popularity as an erudite Chinaman back in the 1930’s but, to my knowledge, none of his fine books are in print today.

Lin was a great believer in leisure as a means for refinement and reflection. He states that,

It is clear that only in a society with leisure can the art of conversation be produced, and it is equally clear also that only when there is an art of conversation can there be good well-written essays.

…both the art of conversation and the art of writing good prose…is possible only in a life of leisure.

Is this true? Can you grind away at your job for twelve hours a day and then rush into your office and dash out sensitive haiku or enlightened prose? Lin thinks not:

Businessmen who are busy the whole day and immediately go to bed after supper, snoring like cows, are not likely to contribute anything to culture

But we have quashed most leisure out of our culture. We take our work home each day on our iPhones and computers. Paying the family bills takes two parents working full time. We order dinners, groceries, and dog-walkers on-line. And conversation? How? How to break through the surgically attached headphones or the stare that never swerves away from the phone screen?

It’s fascinating and prescient that Lin connects art, writing, and conversation with leisure. He argues that it takes time laying about to develop these skills. They can’t be crammed into a busy brain. It’s a kind of play, really. Playing with words, or ideas, or paint. Play rarely happens under pressure.

So take a few minutes this weekend to be a bum. A layabout. A lolly-gager. You’ll be better for it.


Go here to read more about Slow philosophy.
See here for a Kindle download of The Importance of Living.

What If You Wasted Your Entire Life?

Leo Tolstoy and the Meaning of Life

Book Review: The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Leo Tolstoy

Like many wealthy young men, Tolstoy spent his days vacillating between the responsibilities of a young noble and the pleasures of the whore house. Finally, he mostly gave up on both and found religion.  Found True Religion is more accurate. He was Russian Orthodox his entire life until renouncing orthodoxy for his own version of True Faith in Jesus. The Death of Ivan Ilyich – a novella easily read in an afternoon – was his first published effort after his awakened faith. It tells the story of a man who, with no real effort or drive, rises to a mid-level bureaucratic position, and in so doing, learns to despise his once beloved wife, largely ignores his once adorable children, and spends his time proving to his colleagues and neighbors that he is a man of great culture and import. He is a Kardashian: pretense with little substance.

While hanging curtains in his new and ostentatious home,  Ilyich falls. Over the next days, he feels an ache in his side and then develops a metallic taste in his mouth. At his wife’s nagging, he agrees to see a doctor, then doctors, and then specialists who all fail to accurately diagnose his ailment. He knows, but will not admit, that he is in a downward spiral toward pain and death. He comes to detest his life and despises those around him. Death was never meant for him. Not now! Doctors, friends, and family are all liars who feign concern but plot their escape to the card table. People avoid him, he thinks, because he reminds them of death, of wasting, and of their own demise. His only comfort is his peasant servant, a theme seen throughout all of Tolstoy’s writing.

His last days are excruciating. Not from pain only but from the pestering realization that he has lived his life wrongly. Like a vapor. He has lived a false life elevating artifice and selfishness just as those he now despises. Just an hour before dying he feels release realizing that a good life is an authentic life.  A peasant life.  A life of empathy and compassion. His heart turns and he is washed in love and pity for his family and friends. He sees his death as their release from the burden of his care.

No Answers But Good Questions

But Ilyich is no mere pamphlet.  Tolstoy avoids pedantry and Ilyich’s dying revelations are implied and open to interpretation. Is this part of Tolstoy’s genius? To let each reader meander to their own meanings? Can we live authentically as wealthy people? What good is it to ‘inherit the earth’ if you are poor, weak, and dying? Thirteen years later, Tolstoy will publish Resurrection where the themes of Ilych are expanded. The Death of Ivan Ilyich rests comfortably on the same bookshelf with other great philosophical fiction (and isn’t all Russian lit philosophical?). Tolstoy presents the problem, hints at solutions, but raises as many questions as he answers.

What does it mean for readers of It’s The Good Life? Tolstoy’s protagonist came to see on his deathbed what we already know: the good life includes living intentionally, engaging relationships, and knowing what is truly meaningful. There are still questions: are leisure and fine things wrong? Is there an intrinsic reward in service and hard work? I’ll let you read the book and work these things out for yourself.

Modern readers can struggle with the prose and Tolstoy famously takes time to develop the story. But it is a wonderful and thought-provoking read. Can be profitably read and re-read.

Four stars.

Go here to see the book on Amazon.
Go here to see the book on Goodreads.


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Broken Relationships?

This week I wondered why we live with broken things and, then, why we live with things that don’t work the way they are intended to. Those are easy fixes if we’re talking about pencils or cabinet doors or cars. But what about important things? What to do when you begin to think that your faith doesn’t work? What does it even mean to have a relationship that doesn’t work the way it’s intended? I’m not sure but know that many people walk around feeling that something is amiss with their friends, family, or loved ones. Maybe it’s you? Maybe you have expectations that are unrealistic? Maybe you are mean? Maybe you aren’t ready to be in a relationship?

These are weeds that you must traipse through yourself. Others can help but be aware that your good intentioned friend might have nary a clue about what they are talking about. That goes for me, too. You have to figure this one out for yourself.

Here are a few thoughts to help:

Forgive much. And don’t confuse forgiveness with acceptance or forgetting. When we forgive we loose another person’s control over us. But it doesn’t mean that we have to trust that person or like what they have done.

Be careful with your self-talk. We invent much of our reality with the on-going story that we tell ourselves over and over in our minds. If your focus is on the negative then you should expect more negative. If you look for more of the positive your outlook will improve. There is no magic here. A sage said “You find what you are looking for” and it’s rarely more true with relationships.

I’m bad at this. Learn to listen. Learn to close the yapper until the other person is done talking. Learn to not think about how you will respond to them until they are done talking. Then take a minute to think before you talk.

We probably can’t hear it enough. Trying to change another person is almost always a fool’s errand.

Work on yourself. When you are secure and settled you might not need people around you to change and you can start enjoying them for who they are.


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Birthday Wishes. Live life. Cheat Death.

Birthday Wishes

That momentous day has recently passed for me. In honor of the day, here are two of my favorite quotes about adding years to your life. They apply whether you are turning seven, seventeen, or seventy. Enjoy!

Birthday wishes to me.

The first is from Anne Lamont:

“Oh my God, what if you wake up some day, and you’re 65 or 75, and you never got your memoir or novel written, or you didn’t go swimming in warm pools or oceans all those years because your thighs were jiggly and you had a nice big comfortable tummy, or you were so strung out on perfectionism and people-pleasing that you forgot to have a big juicy creative life, of imagination and radical silliness and staring off into space like when you were a kid? It’s going to break your heart. Don’t let this happen to you.”

Another, much more sobering, from thinker Ray Kurzweil:

The things we can do with life – have relationships, be creative, create knowledge – are what give life meaning. We don’t need death to give time a purpose. We rationalize this great tragedy and convince ourselves that death is a blessing, but it’s a tragedy. It’s a profound loss of knowledge and skill and humanity and relationships.  It’s a loss of the things that give life significance.

Happy Birthday!

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Swami Dennis says, “Be Happy. You’ve got the gift. Enjoy it.”

SwamiSwami Dennis says that 150,000 people went to sleep last night and didn’t wake up. For them, it’s fini. Done. No more.

For me? I get the gift of life today. At least for now. I’m still not sure how the day will end. So, if the kids don’t pick their clothes up off the floor or if I need new tires on the car it’s a good day. What could be so bad that the gift of waking up this morning is superseded?

Is It True About How We Spend Our Days?


Annie Dillard on Living Life

Yesterday I posted one of my favorite quips of good advice:

Whatever you do today is what you do.”

I can’t remember the source but a reader sent me a similar quote from Annie Dillard: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend out lives.”

Following the Annie Dillard rabbit hole – it’s a Saturday and I’ve got a few minutes to wander leisurely – I found this wonderful essay written by William Deresiewicz titled Where Have You Gone, Annie Dillard? The essay is putatively a review of Dillard’s new book of essays The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New, but it is just as much a review of Dillard’s work over the last forty years. The essay captures Dillard’s genius and makes me want to go back and read every word she has written. I immediately dashed off a tweet to Deresiewicz and thanked him for the best ten minutes I’ve had in a very long time.

Not everyone enjoys Dillard – drat all fashion! She is sublime when writing about nature. Materialists will bristle, though, as under every gorgeously described husk of a dead dragonfly, she is searching for hints of god. Theists of a traditional sort will feel the same irritation. The god she seeks is not found in medieval scripts.  Whatever your view, I cannot for a moment imagine someone reading Ms. Dillard and not coming away enriched.

The Annie Dillard page on Amazon
Annie Dillard homepage where she tells the truth

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The Genius Next Door

The Genius Next Door

Wayne Dyer, whom I disagreed with on almost everything important, talked about engaging with even the boring and boorish people around you. He found that when he took a real interest in people that they would unfold to him as fascinating and interesting. There’s no magic here and no special tools are needed. People just like to be heard. To feel a little bit special. To get a word in edgewise. This has always been interesting to me.

I thought about this today when I was talking with someone about getting their car worked on. I knew a guy once, he’s long passed away now, who rebuilt my car’s engine in a weekend as a neighborly gesture. He was just a guy down the street – I don’t even know what he did for a living – but most nights you could see his garage lit up where he would putter until bedtime. One Friday my car started to act up. “Act up” is pretty much the sum total of my mechanical expertise. So I walked down the road and found this guy in his garage and told him about the sinister gurgle emanating from my car’s engine. He guessed that my problem was more mechanical than demonic and was sure he could help. “Let’s go have a look,” he said.

We wandered down to my place and I started the car. He laughed and shook his head. “Turn it off,” he yelled. “It’s your cam bearing.” Or something of the sort – I never really knew. “Ugh.” I was smart enough to know that this was bad. “So I have to take it to the garage? Sounds bad.” “Nah,” he said. “You need to drive it down to my place. We’ll take the engine out tonight and then tear it down and replace the bearing tomorrow. We can put it back together on Sunday.” I’m sure that I looked like I was talking to a crazy person. “Really,” he said. “Nothing to it.”

And that’s exactly what we did. He was completely nonplussed about it as if it was what any neighbor would do. I was amazed through most of the weekend. What I saw as confusing and complex was simple to him. He just worked methodically step by step to pull the engine and make the repair and then did the same thing in reverse to put it all back together. I supplied an extra pair of hands and a few rounds of the Champagne of Beers.  It really did look easy when he did it. The car was up and running by the time Sunday football came on. He refused to take any money and said that I could help him with something one day but I truly doubted that I had any skill he would be interested in.

So. Talk to the people around you. Ask them about their story. More times than not you’ll find that you are surrounded with interesting people.


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