I have a dear friend, a writer with twelve books and countless of pieces of journalism to his credit, who refers to himself as a “freelance wanderer.” If you spend a day with him you’ll likely find him hanging out in a bookstore or Starbucks (his “office,” as he likes to call it) or ambling through the ravines of his native Toronto or along a Florida beach. To a casual observer it might appear to be nothing more than idleness or self-indulgence, but my friend’s productive, distinguished career belies that conclusion. Instead, his self-description caused me to reflect on how little we value the art of simply hanging out.
“I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different,” Kurt Vonnegut wrote in A Man Without a Country, customarily wrapping a bit of wisdom in a sardonic cloak. I spent some time doing just that on the last day of 2012. I followed half an hour at Starbucks, reading a chapter of a novel I have to review in January, with some time at the public library, where I scanned shelves stuffed with new books I’ll probably (iPhone 4s for Seniors for Dummies) or most definitely (Ron Paul’s Revolution), never read. After a few minutes, Clayton Christensen’s How Will You Measure Your Life? caught my eye. It seemed a fitting book to start on the day before the calendar turns to a new year, and so I settled in with it, occasionally glancing over at a man across the way, his gaze fixed on his computer screen, before I realized fifty pages and another hour had passed. From there it was off to a favorite restaurant for a bowl of chicken noodle soup and some time observing other customers in that packed and noisy space: parents enjoying the mingled joy and exasperation of lunch with young children; two women engaged in an earnest, animated conversation over coffee; an elderly couple consuming their meal in silence. For a writer, there was enough material in a few minutes of casual watching to fuel a healthy stock of stories and essays. But this kind of activity—call it aimless if you will—isn’t for writers only. Contrast it with the pursuits that fill our frenzied lives. Yes, we usually are aimed in one direction or another, so focused and purposeful we barely can spare even a moment to encounter a new idea or fully absorb what’s going on around us. Instead, we’d all benefit from taking time to expand our vision and embrace more of the vibrant world, to train ourselves to be “better noticers of life,” as the critic James Wood described it, or to become what Henry James called the kind of people “on whom nothing is lost.” Call it freelance wandering or creative loafing, an hour or two of it should be enough to convince anyone it’s hardly wasted time.