What if all I did all day was make my bed?

A Bed to make.

Or as the Italians would say, Dolce far niente.

For a few years now I’ve been asking myself this question: What if the biggest thing I did all day was make my bed? Would that make me a less worthy person? Certainly people would think less of me. I would think less of me. If the lifeboat were overloaded, I’d be the one they tossed out first: “All she does is make her bed; what good is she?”

I’ve always liked to keep busy, create things, and be productive, but I rebel against that Puritan voice in my head that says, “Get up and do something!” any time I want to relax and read, do a jigsaw puzzle, or lie in the hammock and nap on a sunny day. I‘ve been wondering about this connection between my productivity and my self-worth my whole life. Now that I’ve reached age 65, being productive in order to feel OK about myself has gotten to be too much work.

I was brought up believing in the virtue and necessity of work, but in 1968 when I graduated from high school, it was a time for questioning all things. I traveled, worked sometimes, went to college at three different schools. I met my husband and together we built our house on Chappaquiddick and raised two kids. There was not a lot of time to reflect on life. Now I have more control over how I spend my days, and more time to reflect.

Certainly this wish to be less busy now has something to do with getting older, in that there is actually less I have to do in a day, as well as less of that youthful energy to do it. Partly, I think my need to be unproductive is a kind of recovery from parenting and that stage of life of trying to be someone in the world — and of having to do more than I could and give more than I had for too many years. When I turned 60, I realized that I already had a lifetime of accomplishments, and that, theoretically anyway, I could just do what I wanted for the rest of my life.

For a few years I’ve been practicing being unproductive by playing a version of solitaire called 40 Thieves. It’s a good activity for someone who wants to do nothing but needs to keep busy in order to feel all right about herself. The game involves constant shuffling or moving the cards around, and enough strategy to keep Puritan voices at bay. I can see why my ancestors banned playing cards, though — it’s addictive and accomplishes exactly nothing in terms of productivity. But I’ve turned it into a study of addiction, so I can play it even on sunny days, when I should be outside doing something. (Doing a study is not a waste of time.)

When I allow myself to be lazy, I become quieter inside, and more present in my life. I feel more at home in myself, and have more gratitude. A year ago I decided to make it a goal to be unproductive. I liked the paradoxical sound of that. Making it a goal might ward off those inner voices, and give me more permission to be unproductive. It would be an experiment — something I’m purposefully doing: a kind of productive nonproductivity, like playing 40 Thieves to study addiction.

The relentless snow of this past winter helped me in my goal, because just dealing with winter felt really productive — all that shoveling and trying to keep the house warm. It was cozy to be inside when the sun was shining, to be reading or playing cards. I’d still hear that voice in my head, but it was muffled, stuck way back behind a snowdrift of physical and mental inactivity.

Sometimes all this unproductivity makes me feel like I’m coming apart at the seams. That can be a good thing when I’m less confident about being the one who’s right, and more open to other people’s feelings and points of view. Doing less makes me more patient and accepting of the irritations of life and things that don’t go my way.

But it brings up a lot of questions about the meaning of life. Does productivity make life more meaningful, or is it just an attempt to keep from thinking about the fact of death? Is my present indifference to so many of the things that usually keep me busy just a stage, an emptiness to allow some new thing to arise, my next attempt to be someone in the world? Or am I off the stage, so to speak? Maybe I’ve done all I’m going to do in terms of making myself a worthy person. Can I now just be a person who’s worthy of love and care simply because I’m alive?

What if the title of my obituary read: “Margaret made her bed”? Would anyone remember me?

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