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Daydream believer -- the necessary art of doing nothing


These are hard times to be a Catholic—maybe hard especially in Boston where scandal and shame have been front-page news much of the past year. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say these are hard times to be a complacent Catholic. And, in spite of everything, this kind of discomfort may be what the nuns at my grade school used to call a blessing. I was formed by pre-Vatican II Catholicism in a Catholic town—St. Paul, Minnesota—smaller, but probably not so different from Boston in its Catholic sensibility, surrounded by all sorts of parochial assumptions. Which is to say I grew up in a kind of dream. The life "back there," as I think of this distinct cultural past, not simply another time but a foreign country, is easy now to satirize, of course.

And it has much to answer for—also "of course." But a kernel of that provincial dreaminess, terribly certain of itself and content with its misty good intentions, resides still within me, and I might as well admit it: in the way in which we were encouraged to see the world not simply as the turf of our daily lives, but as the working out of a great and mysterious design. I think this quality of provincial dreaminess, full of longing and wistfulness, made me a writer. At least, it made me an English major, willing to devote my life to plots and dramas, lyric invocations, and the dreams and imaginings in books.

In fact, I still have the habit of thinking of myself as an English major instead of, as I've been for 20 years, a professor, a person with tenure—and, that rarer distinction on the University of Minnesota campus where I teach, a person with a really good parking garage contract. I made my first adult friendships at the University of Minnesota, I published my first work in the student paper, the Minnesota Daily, where Garrison Keillor was editor and I was associate editor. I got the Norton Anthology of English and American Literature somehow logged into my head in Vincent Hall, which in those years the English department shared with Mortuary Science, much to the merriment of all English majors. Can I really be a person who is supposed to give a lecture—can't I still be the person sitting in a college hall waiting for someone to finish a lecture so life can begin out there somewhere in the Real World, which certainly must be off campus, in some cool yet also hot urban capital?

Maybe the reason my generation broods so much about aging is that we're beset with achievement. It's not the worst obsession around, but it does have its downside, and it works perilously against that original birthright of dreaminess I thought was my vocation when I became an English major, giving my life to reading and writing books. We are a bit dream-deprived, it seems to me, preoccupied now with what we've done so far, what we haven't done, what it's still possible to do—uh-oh, too late to take up brain surgery—what somebody else has done. Sometimes we sound like people with r˙sum˙s rather than lives.

The reward for achievement, of course, is that you must do more. More work, more goals, more responsibility, more races to be run and won. It's a good fate—to have a world of work still waiting. But those of us in the humanities—the English majors of this world—did not mean to graduate from the College of Hard Work or the Department of Achievement and Ambition. We weren't even studying at the College of Good Deeds and Better Intentions. We were dreamers—that's what we meant to be.

Some people think that artists, at least poets like me, just sit around, staring out the window, and that, for reasons unknown, the world is prepared to encourage this folly. I would like to set the record straight: If that's the view you have, I'd say you've got it just about right. And in our world of endeavor and achievement, that's either a mad luxury or a very odd-duck business: to sit and stare at what isn't there. And then to spend the rest of your time writing about it, talking about it. Yet it is a discipline, the strange discipline of reflection and meditation. In fact, the word for the contemplative exercise that distinguishes Buddhism—zazen—refers not to thinking or even to breathing, but to sitting. Just sitting. Sounds like the job description of the poet to me, this discipline of attention.

Where today is this life of attention, this life of the daydream? What does it look like—and more to the point, what's it good for, in a life of goals, achievement, and professional endeavor?

As an old English major, I look to the evidence in language. My heroes are not the great thinkers of the world, perhaps, not the analysts, or even the scholars. My heroes are the ponderers, the ones who sit in the midst of experience and try to radiate its idiosyncratic truth. These ponderers do not come up with theories but with values, especially rekindling the always guttering flames of faith and hope. If they write at all, they tend to write diaries and letters, not great novels, wonderful as novels are.

Some of my heroes have done their sitting and staring the hard way—in prison. Malcolm X didn't just read a lot of books in prison, he did a lot of waiting and staring. That's where—and how—he found his life's mission, and made, out of his brutalized history, a wholly new vision of human relation. His Autobiography has become one of the great life stories in our literature, though he never set out to be a writer. He set out to find the Real World.

Vaclav Havel, the playwright and now former president of the Czech Republic, is another of these ponderers. And although he is recognized as a great writer for the theater, it is his letters from prison, written to his wife, Olga, that captivate me. Havel wrote Olga from prison in 1981:

When I speak of faith and hope, I'm not thinking of optimism in the conventional sense, by which we usually mean the belief that "everything will turn out well." I don't share such a belief and consider it—when expressed in that general way—a dangerous illusion. I don't know how "everything" will turn out and therefore I have to admit the possibility that everything—or at least most things—will turn out badly. Faith, however, does not depend on prognoses about possible outcome . . . . Genuine faith  . . . doesn't depend on how reality appears to one at a given moment. For this reason, too, only someone with faith in the deeper sense of the word will be able to see things as they really are  . . . and not distort them in one way or another, since he has no personal, emotive reasons for so doing . . . . [Whereas] the faithless man simply tries to survive with the least possible pain and discomfort and is indifferent to everything else. Any claims he makes about reality will usually, in one way or another, serve his "conception" of life—in other words, again, merely what suits him.

Havel's faith is not "in" something. As he tells Olga from prison, it is a profound "longing for meaning," and because this longing is "original and primal," it is neither a dogma nor an idea. This longing is what, fundamentally, we recognize as our truth. It is also, I think, what that early dreaminess of old St. Paul was all about in my girlhood—a longing that held within it an enduring faith in the human enterprise.

Such yearning is, I think, how we are all called upon to be artists—not by effort and achievement, but by faith in our deepest longings as human beings. Effort exhausts—it's easy to burn out in any job, even a good one we love. But longing is eternal and forever buoyant. Leonard Woolf, Virginia Woolf's husband, was involved all his long life in progressive politics. He never seemed to make much progress toward the good he worked for, though, and toward the end of his life he was once asked how he kept up the cheerful energy to fight the good fight. It was simple, he said: He never looked for his satisfaction in success. He took his pleasure from living his ideals, which were real to him because they were in him, even if the world wasn't ready to let them exist. Those ideals were what Havel calls the "primal longing." They keep the great ones going.

This longing is not ambition, it is not about what we want to wrest out of the world's closed fists. It has to do with how we wish to place ourselves in our often cruel world. It has to do with our capacity to absorb experience in all its frightful contradiction, without being smashed by cynicism. It has to do, finally, with the fine discipline of wasting time.

Walt Whitman, our greatest poet, said the job before us is to "loaf and invite our own souls." In other words: to sit and stare. To waste the day—at least a bit of it. And only then to act—to act from the longing at the heart of our most authentic, unguarded selves. The art of the daydream is the discipline of placing oneself within one's best imagining of the world.

On September 29, 1943, a graduate student of philosophy and Russian literature in Amsterdam named Etty Hillesum was writing in her diary (a good time-wasting thing to do), as she had off and on for two years. She was 12 years older than Anne Frank, who was also writing in her diary in the same city. They didn't know each other, but they were soon to meet the same fate. In her outer life, Etty Hillesum was juggling a couple of lovers, much ambition, and her work with Jewish relief agencies in a desperate attempt to save lives. In her private life, the life of her wasted time, she tried to place her life in history, which is to say, in her understanding of reality. "Ultimately," she wrote on that September day almost 60 years ago, "we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it towards others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will also be in our troubled world." The diary breaks off shortly after this entry. She was soon transported to Auschwitz.

Out of her longing—that is, out of her attention to her isolation—Etty Hillesum, like Malcolm X and Vaclav Havel, found her meaning where it secretly resided, as it does for each of us, in her private experience of existence, in her dreaminess. The Real World, it seems, lies within us, not somewhere just beyond the campus where we prepare for "real life."

I don't have any advice to give. I have only good wishes. Or maybe they're hard wishes. During these days—the most politically alarming of my life, the days in which religion has been invoked in the most ruinous ways—it is tempting to be nostalgic about a seemingly safe, less violent past, and to wish for it again. But really, the longing in the old dreams, in pre-Vatican II St. Paul, was not sentimental. In those dreams and the wasted days of the free imagination, the habit of reflection was established, and with it the discipline to sustain a mind willing to accept the new, the unfamiliar, the alien.

Most of all, to stop, to waste the day, renews and sharpens the capacity to see, as an artist must, the value of life's experience as it unfolds, often against our will or wish. Artists, writers anyway, must live their lives twice: once as experience, once as story. It is in acknowledging our lives as stories, rather than as chaotic bits of action, that we radiate whatever peace we possess, the peace that Etty Hillesum, from the midst of the maelstrom, said it is our moral duty to reclaim and deliver to the world.

My father was a florist all his life. So maybe it's natural for me to take to heart the old clich˙ about stopping to smell the roses. Whitman advised us to "stand up for the Stupid and Crazy," to loaf if we intend to invite our souls. He saw the link between great daydreaming and great action.

It requires a perverse kind of courage—this willingness to stop. Just look. The Real World is out there, all right. And it's also in here, within the loafing mind-heart that must do the looking. And out of this looking, to become, no matter what your job or profession, an artist who radiates the peace the world longs for and is denied every day, including this one.

Patricia Hampl is Regents Professor of English at the University of Minnesota and the author of I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory (1999) and Virgin Time (1992). Her essay is drawn from "The Art of a Wasted Day," the Candlemas lecture at BC, delivered as part of the Lowell Lecture Series on February 6, 2003.

Photo by Gary Wayne Gilbert

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