More is Not More (To Be: Busy, Part 2)

Here Stands—Poem—Appalachian Trail

Part of an ongoing series of installed texts. A collaboration with artist Melanie Mowinski, called ‘Here Stands’.

Last week I wrote about how our culture promotes the idea of “being busy” as an expression of status, and symbol of success. Today’s post contains further thoughts on what it means to be busy.

Despite my energetic and enthusiastic nature, I’ve chosen to actively resist the glorification of busy. More is not more. At least not in my case. More too often means that I feel anxious or fragmented. My focus suffers. My attention wavers. I don’t write well when I become too busy. I don’t think well, and that is something I need to do well every day.

Three and a half years ago I changed jobs, moved into a much smaller space, culled my possessions, and radically simplified my calendar and social life. While the pressure to work and earn a living was never more present than during this transition, I knew that in the remaking of my life I could also make a choice, and in this case, I wanted to choose a way forward that preserved the quality of my attention and allowed me to dedicate a period of several hours each day, more or less routinely, in which to write, think, and be still.

Instead of busyness, I committed to, and have worked hard to defend, a sense of “luxurious sufficiency” (to use a phrase from my friend Christian McEwen, author of the magnificent book The World Enough and Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down), and I maintain an ongoing interest in this practice because I really do feel that I have enough, that I will be okay, that my future and worth does not depend on me running faster and further, or doing more more more.

For the last three or so years I’ve also worked, in dribs and drabs, on a body of work that contemplates what to do instead of seeking busyness. Instead of — well, instead of all the things that at the end of my life, I will no doubt regard as unimportant, inconsequential, trivial, base, and ultimately a waste. Yes, this work is motivated by mortality, and by my Zen teacher incanting into the silence of a morning meditation hall “Do not waste your life!” (I’ve heard this phrase in my inner ear since my twenties).

This writing and this thinking is an argument, a case, a declaration, a presentation of emotional facts. A lesson in living: for myself, but perhaps one day it will be for others, too, because I’m a teacher and a cultural worker and it is not enough to keep these ideas to myself. This is one of the ways I can be of use: by showing, through my choices and actions, through consideration, through practice, this other way of being a poet in the world. A Human being.  I want to lead others in that direction. Who am I to say this? To offer leadership? I am the one who was chosen, by birth and circumstance, by predilection and affinity, to notice and wonder about such things, and I am the one who chooses this path as a way of expressing a strongly held conviction, which is that we are doomed if we persist in our religious fervor for things and ideas and preoccupations that have little immediate or lasting value, and which are mainly forms of distraction and idle amusement, and which amount to misspent time and energy.

It’s often uncomfortable to face ourselves— without distraction, without explanation, without a ready answer for those who ask if we are keeping busy—so of course we’re a little afraid at first to cut ourselves from the herd.

Carl Jung said “Fear seeks noisy company and pandemonium to scare away the demons.”


Robert Montgomery

Busyness keeps the radio on, the tv, and the phone, which pings insistently until we become habituated to reading each text as it arrives, regardless of what else we may be doing: conversing with a friend, preparing carrot soup, tending our newborn, driving, running, walking, listening to the wind, sleeping.

Terry Tempest Williams writes “I fear silence because it leads me to myself, a self I may not wish to confront. It asks that I listen. And in listening, I am taken to an unknown place. Silence leaves me alone in a place of feeling. It is not necessarily a place of comfort.”

Such silence and listening is the antidote to busyness. Once we feel it and do it, we don’t have the same interest in being busy.

I have said enough for now. Perhaps I can close with Emma Goldman, the anarchist and writer, and agitator for the common woman who wrote “People have only as much liberty as they have the intelligence to want and the courage to take.”





Showing 4 comments
  • Donna

    I am fascinated by your thoughts on busyness. For a long while, I have felt as though busyness is a status symbol – some measure of my worth or contribution to this world. Even a phone call begins with “What are you doing?” And I hate to answer this question, because the answer is sometimes, “nothing.” I agree with your analysis and now, I am thinking how can I implement this philosophy in my life. What might that look like? Should I step away from Instagram or the TV? Begin to mediate? Set 3 or 4 priorities for my life and adhere to those in some strict way? Write a manifesto of what I am doing NOW? I’d be interested in a future post with examples of how a life of un-busyness might look. Thank you for this post – with much to think about.

    • Holly Wren

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Donna. You ask such good questions. I will continue to blog about these and related topics, but I wanted to simply say that your urge to ask “what might that look like?” is exactly the where I would encourage you, or anyone, to take this contemplation. I used to be a pretty effective multi-tasker, for example, and was proud of how much I could get done in a day, but because I’m a writer/teacher and need to preserve my quality of mind, I eventually decided that it’s best if I find a way to do one thing at a time, at least as much as possible. I seem to feel better, see more clearly, and have more to offer my work and my students and clients. I don’t have a TV, as I prefer to read (or go to movies) for entertainment, and I try to be very mindful of my social media use. Both of these things tamper with the quality of my attention and given that my time is finite, I know that I prefer to do other things when I’m not working or parenting or writing. I love the idea of writing a manifesto. Why not? Sounds fun. Finally, if you are interested in meditation, there’s a wonderful little series of books by Thich Nhat Hanh that do a great job of helping me (or anyone) to see that we can also use eating or walking, for example, as ways of meditating, too. I have ‘How to Walk‘ and enjoy dipping into it from time to time. It helps me pay attention. It’s all related.

      • Donna

        Thank you for your kindness in replying. I have ideas of how to make the changes in my life that I want to make – and it seems that one step at a time may be the best way to progress. And one thing at a time, too. I will check out the resources you mention for meditation, Looking forward to your future writings here.

  • Holly Wren

    My mantra in this and in other things is simply: Slow and steady wins the race. It can be so difficult to make large changes–our habits don’t give up easily–but if we take small steps (a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step) then we can gradually shift things in the right direction.

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