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The Profound Pleasure of Puttering

Those aimless days are time off for the brain.

Source: Pippalou/Morguefile

After an exceedingly long, exceedingly busy couple of years—during which any time I wasn’t actively doing something, I was worrying about things I should be doing—I woke up one morning with all the important tasks behind me and nothing pressing ahead of me. Nothing to do, nowhere to go, and no reason to worry about it.

My god, what a glorious feeling.

I got out of bed, put on comfortable clothes, may or may not have brushed my hair, and threw myself body and soul into puttering.

I wonder: Do extroverts know the deep, joyous satisfaction of puttering around the house? Or is a day without other people, for them, a day wasted?

Puttering around the house entails wandering from room to room, doing those little things you’ve meant to do eventually (changing light bulbs, throwing away old eyeshadows, paging through catalogs that have stacked up on the counter…). You let your brain wander with your body, shedding superfluous worries with the abandon of a cat dropping hair on black pants.

Puttering has no goal unless you count the million little goals that crop up, to either be accomplished or not. I take profound pleasure in tossing those catalogs in the recycle bin, blowing drifts of leaves off the driveway, organizing my sock drawer. In puttering, I simply follow along wherever my meandering mind takes me--and if I don’t finish something, so what? I’ll finish something else. Have you ever noticed how soothing sweeping the floor can be?

On this day, after some indoor puttering, I strolled to the backyard, where I became suddenly aware of the paving stones that have waited patiently for more than a year to be placed. So I got a shovel and got to work. And in setting my brain free while I did the heavy lifting, I managed to re-envision the patio into something that’s becoming quite pleasing.

And yes, I even moved the bag of mulch that had been laying where I dropped it when I took it out of my car trunk so many months ago--although I did enjoy the running joke it had become. Stays where you put it! the bag boasted. Indeed it did.

I went into the house, then out. In, out. In, out. I did this and did that, and then I did the other thing. Talked to myself, sang along with the radio, listened to a couple of the podcasts I earnestly downloaded long ago, for when I had time. For a while, I just sat silently and stared into space as the frantic chatter in my brain slowed to a gentle mutter and then trailed off.

To an extent, puttering is a gesture of respect from our brains to our physical selves. It’s not about thinking, or reading, or producing. Instead, we take on “mindless tasks” that need only the most minimal participation of the brain We acknowledge our surroundings, consider what makes us comfortable, and tend to those things, however aimlessly.

This is not the same as housekeeping, which is more the drudgery of keeping a house functional. That’s serious, stodgy work. This is the frill on the turkey, taking care of the visual clutter that tends to exacerbate the racket of a busy brain. If we let our brains lead, they drift towards the little disturbances—piles of mail, unfinished projects—so we may handle them. We wash the bedroom curtains. Hang a picture. Make things nice.

When my life gets full, puttering around the house invariably falls off my schedule. On one hand, it seems indulgent. But it’s also not something one ordinarily schedules. Puttering typically occurs spontaneously, in between all the other things one does. It is both an activity, and the absence of activity.

But I realized the other day, as I drifted around the house, that this day of hardcore puttering felt deeply therapeutic. Set it free from all constraints, my brain meandered at its own pace and in its own way, unclenching and creating space through which fresh ideas wafted. It was relaxing, refreshing, and rejuvenating. Plus I got rid of those catalogs.