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The Art of the Wasted Day

The Art of the Wasted Day

by Patricia Hampl


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“A sharp and unconventional book — a swirl of memoir, travelogue and biography of some of history's champion day-dreamers.” Maureen Corrigan, "Fresh Air"

A spirited inquiry into the lost value of leisure and daydream

The Art of the Wasted Day is a picaresque travelogue of leisure written from a lifelong enchantment with solitude. Patricia Hampl visits the homes of historic exemplars of ease who made repose a goal, even an art form. She begins with two celebrated eighteenth-century Irish ladies who ran off to live a life of "retirement" in rural Wales. Her search then leads to Moravia to consider the monk-geneticist, Gregor Mendel, and finally to Bordeaux for Michel Montaigne—the hero of this book—who retreated from court life to sit in his chateau tower and write about whatever passed through his mind, thus inventing the personal essay.

Hampl's own life winds through these pilgrimages, from childhood days lazing under a neighbor's beechnut tree, to a fascination with monastic life, and then to love—and the loss of that love which forms this book's silver thread of inquiry. Finally, a remembered journey down the Mississippi near home in an old cabin cruiser with her husband turns out, after all her international quests, to be the great adventure of her life.

The real job of being human, Hampl finds, is getting lost in thought, something only leisure can provide. The Art of the Wasted Day is a compelling celebration of the purpose and appeal of letting go.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525429647
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/17/2018
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 1,134,420
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Patricia Hampl is the author of six prose works, including A Romantic Education and, most recently, The Florist's Daughter. Her work has appeared in many publications, including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Best American Essays.  The recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and the MacArthur Foundation, she lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Read an Excerpt


It begins—July afternoon—under the shade of the beechnuttree. The tree belongs to Mr. Kinney, the shade is ours. It must be 1953,because the Magnavox has just been delivered from McGowan’s TV and Appliance onGrand. It’s not just for watching Lucy, my mother says, already mistrusting it.“You’re seeing history.” She points to the first smudged image she allows us tosee—the Koreans and Chinese and Americans signing their names in a big Bibleybook. “Peace,” she says, settling in with her cigs, the chipped cloisonnéashtray at hand.

An announcer drones from the glass box, murmuring names.One after another, men approach the heavy table to sign the book, each handinga fountain pen to the next. Mother taps her cig against the little Chineseashtray, a gift, she tells me, from her uncle who was a U.S. Customs agent inSan Francisco, half a world away from us in St. Paul. He got the ashtray whenhe broke an opium smuggling ring, she says proudly. He left the ashtray to her.

“Did he steal it?” I ask.

She looks startled. “Not exactly,” she says uncertainly,turning back to the television. This is going to take a long time, the menhanding the pen back and forth. History, it turns out, is boring.

So I come out here, throw myself on the ground where thefeathers of the beechnut sway and tilt. The green filigree patterns the sky, light filters my face. It’s hard (the ground), yet also soft (the sponge oflawn). I shut my eyes. The Customs agent uncle, dead before I was born, isstanding on a San Francisco dock. Does he have a gun? He has a badge, that Isee. He lifts the blue cloisonné ashtray out of a burlap bag, and a Chinese manhas his hands up in the air. He has a long pigtail I recognize from theblack-and-red lacquer tray Mother brings up with soup and saltines when we’re sick in bed. There must be a gun somewhere, but where is it?

The scene fades, and a fresh image appears, our next-doorneighbor Mr. Kinney, who presents himself in the dark for no reason. There heis, filling my mind.


Mr. Kinney is a widower. My mother says his wife has beendead “forever.” A hush of respect hovers over this fact. Because he is awidower and because he “has money,” he has a housekeeper. She doesn’t like me.She wears a flowered apron trimmed with rickrack, and herdesignation—housekeeper—makes her slightly sinister. Who has a housekeeper? Notnormal people. Only Mr. Kinney, a widower without children but with money. Heowns the coke factory near the zoo, a place of foreboding, heaps of blackenedcoal, acrid, smoking. “They’ll have to clean that up one day,” my father says.

Mr. Kinney sits in his glassed-in sunporch before dinner,sipping whiskey from a lowball glass. He drinks after dinner too, slowly,meditatively. He reads, his old smooth head glowing under the floor lamp. Hehas decided against a television set, he informs my father who has inquired if,with the windows open in summer, the sound of the Magnavox carries. We’ve allnoticed the nasty bark of the laugh track, nothing like real laughing.

He’s decided to stick with books, Mr. Kinney tells myfather. He also listens to the radio as Halsey Hall calls the ball game in avoice juicy from a chewed cigar. You can see Mr. Kinney leaning back in hissloping armchair, eyes closed, following the game. Another person who shuts hiseyes to see. In the summer you can hear the metallic chink of ice in thelowball glass. He drinks alone, my mother says.

When you close your eyes, you see and hear things youdidn’t notice before, though they must have been there all along. It’s not thatyou make things up—you notice things. Maybe that’s a kind of making up? Hard tosay. But it’s all more real than history blatting away in the living room wheremy mother stares at the gray glass, tapping her cig against the little saucerof the blue ashtray taken from the Chinese man with his hands above his head.Mother is still there, as the pen passes from a Chinese man to an American andon to the next and the next. She’s happy. She’s watching peace occur in thewide world. Peace is vital to her: We had to drop the bomb, darling. It endedthe War. It saved lives.


But now, here, under the shade of the beechnut, I floatpast the Customs agent and the Chinese smuggler, over the disapproving face ofMr. Kinney’s housekeeper, above mild Mr. Kinney himself, swirling his oilydrink on his sunporch. Day after day, night after night during my endlessgirlhood I float away like this.

My father says Mr. Kinney takes his bourbon on the rocks.Mr. Kinney is slipping down a craggy cliffside under a shower of coal dust. Heteeters off his sunporch—takes his bourbon on the rocks, drinks alone.

There’s something orchestral about all this. My father’svoice, my mother’s, the chink of ice, the echo chamber of that word—alone. Amelodic moan struggles out of the sad-souled vowel at the word’s deadcenter—the sob at the core of alone. O! The stagey hand-on-heart intonation atthe beginning of poems that Great-Aunt Aggie recites—O to be in England, O fora beaker of the warm South . . . Bourbon on the rocks. Well, it’s sad,darling—he drinks alone. O! O!

Words are partly thoughts, but mostly they’re music, deepdown. Thinking itself is, perhaps, orchestral, the mind conducting the world.Conducting it, constructing it. I sense this instinctively.

There is no language for this, not then, not even now,this inner glide, articulation of the wordless, plotless truth of existence.Life is not made up of stories, much as I adore them—Charlotte, Heidi, CaddieWoodlawn. Really, life is—this. It’s a float, my body a cloud drifting along,effortless but aware. Drifting over the world, seeing, passing along.

Years later, peering across from the Kinney sunporch toours, Mr. Kinney’s housekeeper glimpses me roiling around on the couch with myfirst boyfriend and reports this to my grandmother, who conveys theintelligence to my mother—She had a hippie boy out there—with the vindicatedface of a tattling teacher’s pet.

At eight I don’t yet see the hippie boys or the claspingand kissing, but already I recognize the look on the housekeeper’s face. It isthe aggrieved visage of the unloved, thwarted, and denied. The flaccid cheeksslip downward, the sour line of the lips tightens. That sharp eye on the prowl,passing from the back door to the trash can with her bag of refuse, frowning atme lolling under the shade of her employer’s beechnut tree. She’s a busybody.

She recognizes me too for what I am: her natural enemy. Agirl up to no good, lazing my days away, conducting music no one else hears. Atime-waster. A daydreamer.

 Which poses a problem: in a few months we will make ourFirst Confession. We have reached the age of reason. Sister says we now knowthe difference between Good and Evil. She has given us the buff-coloredBaltimore Catechism and directed us to the “Examination of Conscience” at theback to help us prepare for our first whispered recitation in the basement ofSt. Luke’s. The Ten Commandments are listed, each with its complement of sinsand “occasions of sin,” which are to be avoided.

I have located Disobedience (number 4) and Lying (number8) as my province, as well as the diffuse “Unkind Gossip,” an all-purpose sinthat seems to belong to no particular commandment, but exists as an aura aroundall human relations. Then I reach the combined list of sins and occasions ofsin for Commandments 9 and 10, where all the Coveting goes on. There,shockingly, without explanation, is the word. Daydreaming. 

Busted. An official sin, ratified by the BaltimoreCatechism. I stare at it, disbelieving.

To refuse to admit to a sin listed in the “Examination ofConscience” is a disobedience more profound—this I know—than the trivialitiesagainst my mother and father I’ve been toting up for presentation to FatherKennedy in the little curtained box in St. Luke’s basement. A bad confession isthe worst sin of all. Mortal.

But daydreaming, this effortless flight of the mind? I’mthunderstruck. Yet also oddly confirmed. A faint bell chimes within—of coursethe imagination is up to no good. You know that, you were born knowing that.It’s the real, the true occasion of sin. Under the beechnut tree, leavesswishing, the sound of the oily sluice—chink, chink-chink—alone on the rocks. Oalone. But connected to everything, conducting the unheard harmony that is thetruest music. The sweetness of it, lolling under the filtered light of heaven.You possess everything that passes through the mind. It’s divinity. That mustbe the sweetness.

That must be the sin.

I don’t just mentally reject this sin. I tra-la my waypast it. A higher editorial power takes over. I unsee it, unread it. That’spart of this daydream paradise—unthinking my own thinking. I excise the wordfrom the Baltimore Catechism, from my mind. I’m gripped by refusal. It’s a formof loyalty. I’m never letting go of this.

The tendency to float, to depart, to rest—this powerresides within me. It’s right in there, jammed into the space where I’ve beentaught conscience also resides—inside. Listen to your inner voice, children. Itwill guide you. Right here, Sister says, not reaching up to her wimpled head,but touching a pale hand to her obscure bosom under the gloomy tarp of herhabit. Right here. That’s where truth is. You always know—if you consult here.No one questions—I still have not questioned—that there is an inner voice to beheard.

I don’t hesitate. I throw my lot with the occasion ofsin. I already know (or believe—which comes to the same thing in my Catholicworldview) that daydreaming doesn’t make things up. It sees things. Claimsthings, twirls them around, takes a good look. Possesses them. Embraces them.Makes something of them. Makes sense. Or music. How restful it is, how full ofmotion. My first paradox.

I couldn’t care less what it’s called. It’s purepleasure. Infinite delight. For this a person goes to hell.

Okay then.

Though I don’t yet know it, though Sister has her hand onher breast, this is what is called the life of the mind. It’s what I want todo. It’s where I want to be. Right here.


Fast forward. More than forty years, and what’s become of“the life of the mind”? Hand on heart, the inner voice still murmuring? I’vetaken my place, middle seat, my husband on the aisle, a plump woman alreadyseated by the window. I fasten my seat belt, low and tight as instructed. Myhusband takes my right hand, gives it a squeeze, opens his book.

The plane taxis forward, the woman next to me is lookingwith pleasant curiosity out the window. Blue skies, no wind.

We lift off, levitating at a rather sharp angle, withoutshimmy or rattle or bobble. A confident plane. We’re up cleanly at a sheerslant. And I’m dying.

It is impossible to breathe in this canister hurlingitself on high. The thing is not properly pressurized. No one can breathe inhere. We will all die, or—another possibility occurs in the same instant—we mayland safely, but we’ll be a planeful of brain-damaged droolers. Alive, butgone, gone.

I have picked up on the truth sooner than the others. Butdidn’t teachers often say I was quick? In a moment these poor souls will beleaping from their places, madly clawing for air. At least I will die withdignity. My eyes fasten on a hopelessly unaware man farther forward on theaisle, sitting calmly with his newspaper open. I wait for him to leap up, hurlthe paper aside, clutch his throat. He won’t be dying with dignity. But I will.I sit still, frozen in my dignity.

The woman by the window has taken my left hand. She’sstroking it. “You’re all right,” she’s saying. “I’m a labor and delivery roomnurse, and you’re all right.” Does she think I’m pregnant? I’m over fifty.

“You’re all right,” she keeps saying. Very annoyingsingsong. “Look at your hand.”

I look. There it is. And her hand, stroking mine.

“See? It isn’t blue. If you were dying your hand would beblue.” It would? I realize I’m gasping. Loudly, raggedly.

I haven’t been dying with dignity. I have been making—amstill making—weird gagging sounds, desperate, wild. My husband looks alarmed.He has taken my other hand. I feel bound, and rip my hands away from thesedeluded hand-holders who somehow are managing to breathe in this airlesscylinder.

The labor and delivery nurse hands me the airsickness bagfrom the seat pocket. “Breathe into this,” she says, commanding now, notgentle. “Put the bag to your mouth, bend your head. Breathe. In. Out. Breathe.Out. Out. Deep out.”

This I do. “You’re having a panic attack,” she says. “You aren’t dying.”

What does she know? Everything in me tells me I’m dying. I’m a writer. I trust my instincts, I live by my wits. But I do as she says,breathing deep into the bag. No one is leaping around. That gets through to me.Only my husband looks bug-eyed, leaning toward me, but no longer touching mebecause I have batted him away.

“You’re not dying,” the nurse repeats with irritatingcertainty. “You’ve got too much oxygen in your system. Breathe out. Deep. Deep!Out! We’ll get that carbon dioxide level up. You’re having a panic attack,” shesays again. She pats my leg briskly, not unkindly. She’s seen this before.

She hits the call button. I’m given a glass of water.“Drink.” Breathe, drink, live to see another day. Live to tell the tale.

“Better?” the nurse says pleasantly after the water isgone. A pat on the leg. “Better?”

Not really. Not dying, but not better. My husband isthanking her profusely. He’s holding my hand. I allow this, my cold meat pattyin his beautiful warm, dry hand. His beautiful hand I’ve always loved. I loveit again, which is a sign I’m not dying. The nurse has turned back to thewindow, enjoying the bed of pillowy clouds we rest upon.

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