A Day without a To-Do List

I wake up gently, yawn, and bury my head in warm blankets.

“You should get up and meditate,” an inner voice suggests, ever so sweetly. She has many ideas, most beginning with you should….  I ignore her which is rare, but it’s time for a day without a list.

I roll on my side, Willow’s signal to stand beside my bed and lean toward me for a morning rubdown from ears to belly to tail. Her nose nuzzles my relaxed hand. She squirms with pleasure as my fingers work their way through her oily short brown fur. It’s the least I can do for this girl who’s seen me through the worst of grief.

Out my bedroom window

I throw back the blankets and sit up. “You could meditate now,” the little voice says. I ignore her, walk to the south windows, pick up the binoculars sitting on my dresser, and scan the nesting  boxes.

Tree Swallow parents are busy feeding their nestlings. For a few seconds, both parents are inside the box with all four babes. I know there are four because I wait until the parents are out and look inside. They don’t seem to mind.

A Carolina Wren sticks her head through the round hole of the other box close by, the box where five Bluebird babies died in May. The mama disappeared in days of cold driving rain, but the Wren reminds me life persists.

Tree Swallow nestlings

Willow walks downstairs ahead of me, taking each step carefully. “We could meditate now,” the little voice suggests with hope. I know the message underneath. “You’re a spiritual failure. What are you doing? Go meditate.” I ignore her again and walk to the back porch to watch the Swallowtail Butterflies, both White and Black, nectaring in Dame’s Rockets in my flower bed.

“Shouldn’t we meditate, you slacker,” the voice says. She’s bitchy now, but I know her game and her unending demands.

Willow’s on the deck warming her old bones in sunshine, a rare pleasure this rainy cold June. She’s ready for breakfast and so am I. Dog chow for Willow with grated carrots, olive oil, yogurt, and sardines. Yogurt and granola for me. Willow slurps it up, and so do I.

Carolina Wren

“Want to meditate?”

“Not really. Not sitting inside on those blue cushions with an upright spine and mind struggling to quiet down and follow my breath. Not the practice I’ve done since 1970. Today, I’m meditating on doing nothing. I’m meditating on no-list and no-goals other than listening to singing birds and rustling leaves. It’s not easy with you inside my head.”

Lettuce, kale, & onions


I walk to the garden, unlatch the gate, and marvel at the new design created by my son. A few raised beds and planting boxes with a fence for trellising beans and cucumbers. The right size to grow vegetables for one instead of a hungry family. I pull a few weeds in the loose fertile boxes, all in slow motion.

Willow and I meander along a familiar trail. As we circle back toward the house, a blue-gray Bluebird female shoots out of a new nesting box.


As the mama watches from a tree branch, I quickly open the nesting box door and see four perfect eggs in a nest built on top of an abandoned moss Chickadee nest. Nature’s recycling plan and this spring’s fourth try for Bluebirds to be fruitful and multiply. Three nesting attempts failed, but nature offers another chance to observe with less attachment.

Today, quiet watching is meditation enough for me.


Do you take days or weeks or a whole summer off from goals? I wrote my blog before this New York Times Opinion piece came out: You Are Doing Something Important When You Aren’t Doing Anything. Some of us (especially me) need reassurance during receptive fallow times. For other articles about being replenished by nature, you might enjoy my Nature archives. I suggest a photo essay 12 Monarch Miracles of 2018 because I saw a few Monarchs doing mating dances over the milkweed fields on June 23. They’re late this year, but they’ve arrived.

  1. What a beautiful, deep, slow read! As I began to read your post Elaine, I left my day behind and suddenly I found myself watching you. Watching you wake and rise, stroke and stride, smiling and sighing along the way! For your poetic prose transports us into your world to linger and look everywhere within. It’s wonderful to share your view, veg beds, eggs in nests and then to crown it all, her loveliness too, otherwise known as Willow.

    Oh my Goddess! Yes, let’s all ignore those irritating “should” voices. I can’t think of a more worthwhile meditation for the day! Well I have to say, I feel deeply relaxed now and will soon wander out to my garden and see what’s happening out there. Thank you my dear friend, for such a gentle, sweet rhythm has fallen onto to me. I feel like the little girl whose eyes could eat up the world if they could!

    And perfect timing as always, as here my summer holiday draws near as I ready myself to travel to the beautiful, inspirational Lake District where I’ll soon be nestled into my favourite poet’s cottage (Shelley’s) and shall be burrowed there, in July’s smoky mountains for the month … so my poem “August” will have to be penned there too. Love and light, Deborah.

    • Thank you, Deborah. I relax kust reading your comment. Deep long exhalation. I need many more days like this with self-given permission to do nothing. I’ve never been so aware of the inner taskmaster as I am now that I demand a break from her. She does protest, refusing to go easily into the quiet. She’d rather stir up a new project or job. Anything except just be. Her Loveliness Willow is a guru on taking life easy as she ages. She was out a while this morning and now she’s lying with her back pressed against my foot. I love her devotion and willingness to do whatever works for me.

      The Swallows will leave their nest any day. I have no idea what’s happening in the wren nests since they make a maze of sticks inside and opening the door may cause catastrophe. The bluebird eggs are safe. Since adding a proper snake guard would mean banging on the pole for installation, I quietly wrapped the pole with old wire mesh I didn’t want to put in the land fill and secured it a few places with reused wire ties. Mama Bluebird perched on an overhead branch and watched. It’s not elegant, but it works. A snake can’t climb that pole without being caught in the mesh, so I hope none will try. I was little girl proud of my bluebird saving invention. Have a wonderful holiday in the north country. In Shelley’s cottage? Wow! The walls must be soaked in inspiration. I look forward to your July poem. Sending love across the sea.

  2. Being present to the Universe is never a waste of time.

    • I’ll tell that devilish taskmaster you said so. Of course, I agree, but it’s easy to get caught on the treadmill. Healing from surgery and adjusting to a new world of sound requires rest and listening to birds. How I appreciate their songs.

  3. Watching and walking in nature is as much a meditation as sitting, spine straight, putting balloons around your thoughts so they float away. It’s what first appealed to me about Zen, and still does.

    • I know, Karen. Why is it so easy to get caught up in the doing, as if that’s more important? My first meditation experience was with a Zen master in CA in the 1960s. Sometime early on, I was taught walking meditation. That’s still part of my repertoire, but I long for even less structure. Just being and resting and listening to birds. I saw Monarch butterflies a few days ago, so I watch for them in the milkweed patches.

  4. The shrill SHOULD call is as intense to me, as it is to you. From a master list, I often make daily lists, telling myself that list-making eases my mind from the fear of forgetting something important. Alpha-types keep feeding this nag!

    I imagine after my book is published and I have pushed marketing as far as it can go, for now, I will slack off. But, old habits are hard to break. I plan to take a few days off next week because the holiday will give me permission. You see, I have to “learn” the art of “doing nothing” without guilt, just as I had to learn the craft of memoir writing. You are making a noble start here.

    Thank you for the tour of your meadows, the birdie eggs, your garden, and another glimpse of Willow. I applaud your effort to shut down the need to cross something off your to-do list, even it if is meditation!

    • I’m laughing at both of us, Marian. I’ll slack off later, too, except cochlear implant surgery forced the issue with a need to rest and replenish now. I know how hard it is to create and put out a book and my move from grief to pushing came when I decided to create ‘Leaning into Love’ and accompany it into the world. New opportunities show up. Other than Hospice volunteering, I’m saying no to new projects this summer (so far). I can always make a new list in the fall. Watching with Willow is the best kind of meditation for an overly busy mind–most grateful, deepest breathing, quietest, most attuned with environment, mindful and rejuvenating. I didn’t leave the cushions cold for long, but we’ll call this a close cousin of walking meditation or forest bathing meditation. Nature as the Meditation Master.

  5. Hi Elaine, This sounds so wonderful . Why would anyone in their right mind want to sit on a meditation cushion when surrounded by so much wonder and glory . When I’m walking or sitting in my garden I get the feeling that “The garden is meditating me” . Surely, being open to what is around you is meditation at its fullest . It sounds like you are in danger of becoming a poet . Best Wishes Gary

    • You’re ahead of me, Gary, in combining your art with the garden, but I learned in my 20s that the quietest place for my agitated mind is sitting on the earth pulling weeds or thinning lettuce for dinner. The small quiet gardening jobs when I’m close to the plants. I did a little of that before breakfast this morning–pulling bindweed roots out of the earth and unwinding them from the struggling lilies that nearly drowned this wet spring. Your exquisite poems capture the wonders of the garden and the quiet mind taking them in. I agree this is meditation at its fullest.

  6. Yes! a goal it is to read your wonderful tells like any of your post dear Elain, as our common friend; Deborah Gregory advised me to read it (because of my new post about my burnout!) It is a calming of the soul to read and feel it; the calmness in mother nature. I hope I’ll reach this quiet once soon because, next year I will be retired and when I’m still alive, I will enjoy it. I am so happy to have you both on my side. Thank you

    • Aladin, another friend across the sea, I hope you’ll find a city park and sit a while to listen to the birds and breathe. A short rest in the midst of exhaustion, even though you long for more and surely need more. I haven’t read your post on burnout, but I will. It’s a modern illness to live with a manic pace–going nowhere fast. Thank you for reading and please take care of yourself.

  7. In the spirit of Mary Oliver!

    • Yes. I’m honored by any connection to her exquisite nature mysticism. The older I get, the more I realize how much I’ve become a nature mystic.

  8. I love days without a todo list and I’m getting better at pushing back the shoulds as well as the shouldn’ts. If we don’t take time to just be, we’ll miss living a satisfying life.

    • I agree, Joan, but confess I’m not good at this. I tend to make life too busy. As I go through the long process of adjusting to bionic hearing, it’s time to schedule less and listen to birds more. Yesterday I found two clutches of bird eggs–chickadees and bluebirds. Now that’s an accomplishment!

  9. I don’t recall a day without “to-do” lists and “shoulds” except when I was sick, and I haven’t been sick in a long time. Your beautifully written post offers a challenge I might accept one of these days, Elaine.

    • Thank you, Lynne. I’m glad this rang a bell with you. I need to follow my own suggestions since hearing recovery takes so much energy. It’s easy to say yes, so I’m focusing on pausing to see if life wouldn’t be better if I said no or later more often.

  10. Lovely Elaine! Rare are the days that there is no goal. Just this morning there was no need to get up early and get ready. Usually I sit up in bed and meditate but this morning I didn’t and I felt ok about that! Today was a day of a very unhurried pace even to the point of slothfulness. Unlike me but clearly a part of me which I enjoyed experiencing-

    • Yes, rare are the days. Slothfulness,is a new goal for me. Somehow we’ve all caught a contagious disease called “Doing.” I’m not finding it easy to talk myself out of this attitude, but it feels essential.

  11. Such a rare occasion when our to do list is empty. You took in the day beautifully Elaine. 🙂

    • You’re the second person to use the word rare, Debby. I need more unstructured time every day not just occasionally. I’ve known that for years, but the energy that goes into hearing now makes it impossible to put off.

  12. So nice, Elaine. Idyllic — a day without a to-do list — the ultimate meditation. Yes, for me a rare occasion, a luxury. How wonderful for you to be in the midst of so much natural beauty. Thank you. Just reading this gives me respite. –Carol

    • Thank you, Carol. It’s a rare day, but I will create more of them this summer. I’m surrounded by natural beauty, so there’s no excuse for drowning in a bad news world. Balance is needed. Monarchs have returned here, so I’ll soon find tiny eggs and caterpillars on the milkweed plants. There’s nothing more meditative than watching a caterpillar chomp it’s way through a milkweed leaf.

  13. Everything you did this day sounds like a meditation, to me. I think it is important that we be alive and fully present to our experience. I call that meditation, too. Especially when it involves being outside.

    • My wiser self agrees, Tricia. Yes, of course. It’s obvious, isn’t it? It seems to be my job to convince the achiever within who persists in a voice remarkably like my mother’s. My mom died a year before Vic. That achiever-complex is quieting down a bit, but we’ll keep having the debate until she lets it go.

  14. Ah,you once again have captured such wisdom with your words, Elaine. The voice that privileges the doing self is, indeed, such a tyrant. As much as living with a chronic illness has its significant struggles, it gives the gift of enforcing a much slower pace. (Though, of course, the inner tyrant still keeps the pressure on.) I had to cancel a visit today, and although I’ve shed a few tears, it has meant only one thing on my to-do list (to wash my hair!), which may or may not get done. This morning I made a visit to our new kiwi plant that got run over by a mower and is having quite a comeback. This afternoon I will meditate–however, after reading your post again, not until I first head out to the porch swing and bask in the beauty of birdsong with gratitude that I can hear it.

    • What a lovely comment, Anne. Thank you. I’ve canceled many things in recent months because of fatigue as my brain learns to hear again. I just received an email from a man who’s had a cochlear implant for 10 years reassuring me that fatigue is normal, but possibly ongoing. So, combine that with aging, and here we have it. My focus this summer is on pushing back on the inner taskmaster and saying no. I’m enjoying writing two pieces a week in a supportive writing group I’ve attended for 10 years–one piece written in class and one longer piece written at home to take to class for feedback. It gives me a chance to be experimental and creative with no goals in mind. With a little gardening and bird watching, watching deer in my fields with a binoculars (4 bucks with velvet antlers yesterday morning), butterflies, nesting birds, and many fireflies, this is an ideal healing vacation. It’s long overdue. I’m glad you have that porch.

  15. I have never felt more aligned with this “no plan, no should” as I do right now. This New Moon has been asking me “How about a nap? How about you don’t worry about X Y Z?” Thank you, Elaine. This is a wonderful post.

    • Wonderful, Erika. I’m getting there and devoting the summer to no plan. Of course, change is a slow process, but I’m doing well with continued writing (without pressure), small scale (compared to the past) gardening, watching nature, and resting. I wish I were good at napping, but I lie on the floor with my feet up the wall for 15 minutes, taking deep breaths into belly and back. I watched for the new moon last night, but it wasn’t visible yet on the western horizon. Maybe tonight. Jupiter still sparkles in the midnight sky and it’s a knockout with stars and planets in the heavens and a larger than normal population of fireflies in the grasses and trees. When I wake up in the middle of the night, I pause to have a look and sometimes go outside to wonder at all the sparkling light within the dark.

Leave a Reply