To putter around implies aimless behavior.
In a culture that values goals and outcomes, it’s no wonder we rarely consider puttering around of much value. In fact the noun “putz” is slang for a fool or an idiot. That should have been sobering enough when I set out to write a short essay on a behavior I personally find very rewarding.
Yet, I was horrified to learn, in dictionary after dictionary, how the word connotes a host of derogatory behaviors. Well! That set me back a little until I realized how the discovery of the word’s shady reputation was actually an important clue to why puttering around is so maligned.
When, for example, do you actually take time to wander in the yard or garden for no particular reason? You are not there to weed, hoe, arrange, or plan an addition to it. You are enjoying what is there before you. Maybe you have even had the good sense to bring a mug of steaming coffee or tea outside with you, and now you stand in your crumpled pajamas, a beard glistening on your chin in the sun, watching a solitary bee buzzing in and out of the blooming salvia.
What is on your mind? Nothing … what a profound relief!
After a week of project driven days, worry about keeping your place in the office pecking order, trying to be the ultimate parent and seeing how imperfectly you’ve been able to carry that out when your kid’s obnoxious behavior got the best of you, and tax time is looming and you wonder where in the hell you’ll get the money to pay them … now, this lovely moment suspended above the cacophony of your life.
What is before you? Everything: a world that works without your help or intervention. The birds, bees, earthworms, flowers, the breeze and the clouds know perfectly well what to do without you. Isn’t it great?
You take a deep breath and the fragrance of your neighbor’s blooming citrus tree fills your nostrils with a sweet, moist cloud beckoning your attention. Suddenly, you are aware of a loud, humming sound. Hundreds of honey bees are busy gathering nectar and you had not even been aware of them when you first shuffled out of the door.
Little children are masters of puttering and we think it’s cute without realizing they are showing us what humans probably were meant to do most of the time. After all – we descended from hunter-gatherers who spent a lot of time observing, sensing, and wandering. So we come by puttering naturally.
Along comes a culture of rational thinkers, which while very useful for getting things done, maligns puttering, the fertile pile that nourishes the seeds of invention and art.
Decades ago a new method in science education sprouted around the idea that kids needed time to “mess about” (i.e. with materials like wires, batteries, real soil, real bugs—real life.) It was based on the observation that more than just the mind and thoughts create understanding. Researchers discovered that senses are potent, give more information, and spark more ideas than reading alone.
You may say, “What’s the point? What will I gain by puttering? My time is important, every minute counts, doesn’t it?”
Good question, the same one I also ask myself continuously. I think I discovered puttering out of desperation, to be truthful—on a day when I could no longer bear to think another thought. Also, I have a father in his ninetieth year of life who has mastered the art of puttering. In fact, he might be a professor of puttering if he wished to be.
Take the act of loading up his pipe with tobacco. I watch Dad fill the bowl with sweet smelling American Spirit tobacco, soft and auburn colored. He tamps it down and then leans back in his chair, strikes a match, and pulls on the pipe stem with his lips and indrawn breath, then settles back into the recliner and blows smoke rings above his head. There is silence. Only the squeak of the leather chair as he shifts his weight or the in and out swish of air in his rising and falling chest are perceptible. Then, he sets aside his pipe in the glass ashtray by his chair, folds his hands across his ample belly and suddenly, he begins to speak in a deep, gravelly voice,
The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest, —
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The thronèd monarch better than his crown:
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway,—
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s,
When mercy seasons justice. *from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice
My breathing is in sync with Dad’s now. He falls asleep for one of many naps throughout his day. He has taken me with him into a sublime moment of puttering.