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Invitation to Loiter

Photo Credit: The Blue Flower

“I sit on my favourite rock, looking over the brook, to take time away from busy-ness, time to be. I’ve long since stopped feeling guilty about taking being time; it’s something we all need for our spiritual health, and often we don’t take enough of it” (Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, Madeleine L’Engle, 12).

I am self-trained “do-er,” learning how to simply “be.” My name means “honey bee” or “industrious one,” and I’ve generally lived up to it. My last year in college, a good friend of mine who shared our on-campus apartment looked at me with bewilderment, after living with me for the better part of that year, and said, “I don’t know how you survive.” She was referring to my constant, grueling work ethic. I have been this way since junior high when I would return from school in the late afternoon and labor dutifully over my homework until bedtime, and then get up the next day to do it all again, not taking time to be involved in sports or any after school activities apart from piano lessons; I was always working on school work. I worked this way through high school, spending the better part of most weekends on homework and studies, and the pattern continued into adulthood. I do not like to let myself rest until I feel all my work is completed for a day. I don’t like to take a moment to just relax until the work is done.

But in recent years, in my personal time, I find myself pushing back on this need to constantly “do” ever so slightly. I wonder what all this productivity is for. What lofty purpose does my efficiency serve? American poet Ross Gay chronicles his encounters with “delight” over the course of a year in his prose book The Book of Delights. While the book is not in verse, it reads like a stream of consciousness, poetic ode to delight. One of the chief delights of Gay’s life involves taking his time or what otherwise might be deemed “loitering.” Gay writes:

The Webster’s definition of loiter reads thus: ‘to stand or wait around idly without

apparent purpose,’ and ‘to travel indolently with frequent pauses.’ Among the synonyms

for this behavior are linger, loaf, laze, lounge, lollygag, dawdle, amble, saunter, meander, putter, dilly-dally, and mosey…All of these words to me imply having a nice day. They imply having the best day. They also imply being unproductive. Which leads to being, even if only temporarily, nonconsumptive, and this is a crime in America…” (230).

Gay goes on to say how noncomsumptive delight is more likely to be perceived as criminal if you have darker skin. A white person loitering is problematic and a nuisance, but a black person loitering is too often viewed as a threat. In either circumstance, Gay’s primary point that I want to mull over is this idea that being unproductive and nonconsumptive in America is something you won’t easily be forgiven for, is possibly even criminal. It is fascinating how we take issue with loitering in general. Try explaining what “loitering” is to a child, and you’ll quickly get a glimpse of the absurdity of the concept and our criminalization of it. “Well, honey, it means standing around for a little too long in one place outside or inside an establishment.” Maybe it is a hold-over from our Puritan work ethic. Maybe it is capitalism driving our competitive sense of urgency. Perhaps both or other forces are responsible, but it is true that many of us are uncomfortable with a lack of productivity, with “too much” relaxation, too much “lollygagging.” And I am certainly chief among them. Just ask my family. I like how Ross Gay causes me to pause and ask, “Why?” Isn’t there an element of taking our time that speaks of freedom and agency? If we do not have control over how we parcel out our own time, who does? Why do we give away our power so easily when it comes to power over our time? And why do we feel annoyed or even threatened by people engaging in pleasurable, unhurried delight?

Gay also posits that laughter and loitering seem to be “kissing cousins, as both bespeak an interruption in production and consumption.” He recalls many occasions of being shushed when in large groups of heartily laughing nonwhite people in establishments ranging from bars and a Qdoba to the Harvard Club. He considers, “The shushing, perhaps, reminds how threatening to the order are our bodies in nonproductive, nonconsumptive delight” (231). As a librarian, whose very occupation many closely associate with shushing, this observation causes me to stop and reflect. Libraries are generally no longer the quiet bastions of books and study and silent reading that they once were. Our concepts of libraries are adapting appropriately with changing needs of patrons and the shifting technologies of our world. Nevertheless, I am someone who is prone to shush people in general: whether in our middle school library or, in other instances, at home and elsewhere. I truly am a “shusher.” I am not a fan of loud noises (never have been), can get overstimulated by too much ongoing noise, and I startle relatively easily. My nervous system does not welcome too much “raucous” upheaval. It’s telling that “raucous” is a word I use often to describe behavior. So my go-to is to shush when an outburst of something even as lovely and magical as laughter feels a little out of control.

But I want to consider that for a while. Why should loud laughter be something I want to squelch? Is it truly the volume? Or is there an element of it feeling beyond my control, and I wish to regain a sense of authority over my environment? Is there an element of my feeling annoyed that those causing the ruckus are not being more productive, are not working? If I’m honest I think there can be truth to both of these possibilities. Since I tend to drive myself hard, I can feel put out when others appear to not be doing the same. I expect you to drive just as doggedly through life as I do, and I am affronted at your boisterous demonstration that you take time to simply delight and to be. All this being said, I’m not nearly as much of a fun-squashing ogre as this perhaps makes me sound, but I am grateful for Ross Gay’s essay because it has helped me to reflect and to question my automatic “shush” valve as well as my tendency to glance with uneasy suspicion on those who are lingering too long in “nonproductive, nonconsumptive delight.”

This week, try to observe others who are engaged in nonproductive, nonconsumptive delight. Notice any internal dialogue that wants to accompany your observations. Notice any judgments that might surface or discomfort. Or perhaps you feel joy observing this uninhibited, free-range delight: all the better. Try to catch yourself engaging in an act of unhurried delight as you go about your days.

Photo Credit: The Blue Flower. Blue Flower author in "nonproductive, nonconsumptive delight." Monk's House Garden. Rodmell. England.

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Melissa Williams
Melissa Williams
Jan 20, 2022

I like the way you phrase that: "We've been so conditioned to having purpose for every moment we're awake." That is very true and valuable to recognize. Thank you for reading, commenting, and for subscribing!


It takes some practice to be still and to hear the silences and longer in the now. We’ve been so conditioned to having purpose for every moment when we are awake. Shall I blame the Puritans who set up this part of the world in which “idle hands are the devil’s workshop?” Shall I remind myself that stilling the breath and taking the time to empty the mind are healthy substitutes? I shall choose the latter and enjoy the slower road.

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