My teachers all complained of my daydreaming. To be labeled a “daydreamer” was a negative and was frowned upon. To daydream was to waste time. One could not afford to waste time. School was for learning (supposedly). To become lost in thought was frivolous and was sheer idleness. After all, “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” To do so went against our very Puritan work ethic. One must always be busy, one cannot just be.
But, no matter how much criticism I received, I remained a daydreamy boy whose head was always lost somewhere in the clouds of imagining. I was a stripling of a boy and did not care for sports but searched the woods behind our house for a magical portal to another, more wondrous realm. I was convinced it was the old abandoned VW Bug that had somehow broken down and remained in the center of the wood. I just needed to figure out how it was. Much thought went into considering each and every possibility. I never found one but I also never considered that time spent in wondering to have been a waste.
I was a natural born woolgatherer. Woolgathering is defined as the “indulgence in aimless thought or dreamy imagining; absentmindedness.”
Woolgathering often means sitting and simply thinking, pondering, wondering, imagining, and daydreaming. In our society that prides utilitarianism, woolgathering appears to be a waste of time, a true indulgence. In her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Rebecca Solnit writes, “The multiplication of technologies in the name of efficiency is actually eradicating free time by making it possible to maximize the time and place for production and minimize the unstructured travel time in between…Too, the rhetoric of efficiency around these technologies suggests that what cannot be quantified cannot be valued-that that vast array of pleasures which fall into the category of doing nothing in particular, of woolgathering, cloud-gazing, wandering, window-shopping, are nothing but voids to be filled by something more definite, more production, or faster-paced…I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought or thoughtfulness.”
I shudder at that last phrase “faster than the speed of thought or thoughtfulness.”
Woolgathering allows for thought. for considering, for speculating, for dreaming.
Someone who was a big daydreamer was Albert Einstein. It was while he was lost in thought that he originated the pioneering theory that led him to establish the foundation of modern physics was actually envisioned in one of his many famous thought experiments. He came up with his theory of relativity after spending hours lost in his own mind. And he was not alone, Charles Darwin, Friedrich Nietzsche, and James Joyce were the same way.
Because spending hours allowing the mind to wander frees it to consider many different possibilities in solving complex problems with creative solutions. Now we are not all going to be Einstein coming up with the Theory of Relativity or James Joyce writing Dubliners, but we can still benefit from time spent simply in thought.
The term “woolgathering” used to mean, quite literally, gathering bits of wool that had been shed in tufts from the sheep that had gotten caught on bushes or fences. Those who did, wandered about, looking for and gathering these tiny scraps of wool. It wasn’t until the mid-16th century that it began to have another meaning when people began to say, “My wits went a woolgathering” (meaning aimlessly wandering in thought).
And yet I consider such time precious. Time spent lying under a tree’s shade just watching clouds pass overhead or the canopy of stars.
When Patti Smith heard someone being called a woolgather she writes, “I was not at all sure what a woolgatherer was but it sounded like a worthy calling and seemed a good job for me. And so I kept watch, in every weather. In every weather. . . And the image of woolgatherers in that sleepy field drew me to sleep as well. And I wandered among them, through the thistle and thorn, with no task more exceptional than to rescue a fleeting thought, a tuft of wool, from the comb of the wind.”
Gather thoughts like tufts of wool. Thoughts so easily blown away by the wind.
Thoughts passing by like clouds.
Idleness is not laziness. Idleness can spark creativity.
As author Neil Gaiman understands, “You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.”
In the woods behind our house, there was a great boulder that I love to lay on because it was my dreaming stone. During the summer it was warm from the sun, especially since I most often went without a shirt on. In the fall and spring, it was cool against my back, even through the shirt I had on. On that dreaming stone, I would either close my eyes or leave them open. Either way, it did not take long to get lost in my own thoughts. They were rich and full and plentiful. I imagined what my life would be like, I imagined other worlds and what they were like, I created pictures of images or words, I delighted in the simple, pure pleasure of the dream.
Even now, there are times when I will be driving along and will spot a stream. Pulling my car over somewhere, I will get out and go sit on the banks and watch as the waters meander past me. And I allow myself a few moments to do nothing else. To breathe. To quiet the busyness of the world and to allow my thoughts to have free rein. It’s amazing how just spending a few moments in this way can shift something deep within me and I can feel the sacredness of life and the wonder of the world.
Time is fleeting. Time is short. Time is a gift.
That is why time should not all be spent in hurrying to accomplish tasks and to meet deadlines. Time must be treasured in a way that is luxurious, that is indulgent, that is spent in simply woolgathering. How big and wide and wondrous his world is and our time in it. Take that time to reflect, to wish and dream and imagine. From such moments come music and poetry and art and literature and science and philosophy.
Gather the discarded. Gather the forgotten, Gather that which has been blown away. Gather that which others do not. Gather the tufts of those things that will be your gift to the world. Pluck from the thorn that image, that word, that metaphor because it is precious.
Woolgatherers gathered the small bits of wool without pay and many of us may find ourselves unpaid by wages for our art, but gather anyway. Continue to gather and weave with grace, with delight in the simple act of doing it, of creating to create.
So go out into that world and be a woolgatherer.