In seemingly endless seasons of hustle and bustle, days which become weeks which become years where our waking selves yearn and burn and strive to meet—and occasionally exceed—all of our expectations and obligations, it can be easy to lose track of...ourselves. As women engaged in the peak living of the thing, it isn't like we aren't constantly reminded to "keep calm and carry on", to put our oxygen masks on first, or to remember that we're really #TooBlessedToBeStressed. Sure.
Dolce far Niente (1880) by John William Waterhouse. Oil on canvas.
It's true that sometimes we must persevere, that that requires taking care of ourselves, that idleness is both a luxury and a privilege, and that acknowledging our blessings is an absolute necessity for maintaining awareness of (and multiplying) life's rich abundance. But.
Dolce Far Niente by John Singer Sargent, (1905-1909), oil on canvas
There's something about how those ways of thinking are framed that feels like it's leaning in too hard to either "grin it and bear it and post about it" mode or "getting things done in emergency crisis" mode—we are not in London in 1939, nor are we on a rapidly descending airplane, and it's ok if we are simultaneously blessed AND stressed AND we don't feel like hashtagging it. Leave it to the Italians to find a better way.
We obviously love how, instead of saying "goodbye", Italians say "A domani!"—meaning see you in the infinite tomorrow—and we are equally enamored of their version of "put your oxygen mask on first" which is: il dolce far niente. Literally, it means "the sweetness of doing nothing", but existentially it means that doing nothing is actually a very important something which, in fact, can sometimes be everything.
Dolce far Niente (also known as Sweet Idleness or A Pompeian Fishpond) (1904) by John William Godward Oil on canvas
Dolce Far Niente is such a necessary existential mood that there are literally hundreds of paintings named "Dolce Far Niente" (every painting on this page, in fact). Almost exclusively of women, occasionally surrounded by other women, but usually in blissful solitude/the company of exotic animals, the portraits have common elements: opulent lounging in the most luxuriously comfortable clothes in exquisite locales surrounded by the tactile trappings of sweet idleness and pretty objects serving no utility other than the joy of the moment—oh, just me and this book, this platter of pastries, this lotus blossom, this peacock fan...doing some sweet nothing.
John William Godward, Dolce far niente, 1897, oil on canvas
Velvet settees, tiger fur rugs, and seemingly wide open schedules notwithstanding, what we love about these paintings is the sense of physical abandon. The arm flung out to the side, the fingers resting easy, the body itself liquid, holding on to nothing. We are so often in our miraculous physical bodies—after all, they are the pure glorious machinery of all of our doing doing doing—without really being in them. We have to remind ourselves to stretch, to smile, to breathe. When we allow (encourage?) ourselves to be still, our innerworkings can begin to move. As if when the mind quiets in the sweetness of dolce far niente, the body can at last be heard. The still mind is more present to the delicious tactile wonders that make these days sing: the way you can practically feel cheeks becoming rosy in cold air, the pleasing heft of a book, the sound a bottle of champagne makes, the wonder of honey or of fruit or flowers, the joy of a full and noisy house and the gift of a quiet one. In this space of noticing, the body can make its request: what it asks for is rest. Not rest in the sense of "rest and rejuvenation" but in the sense of "repose", of abandon, of letting go with thoughtful intention. It doesn't have to be all day (though wouldn't that be nice), with a little practice it can even be just a recentering of sweet awareness in the space of a few breaths.
This season we will be setting that intention, perhaps putting aside time on the calendar if necessary (after all niente definitely doesn't happen when there are meetings), slipping into our most luxuriously comfortable clothes, and giving ourselves permission to allow space and time for a little sweet nothing.
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