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The magic of doing less
Or, what a tarot card taught me about being a good friend.
I’m in a hotel room in Port Orange, Florida, repeating a mantra that came to me on the long drive from Atlanta: Doing less means that I can offer more.
I’m here, at the height of a sweltering summer, to visit my childhood best friend, Paige. More specifically, I’m here to offer her some help.
Since her husband broke his foot a couple of months ago, Paige has been solely responsible for caring for him, as well as for their two young children, their four pets, and their house — while also juggling full-time work.
It’s a lot. And while I’m glad to be available for my friend, spending a weekend in Florida requires leaving my own family and responsibilities behind. I got to take a day off from work and several days off from parenting, giving me plenty of precious alone time on the road and in my hotel room.
I have much less on my plate than during a usual weekend. And that means I can more fully focus on the task at hand: to offer help however it’s needed.
A couple weeks ago, Billy and I went over to a friend’s house for dinner. The last time we’d visited this friend, we’d brought our daughter; it was a challenge to try to simultaneously keep her entertained while also chatting with the other adults present.
This time, it was just me, Billy, and our friend. My mom was babysitting, which meant that we could relax and properly catch up. We enjoyed a home-cooked meal, waxed philosophical about the state of the world, and eventually moved to the living room where our friend brought out a set of tarot cards he’d been curious about.
The first card I pulled was The Magician. As the guys flipped through the deck and chatted about tarot, I consulted a quirky tarot guidebook for some insight.
“Get going!” the book read.
What good is a magician who doesn't show off their skills? No one's asking you to be like that one guy who always tries to impress everyone, but this is a card all about owning your talents. Realize what you have to offer and put it to good use. It's all within you! You can do so much already — don't be afraid to use your abilities.
I felt a surprising twinge of sadness. This was the kind of tarot card anyone would want to receive, right? It’s great to be reminded that we all have inherent, unique talents. But I felt exposed, too.
The Magician came at a time when I was feeling overwhelmed with work and underwhelmed with pretty much everything else. I was frustrated by how little time I was spending writing, connecting with friends, doing fun things with my daughter, and tending to my own interests. While I was glad we were spending a rare evening at a friend’s house, I’d also been feeling a bit insecure; besides complaining about my workload — which, let’s be honest, no one wants to hear — I didn’t feel like I had much to offer to the conversation. I felt tired and boring. And now I was hit with a card telling me I needed to own my skills.
What skills? I thought. Filling all my time with work?! Not only had I been neglecting my talents lately, I’d buried myself in so much work and busy-ness that it felt like I’d forgotten what my talents were in the first place.
The further I drove from my home in Georgia to Paige’s house in Florida, the more I felt torn — between my dear friend who needed support and my own family, who needed me, too; between some peaceful time alone and time spent catching up on work and chores; between the more-available friend I was pre-widowhood, pre-pandemic, pre-parenthood and the less-readily-available friend I am now. As the interstate exits whizzed by, I felt a familiar sense of guilt creeping in. And that’s when the mantra came to me.
Doing less means that I can offer more.
The voice was quiet, but clear. It was my heart speaking.
I turned off the podcast I was listening to so I could be with that thought. I remembered that, in a recent newsletter,declared this season her Summer of Minimal Effort. She wrote: “I’ve been able to see with crystalline clarity that I can only control so much, and I can only try so much. After a certain point, my effort is only so many circulations of a hamster wheel racing towards nowhere and nothing.”
After an especially busy spring of promoting her book and working nonstop, Sara decided to approach this summer differently. “Minimal Effort means spending more time outside,” she wrote. “Reading fun books. Seeing friends. Attempting to make Sydney’s omelette from The Bear. Swimming with my kids while they’re still little enough to want that kind of thing.”
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When I first landed upon that mantra — doing less means that I can offer more — it felt like a small revelation. But now, as I’m writing about it, I feel kind of silly. Don’t I muse about some version of this topic all the time? What else is there to say about being busy and working too much? Why does it still feel like I’m discovering something new?
When I started My Sweet Dumb Brain, I didn’t expect that workaholism would be a topic I’d delve into so often. I thought I’d write mostly about grief, about finding joy again, about how to live life fully when you know how short it can be. The truth is, untangling myself from the pressures and importance of work is part of that process. The fact that these moments still feel like revelations signals that I still have more to learn.
Over the past few years, I’ve gotten more comfortable with the idea of doing less. I’ve taken breaks from this newsletter, said no to some work opportunities, and set better personal boundaries with social media. In an era of Gen-Z-driven phenomena like quiet quitting and bed rotting, this all feels very on trend.
But I don’t want to do less just for the sake of doing less. I want to do less to give myself space to become more. I want to work reasonable hours each day so I have time to play with my daughter in the afternoons. I want to give myself breaks throughout the week so that, by the time the weekend rolls around, I have something to talk about besides work. I want to stop trying to juggle multiple things at once — dropping a few balls, inevitably — and instead focus my mind and energy on only the most important people and tasks.
There are only so many weekends when I will get the opportunity to visit Paige, my precious friend with whom I spent so many awkward and hilarious childhood and teenage days. As it turns out, I barely helped with anything around her house while I was in town. Instead, I helped simply by being there. I gave advice but mostly listened. I read stories, played games, and made pretend with her children. I shared big hugs and bigger belly laughs. I offered the gift of my time and presence.
It’s been a few weeks since I pulled that Magician tarot card. Since then, I’ve said no to a few big work tasks. I’ve slowed down my self-imposed timeline for completing house projects. I’ve leaned into doing less. In doing so, I’m slowly remembering who I am and what I have to offer. I am a compassionate person, a good listener, a creative problem-solver, and a solid writer. I am a good friend. I am a good mom, partner, and person. I am all of these things — especially when I stop trying to do so much.
There’s no big magic reveal, but a subtle reemergence: Here I am. Here are my talents. Here is what I can offer. Voila! Where there once was less there now is more.