Campus Life vivian's reflections

Il dolce far niente: the art of doing nothing

What I miss

I have to admit that I was looking forward to the fall semester a week or two before the first day of classes, as strange as that may sound. I spent my summer doing a chemistry UROP and directing Summer HSSP, an educational program for middle and high school students. Sure, the return of the fall semester meant that I would go back to living a busy and stressful life full of problem sets and midterms, but I believed that my three-month summer break had to come to an end. I didn’t mind going to the chemistry lab to work on my UROP, but I wanted to learn by taking classes. I enjoyed experimenting with cooking new dishes in East Campus during the summer, but I missed eating dinner at French House. I liked that I got to spend a lot more time reading books before going to bed, but I wondered how long I could go on living a solitary life every day. As much as I relished the weekend excursions I went on alone, I missed the random, interesting conversations I had with friends in New House late at night.

When I started seeing the new French House residents move in and other parts of campus coming back to life during FPOP and orientation, I was genuinely excited about the new school year. I couldn’t wait to attend department seminars and other special events. I was even happy with my registered classes. Although I had heard 5.13 (Organic Chemistry II) was a hard class, as a Course 5-7, I looked forward to learning more organic chemistry. I didn’t find 7.03 (Genetics) as interesting as 5.13, but I was much more willing to learn genetics over a Course 6 class. 17.407 (Chinese Foreign Policy) sounded dry on the surface, but I couldn’t think of what other class to take since I was so keen on pursuing an Asian Studies minor with a focus on China. Surely the fall semester wouldn’t be as torturous as my freshman spring, a semester in which I did not like any of my classes except for Business Chinese. There would be no more painful statistical mechanics lectures in 5.601 (Thermodynamics) or 6.0001 problem sets that took me a long time to finish. I would not have to sit in the dreadful 26-100 lecture hall and feel lost as the professor wrote complicated equations in 18.03. I was certain that the fall semester would be better than the spring.

My unwavering optimism lasted until the start of October. When midterm season rolled around, my academic well-being took a nosedive. I once had a sense of agency over my schoolwork, but I now felt like the opposite was happening: looming deadlines were controlling me. Not only did I begin to procrastinate on major assignments like lab reports, but I also had trouble motivating myself to study and do work. Within a month, I went from being a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed student to a jaded and cynical one. I started questioning what the point of life was when it involved working nonstop for many weeks while the real world didn’t evaluate people based on problem sets or midterms. Coupled with my growing doubts about my major and future career plans, I exhibited obvious signs of the sophomore slump without knowing it in the first place. The college life that I experienced in freshman fall no longer felt novel and thrilling. The confidence that I used to have in pursuing research at graduate school unraveled over time as I wondered if other career paths like education or consulting were more suited for me.

Now, caught up in the whirlwind of the hectic school year, I sometimes look back on small yet meaningful memories of my summer that I miss. Summer ended only a few months ago, yet that time now feels so far away and foreign. I miss how my summer days shared the aspect of dolce far niente: an Italian idiom that means “the sweetness of doing nothing.” Dolce far niente is a concept that I find hard to embrace during the academic year, even on weekends. While I could devote an entire afternoon or day to exploring places like the Blue Hills Reservation or the Mount Auburn Cemetery on a Saturday, it isn’t the same because of the upcoming assignments that swirl around my head. Time spent on long periods of fun means time taken away from doing schoolwork.

For instance, I originally signed up to do apple picking with my club, but after I started to calculate the time it would take me to study for the 5.13 midterm, I decided not to go to the event. While I could have chosen to spend most of Saturday apple picking and Sunday studying, I couldn’t bear the thought of having to cram in even more studying into a single day.

While the personal anecdote I used may sound like I am advocating for all work and no play, in reality, I’m not. I know that it is important to have an even balance of work and play, yet I don’t know how to cultivate dolce far niente during the semester. Sure, I am captivated by the mystic’s mysterious voices at the end of Holst’s The Planets as I sit quietly in Symphony Hall. Yes, I live in the moment when I admire the changing colors of leaves as I jog along Memorial Drive. But these periods of relaxation aren’t enough and don’t feel the same as my summer weekends.

I often reminisce about how I spent my summer afternoons during the weekend, going on spontaneous trips to places outside Boston every week. I miss the rambling walks I took that had no clear destination, with the singular goal of walking for hours and exploring quiet towns from Lincoln to Rockport. I long for the unparalleled stillness I experienced when I walked on peaceful nature trails, from the dense woods of Middlesex Fells to the unspoiled Walden Pond. Even the act of reading a book on the train feels nostalgic, as I think back to the time I leaned my head against the chair and read James Baldwin while the lazy afternoon sun shone on me. I still remember the time when I took a break from reading The Artist of the Floating World and stared outside of the window, watching the golden-green fields whiz by me as the sun started setting. 

At that time, I knew that these memories were random yet significant, but I wasn’t sure why they felt so important to me. Nothing eventful happened; all I did was wander around with no particular goal and idly relax or let myself get lost in a piece of fiction. Now that I am in the middle of the semester, however, the reasons become much more apparent. It’s the magical feeling of time slowing down when I live by dolce far niente, taking things one at a time and experiencing my surroundings using my five senses. My current life is now the total opposite: walking in the busy Infinite Corridor, checking my email many times, and the list goes on.

Week after week of hating this never-ending cycle of schoolwork, the only solution seems to be a compromise. Constantly avoiding assignments until the last minute is not sustainable, but neither is doing work all the time. Therefore, I have decided that it is in my best interest to have better time management so that I can devote more time to activities I have been putting off, like writing and running. I have been doing things that I find to be fun during the school year, whether it is going to the next Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) concert with other classical music enthusiasts or running along the Charles River on a sunny, beautiful day.

These activities bring me closer to dolce far niente, but they somehow can’t replace what I did in the summer. I like breathing in and out as I run and see the Boston skyline in front of me, but I long for the slow, steady long walks in unfamiliar places. I love the rare state my mind enters when I listen to a moving piece at BSO, but it is different from the mental clarity I gain from being in nature that I miss. Maybe it’s the ability to press pause on my life and not live under time pressure that I miss the most. So I still yearn for the Italian lifestyle of dolce far niente — the act of simply doing nothing but being present and relishing the small things in life.