Meaning Mondays: The Clouds Edition

Deep play allows one to feel quintessentially alive, heartbeat by heartbeat, in the eternal present. The here-and-now becomes a pop-up storybook, full of surprises, in which everything looms. It returns us to the openness of childhood.

~Diane Ackerman

I pulled my chair towards the window and plopped down.

Yes, 30 minutes, I thought. I’ll sit here for 30 minutes and gaze aimlessly at this purply-gray sky.

Just then, a cloud caught my eye. A mountain of a cloud, shaded with charcoal. Full of peaks and valleys. I imagined what it would feel like to climb to the summit of one of those spongy peaks, gliding along on air, feet cushioned by cloud matter. (I know, this is technically impossible, but I was in a state of reverie, not real life.)

As it turned out, it was a day built for cloud gazing. The first storm had moved through, a second was on its way. A lull between weather systems, kind of like the intermission between a two act play. One that left the clouds more than a little frisky, needing to get out of their seats and move!

A few minutes into the show, Dave joined me. Two chairs. Two people. A little conversation. A lot of looking. I saw a dog, a golden retriever, talking with a mummy. And then they moved toward each other and the dog licked away the mummy’s bandages, bringing him back to life. And before I knew it, they had merged into one.

Where else would you see that but in the sky?

And in the midst of it, Dave fed me tea and oranges, just like Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne. And the song worked its way out of my memory, and sung itself in my head:

Suzanne takes you down to her place by the river
You can see the boats go by
You can spend the night beside her
And you know that she’s half crazy
But that’s why you want to be there
And she feeds you tea and oranges
That come all the way from China

A little while later, I looked at the clock. I wondered if my 30 minutes were up yet. Oh yes. In fact, it was now 90 minutes since I’d first parked myself in the chair in front of the window.

And that’s how I began my love affair with last week’s Meaning Monday Mantra: Pure Purposeless Play.

Quite a romance it’s turning out to be, actually. In addition to cloud gazing, I made a trip to the central library, finding a book I’ve been meaning to read, recommended by the great Josh Hanagarne, the World’s Strongest Librarian. Not only did I snag the book but also happened upon a garden magazine that delighted me.

As the week wore on, I wandered around a new-to-me part of Sacramento, and walked across the Tower Bridge. Took a drive up the river and a ramble down the river. Tried a new coffee house. Went to dinner with a friend and out to lunch with Dave. Listened to some beautiful music. Read a gossipy book. Played with the cats (several times). And, stopped in at a fabulous used book store.

This book store is so good, in fact, that I’m kicking myself for not getting there sooner. It’s been here for 70 years, after all! But perhaps I was meant to wait, because soon after entering I was magnetically pulled to a shelf in the middle of the store, where my hands landed on this book: Deep Play, by Diane Ackerman.

An interesting coincidence, don’t you think?

So here I am. Again. A week later, and still talking about play. But don’t get me wrong, I didn’t do all of that playing on one single day. I spread it out. And I worked too. As a matter of fact, I was very productive. Work came easily. It flowed. Yet it felt a lot like vacation. Or at least a good balance.

I know some of you reading this have a handle on the work/life balance thing. But I also know many still struggle with it. I see clients who regularly work 50 to 60 hours each week. More often than not, no one is telling them to do it. And they want to stop, but can’t quite figure out how.

Well then, it seems to me a few facts are in order right now, courtesy of Joe Robinson at Work to Live:

  • Not only do we Americans take less vacation than almost any other country, we also routinely end up losing, or giving back vacation hours, because we don’t use them all
  • Americans derive much of their identity from work, and get caught in work martyrdom syndrome
  • Overwork can lead to burnout, illness, fatigue, sleep difficulties, and frequent mistakes
  • The effects of work stress may not be immediately recognizable because there’s a certain type of “high” that often goes along with it
  • A workaholic will often die before an alcoholic

I want to make something clear here. Any and all of us are susceptible to overwork, from the employee earning the regular paycheck, to the parent staying home to manage the family life, to the entrepreneur who adores what they do. Even the hobbyist whose interest is an avocation rather than a vocation. Yes, all can be seduced by the work monster.

OK. That’s it. I’m done with my lecture. But do me a favor, will ya? On this day after Valentine’s Day, love yourself a little more, love your life a little more, and do one less thing than you planned. And if you haven’t seen the TED talk about play, by all means check it out.

Now it’s your turn. How are you doing these days managing the work/life balance thing?



27 thoughts on “Meaning Mondays: The Clouds Edition

  1. Hi Patty! What a delight to watch the clouds – ahhh, my all time favorite thing! And never be surprised about the time you can spend doing it either, eh? Once you are really INTO it, man, especially on my dock at the lake, entire afternoons melt away!

    You know, I know there are people working 50-60 hours, and while they may complain, they do nothing to curtail that insanity. I think it may be because they SO identify with their jobs, they are afraid to have to actually spend time with themselves (strangers that they must be to themselves). I have one friend who is a perfect example of this. I tell her she is caught in the spin cycle of the wash. What an awful way to go thru life. Sure hope you can help your clients with this!


    • Ah, wonderful point, Suzen! It can be scary to put aside the work identity and look at who you are, just you. Interesting you bring this up, because I wrote about that in one of the very first posts I ever did. And it takes some time to acclimate to not working so much, to remove yourself from it. It’s almost like withdrawal symptoms. Thanks again for bringing your wise words my way. And I can just imagine you sitting on that dock and cloud gazing!

  2. I haven’t sat and watched clouds for years, since my children were little and we used to lie on our backs on the grass and cloud gaze. My work-life balance needs a bit of work, and I know that, which is the first step toward dealing with it, right? This post is a great reminder and came just at the right time, as these things so often do.

    By the way, I hope you are away from your blog today, engaged in some deep play.

    • Hi Charlotte – Yes, absolutely, recognizing it is the first step. And it sounds like you have a lot of history to pull from, seeing as how you did all that cloud gazing with your kids. Why not see if you still enjoy it? I bet you would. Thanks so much for your comment. And btw, I did have a long weekend full of play and very little work.

  3. I think it’s great that you’re “pushing play” these days as I believe it’s important and not being prioritized the way it should be. I think of play as a sanity-preserver, and I do a whole lot of playing with my husband and my son, but I do struggle with purposeless play.

    I haven’t cloud-gazed for extended periods of time in a really long time, but snatching seconds/minutes of it is natural for me, after all, I spent many mornings and afternoons of the first half of my life, in the sun, on the beach on a tropical island.

    As for work/life balance, I definitely went through a period when I worked a heckuva lot more than I wanted to. These days, I think I do OK. I have great flexibility and definitely in the habit of taking vacations, the work I do is fulfilling (for the most part), the people I work with closely are like family, my actual family life is happy, and a good part of my work doesn’t feel much like work at all (for example, I get to spend pretty much the entire day with Eve Ensler on Wednesday (yay!) She’s someone who inspires me a great deal). But I consider myself incredibly lucky. I also know that I could very easily find myself in a very different set of circumstances if I’m not grateful for or don’t appreciate what I have here now. Anyway, I’m rambling. This is the first blog I’m commenting on after a long weekend so forgive me 🙂

    • You’re not rambling, just reflecting. You know I love that. I absolutely hear what you’re saying: life is good, you have pretty much figured out the balance thing, and you feel very grateful for where you are. And maybe you want just a little bit more of those kind of purposeless days you had growing up? Not sure about that one. Maybe where you are is exactly where you need to be right now. And how cool to spend the day with Eve Ensler. She’s amazing. Thanks for sharing all this, Belinda.

  4. Oh Patty – you’ve inspired me again. I had the most amazing weekend, when I rediscovered my mojo. All your talk about play made me realise that I’d been taking life way too seriously in my quest to try and lead a happier life. Sometimes there is no substitute for pure pleasure and basking in the glory of nature. I’m going to take some time just to be in the world and maybe watch some clouds today. Thanks for the inspiration!


    • Wow, Phil, that’s wonderful to hear! I’m so glad you are backing off a little on the seriousness. As you know, I have a tendency to do that too, so it’s nice to know I have a virtual comrade out there watching clouds too! So thank you!

    • Excellent, Nicki. I can just see you out there gazing at clouds. When you do, come back and tell us what you saw. And thanks for the comment!

  5. I put in a lot of work hours but still find time to relax simply to refresh my mind. The balance is hard to achieve, but a necessary one. I think a key to making this a little easier is to find something meaningful to do in non work time, at least for some people. Others definitely can take a more “relaxed” approach like you are pointing out here but the important thing is to find time to do that no matter what. Nice post Patty, thanks.

    • H Marc – Thanks for your thoughts on this. That’s interesting about meaning. I’m at a point where I’m playing with a new idea: that it is the relaxed, aimless down time that actually adds to our sense of meaning making. Maybe even helps us create meaning. I don’t mean tv watching or internet surfing, but I mean playful things that have no agenda. Different for each person. My thoughts really changed on this after seeing the TED talk.

  6. I love that you took time to gaze out the clouds and get lost in the images that you created. We all need to take time to simply be, to enjoy,to relax without expectations. I find my life to be very balanced. I do this throughout the day and it is to a point where I don’t think about it too much for it is now just the way I live.

    • Sounds like you’re at the point where it’s effortless. Very inspiring, and what I’m working towards. Thanks!

  7. Hi Patty,

    You make an excellent point, that work for us is a binding identity, and we’ve established a culture which validates long hours. I traveled a bit and people in other cultures are much more relaxed about their careers and work.


    • So true, Kaushik. Many times when clients travel to another country for vacation they come back with a whole different attitude about work, largely because of the relaxed attitude of the place they’re visited. They see that work/life balance can and is done very differently elsewhere. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to be quickly sucked into our work culture, and the insight rarely lasts. Thanks for the excellent point!

  8. I’m thinking about play…kids learn through playing. I’ve been wanting to stop working at a job so I can work at what I love – writing. The work that I love, is actually play. It feels like what I felt as a kid, an intense attraction to an activity because it was full of meaning – and fun! My 14-year-old stepdaughter has determined that the meaning of life is to have fun. I am not sure she’s wrong! So maybe it isn’t work/life balance, but work/play/life balance. Or play/fun/life balance would be even better! Thanks, Patty, really enjoyed this post.


    • Hi Linda – Welcome! So nice to have you visit. I think you’ve nailed it: Work/Play/Life balance is so much closer to what I’ve been writing about. And yeah, if work feels like fun or play, so much the better. Your stepdaughter sounds very wise for her years; if only we could all take that into adulthood. Thanks so much for your comment.

  9. You amaze me!

    I love your soft sided approach to awakening self awareness in the purposely directed, “purposelessness” (man that word is a mouthful) idea of play. By becoming aware in the moment, we relax the inside chatter and say no to the (as I call it) negative “I’s”. (guilt, worry, and others).

    I try to do this as much as I can during the day, while still continuing the momentum of aim. To cite an example would be my morning shower. I rise early each and every morning around 0430 hrs.(partly from habit partly from need)

    I like to work on line at this time, tending all the necessary task’s and administration. Of course tension builds up, as with all external work. Then comes the right time, I purposely push myself away from the computer and, (like in Football) head off to the showers. There is something about the energy in the cascading water, the delicious heat, the trickle sensations and the want to feel every drop. My mind goes blank except for the intense sensual awareness of the experience. I exit the shower with a new sense of force and purpose.

    I will do this in a rainfall, under a waterfall, on the rapids, basically anywhere there is water. Some would say this is because I am “Sun water / Moon fire”, maybe that’s true but I always find that the letting go, allows force to enter.

    Thanks for reminding me with your delightful cloud story. I will think of you and Dave, the next time I look up at the clouds.

    Looking forward to the next.


    • Hi Eso – What a beautiful, poetic comment! I got lost in your shower story, and imagined you raising your arms to the rain, sticking your head under a waterfall, coursing down the rapids. You’ve reminded me of the magic power of water. Love it! Thank you so much.

  10. Patty — I like these posts about play and how you’ve been spending your time getting the feel for play again.

    I also appreciated your thoughts about work and especially how we work in the States. It is very different in Europe. When we were in Switzerland, they still have a two-hour lunch break and all the stores close:~) I can’t imagine that in the States.

    I think we’ve forgotten how to relax and in so doing, we lost the art of play. So, I really enjoyed reading about your week of discovering “pure purposeful play.”

    Also, your articles on play have definitely made me do a lot of thinking about my own ways to play. Thanks:~)

    • Wouldn’t that be amazing, Sara, if all of us could take leisurely two hour lunches? I actually have the flexibility to do that now, but most of my friends have a very brief lunch or don’t even take lunch. I love how you link this demanding work ethic to losing the art of play. That’s a wonderful way to put it. Thanks so much for your comment!

  11. I loved this post from the cloud to the last word. I’m playing with my grandchildren and daughter in Chicago this weekend.
    whoo hoo!

    How do I balance work and play? I do what you do, go to the library, eat oranges, look at clouds, and read books, listeing to Depeche Mode right now.

    I have to rig up a google adwords campaign for my hubs (stole word from suZen) blog. Oh that ought to be fun;)I will be taking extra good care of myself and then I just need to remember to breathe!

    • Oh yes, Tess, breathing is good! Google ad words, huh? Hubs is lucky to have you! All that baffles me. I’m so delighted to hear about your own cloud gazing/book reading/orange eating/depeche-moding day. Truly wonderful. Thanks!

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  13. Hi Patty
    The Leonard Cohen lyrics take me back a bit.
    When I was at university you had to be a LC fan, it was compulsory.
    We all found our own meaning in those abstract and depressing words sung by a voice that could grate cheese.
    “Suzanne” was a big hit but does anybody remember “Famous blue raincoat”?

    Last summer I had a holiday in France and stayed in a gite run by an English man and a Dutch lady. The Dutch lady flew over to England to see a LC concert and when she got back she was still at the concert! She was totally besotted by him… even though he is 70?

    Recently of course his Hallelujah song has become famous wordwide and even found a place in SHREK! That’s staying power for you.

    Cohen also wrote a book called “Beautiful Losers”, if anyone has read it, could they please contact me… and tell me what it is about. LOL

    • He’s a fascinating guy, and lots revere him as a poet. I recently learned that he spent quite a lot of time in a Buddhist monastery, and while there his manager embezzled his money. I think that’s one of the reasons he’s out on tour again.

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