The Joy of Puttering

The Joy of Puttering

Here’s to the simple joy of time alone in one’s own home. Having just dropped my husband and daughter at the airport, I find myself surrounded by a peace and stillness that is most definitely not the norm around here. This day feels like a gift, and instead of doing all the things I should be doing, I decide to allow myself to do what I want to do—which on this day is not very much at all. The decision feels like a courageous act, a direct rebellion against a life I typically measure by the number of check marks made on a “to do” list that never seems to end.

My former boss, a distinguished, tenured female professor at Harvard Business School, once talked about care and intention as what differentiates the pleasure of home-keeping from the mind-numbing toil of housework. Both involve chores that, once completed, will need to be repeated. But it is the manner in which one approaches such chores that makes all the difference.

Mostly, my family and I do housework—the everyday tasks required to keep the chaos at bay: dishes get loaded into the dishwasher and then unloaded in endless succession; laundry is washed, dried, folded, and (on good days) put away in drawers; weeds are pulled; bills are paid; papers are tidied. It’s exhausting and endless. Let me be clear here: I am not a fan of housework.

But I am a fan of the house. Specifically, this house, a sweet little 1930s center-entrance colonial set on a rise, overlooking a modest park. This is no trophy house, mansion, or even “McMansion,” but over the years we have added on, refinished, replaced, and revamped, until the end product is what it is today—a sun-filled place that welcomes and nurtures and feels like home.

So on this, my “day off,” I revel in the simple joys of being here. I putter about like a honeybee flitting from place to place, though instead of pollinating I am straightening, polishing, tending. Silver frames that had gone dull from neglect now shimmer, and the faces that smile out from them seem the happier for it. Snow-white linen napkins, long crumpled in a ball in a wicker basket in the laundry room, are now folded in thirds and tucked in a neat stack in a kitchen drawer, awaiting the next celebration. Brown leaves are plucked off houseplants, now freshly watered. Such tasks may seem like drudgery, but today I am luxuriating in all of them simply because I have given myself the time and permission to do so.

Samuel Johnson, the 18th-century writer, is not someone most of us think of as a homebody, but I pulled a quote of his from a newspaper years ago and tacked to my bulletin board, where it remains today. The esteemed Dr. Johnson said: “To be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition.”

So with Dr. Johnson’s blessing there in black and white, on this day I resist the urge to do something or be something in favor of just being. I write in my journal. I pull old books off the shelves and delight in their contents anew. I walk from room to room and straighten paintings and plump pillows. I tidy and repeat. It is in these rare times of puttering about, when we take the time to care for our surroundings in ways beyond everyday housework, that our houses and apartments truly become our homes. Part of the joy of puttering is in the rarity of being able to do it; we are not often handed days when appointment books can be emptied without consequences.

Happily, today is one such day, and I am taking full advantage of it. Doing nothing feels like ambition enough.

Sharon Kanner Johnson ’84 is a freelance writer living and puttering in her home in Newton, Mass.

©2015 Mark McGinnis c/o

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