July 1, 2019
Art by Alex Wolfe
No matter how many times I visit, flying into Barbados takes my breath away. If you’re not looking out the window at the exact moment the plane crosses land, you’ll miss the blissful second when all you can see is a magnificent gradient of artificial-looking blues. On every descent, I imagine this kind of rapid merging process: the plane sailing down and the ocean floor flying up, until finally they become one on the balmy asphalt.
The drive from the airport to Freights Bay, my favorite little surf break on the South Coast, is less than 15 minutes. The wave is the longest left on the whole island. It’s not always so powerful, but it’s sheltered by a curling cliff that creates an almost permanent off-shore wind. The paddle out is easy, there’s never a current, and the rolling southeast swell wraps around the point and breaks on a soft, sandy reef. There’s always tons of turtles out—somersaulting and bobbing up for a slow breath. It’s one of the most serene places on earth.
Before I get there, I like to stop at the local supermarket near the airport, to stock up. It’s got the best coffee stand on the island (oat milk!), and there is nothing more or less than I ever need: one brand of toothpaste, one kind of nut butter, a few locally grown pineapples, Advil. It’s at this point, somewhere in aisle five, that I’ll have this immediate and instinctual feeling of wanting to relocate my entire life to the place I’ve knighted: “My Second Home.”
I think it’s because small islands, like Barbados, are ultimately a more manageable scale than huge cities. Not only can you see the entirety of the place from the air, you can drive around it’s winding coastal road in a matter of hours. It’s an easy trek all the way to the north, where the powerful swells have carved tidal sea caves into the cliffs. And if you crawl up Cherry Tree Hill, through lime green banana fields, you’ll see most of the east coast; from Cuckold Point in the north to the often violent waves of Bathsheba in the south.
Within this awareness of reduced size, comes a kind of familiarity; a sense of feeling at home and the total acceptance of a more relaxed pace of life. Less competes for my attention on this small island, which numbs the frenetic desire I usually have in a foreign place: “must see everything.” Instead, I’m happy doing very little every day. I surf the same break in the morning, eat lunch at the same fish stand, banter with the waiters, drink a rum punch with the locals, drift into an afternoon nap under a shady palm, and stare into the waves at night.
Meanwhile, in America, where productivity and success seem like the primary cultural metrics for a meaningful urban life, seeking out this kind of calm and quiet feels like failure—because the defenders of this lifestyle are often labelled as slackers, hippies, or Marxist. “I had a great day staring peacefully out the window and thinking about life,” is not something you’re ever going to overhear in a city obsessed with monetizing every waking minute. But as The School of Life better articulates, “Window daydreaming is a strategic rebellion against the excessive demands of immediate (but ultimately insignificant) pressures—in favor of the diffuse, but very serious, search for the wisdom of the unexplored deep self.”
This philosophy around life being an end in itself is nothing new. But in an age where our very attention spans are a commodity, fuzzy ideas around things like deep breathing, talking to strangers, and walking in parks are actually hard to justify—because we have no way to measure their immediate impact. Even our common phrase, ‘to spend time,’ indicates the commercial value we assign to our personal efficiencies.
"In an age where our very attention spans are a commodity, fuzzy ideas around things like deep breathing, talking to strangers, and walking in parks are actually hard to justify—because we have no way to measure their immediate impact"
in an age where our very attention spans are a commodity, fuzzy ideas around things like deep breathing, talking to strangers, and walking in parks are actually hard to justify—because we have no way to measure their immediate impact
In her new book—How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy—author, artist, and Stanford professor Jenny O’Dell suggests we abandon this algorithmically policed life altogether, and “double-down on being human.” Her imperative is that we find ways of connecting, “that are substantive, sustaining, and absolutely unprofitable to corporations, whose metrics...have never belonged in the conversations we have about our thoughts, our feelings, and our survival.”
While Barbados offers a unique set of social and environmental circumstances that make “doing nothing” feel less like a choice, and more like the obligatory crossing of a kind of lethargic force field, O’Dell warns that our “best, most alive parts” are being paved over by a ruthless capitalist logic. That the function of doing nothing—“of saying nothing—is that it’s a precursor to having something to say.” She posits window dreaming or bird watching as neither a luxury nor a waste of time, “but rather a necessary part of meaningful thought and speech.”
Over the years, Barbados has become as much a psychological home for me as it is a literal one; it’s a reminder to leave space in my life and to pay a different kind of attention. For a whole bunch of reasons I know I probably won’t ever actually move there. But its happy and simple existence is all the permission I need to sit on my fire escape, stare into an eternal sky, and do absolutely nothing.