I got my first job when I was fourteen. I was a gymnastics instructor during the school year and a camp counselor in the summer at a place that was nice enough to employ a cigarette-smoking teen like me (which still surprises me to this day).So during those non-school months, I was still getting out of bed early in the morning to make it to work. Summer was no longer the kind of "school's out forever!" season it had been during my early kid years; it was now adult summer, when I was paid four dollars an hour to make sure children ate their snacks and didn't punch each other while waiting in line for water slides.
I was thinking about the pre-adulthood world of summer vacation a lot last week as I lazed around on a pontoon boat on a private lake with nothing to do and no one to answer to. I'd been kindly invited to spend four days at family compound with a bunch of funeral directors (which is a whole different story for another time), and though I was promised Internet, it was shaky at best. This meant I couldn't work much — even if I wanted to. But it also meant that I had four days that lacked any kind of structure whatsoever. It was terrifying.
I couldn't remember the last time in my grown life that I had absolutely nothing to do — I'm talking about nothing to do, not the kind of busy I give myself on days off. Even on "days off" from regular life, I find myself doing laundry, cleaning the house, even scheduling in activities like swimming and going to concerts. Not to say these things aren't fun and relaxing but — especially for someone with a job like mine where I'm constantly on the lookout for things I should be writing about — life is never like what it was when I was a kid. This mini-vacation to Summit County was the closest I've been to real summer vacation since I can remember.
Of course, I had my phone on me to document everything I was doing, because there was no way I was going to ride an ATV for the first time and not take pictures of it. But even if I didn't have my phone, I still would have had a relatively good idea of the time — because on this fabulous mountain property, there was a live-in caretaker who made every meal we ate. Each day, she would ring a bell thirty minutes before every breakfast, lunch and dinner to give us time to come off the lake; then she'd ring it again at the scheduled meal time. So I knew when it was 7:30 a.m., then 8 a.m. and so on; I didn't even need to look at a clock. Every moment of my regular life is ruled by the clock: Whether it's my morning alarm, my writing deadlines, when the doors open for a concert I'm reviewing or the time I'm supposed to be at the gym for a fitness class, time rules everything around me.
It's sort of overwhelming when I think about how much of my life is measured. But we're all used to measuring our lives this way; that's why there's rush-hour traffic we are willing to battle every day at the same time, even though we know that if we left work an hour later, the traffic might be gone and we could drive home less stressed. But because we are all on life's never-ending schedule, the way we view and use our time is seemingly out of our hands.
I've heard the comment many times over that if you need a vacation from your life, you actually need to change your life — because it shouldn't be something you need to get away from. I don't really agree with this theory (mostly because it seems like a privileged viewpoint that not all people can subscribe to), but I do think taking a day to do nothing at all every once in a while is very much worth it. So often during this little trip of doing nothing I felt like I was doing something wrong because I wasn't busy; I felt anxious without a schedule. I was confused as to how I was supposed to spend my time. There were some activities available, like the aforementioned boat lazing and four-wheeler jockeying, but not much else beyond that and some hiking or, gasp, reading a book. But when you're used to planning your days down to fifteen-minute increments from 8 a.m. to midnight, having no itinerary save for waiting for a bell to tell you when to eat can feel maddening.
Breaking out of my workload-oriented life proved to be the most difficult part of an actual vacation. Thinking differently about how time really doesn't mean anything more than what we make it mean was both exciting and confusing. Who knew that not having anything to do would be so stressful? I want to do less more often and if you're anything like me — and probably reading this on your phone or tablet or computer while doing four other tasks simultaneously — you could probably use the break, too. It's more than going outside and enjoying the weather; it's about harnessing the will to do absolutely nothing for once, just like when you were a kid. When you can get over the hump of feeling worthless for letting your e-mail pile up, you'll remember why it's fun to run through the sprinklers without having to pencil it into your calendar.
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