It’s been so many years since I’ve taken a summer vacation that I can’t remember the last time I took one. Why now, you might wonder. Why now, when my kids are almost launched—Eli heading off to college in August and Lizzy rounding the bend into 10th grade—am I finally taking a whole summer off? Why didn’t I do it when my kids were younger, when they really needed me? Why did I keep working? Keep writing? Keep producing? Keep teaching? Because I thought I had to. Because I was a breadwinner. Because I was afraid to stop. I didn’t know how to say no.
But now I must. I must say it loudly and repeatedly. I must keep saying it to myself and to everyone around me, but most especially to myself. Something in my midlife, sandwich generation, post-cancer, pre-empty nest brain and heart is screaming at me to take a break, to regroup, to stop my momentum. To find out who I am and who I am meant to be. Or to find out nothing of the sort—just to simply be.
Lately, my life has all been about momentum—I’ve been a slave to the forward thrust into the next thing and the next thing and the next. And in the process of bowing to that headlong drive into the future, I’ve lost so many of the precious things that give life value—time to walk, time to think, time to daydream, time to visit with friends, time to sort through piles, time to throw things away, time to lay around and read a book. Time to waste. Time to ponder. Time to feel. Time to burn my lists.
Years ago, I showed up at Omland, the land my cousin Miriam and her family lived on, at the top of a mountain in Boulder Creek. To get there, you had to park your car on a dirt road and hike 1/3 of a mile straight uphill. It was an arduous climb and Miriam created little sitting places, resting places, and watering stations for anyone who had the courage and determination to make the climb. Each year, Miriam had an annual party up top, and one day, when I was in my early twenties, before I got bogged down with obligations, responsibilities, children, parents, students, lists, volunteering and earning a living, when I was still fancy-free, I hiked up to Miriam’s land for the annual bash. And when I got there, my cousin was running around in her hippie skirt and her long kinky hair with a big, giant frown on her face and a list of things that still had to be done. “Make a watermelon boat” the list might have said. “Rake the dirt paths.” “Scrub the big wooden table.” “Dust the “refrigerator” which in their case was a big deep rectangular dirt hole dug into the ground with a wooden top hinged on top of it—things did stay cooler down there; after all, they were underground. There was no electricity or gas or plumbing up at Omland. There was a hand-carved shitter with the most remarkable view of the surrounding mountains and acres and acres of virgin forest. And yet, even up there, in Eden, Miriam was fretting over her list.
“I know what to do,” I tole her. “Let me help.” And I took her list and walked over to the wood stove, and used the little metal lifty thing to lift up one of the round front metal burners, the one right over the small fire, hot with kindling, that was waiting for the ash covered tea kettle, and I tossed Miriam’s List of the Undone onto the flames and we watched it burn. Miriam immediately woke from her trance and started to laugh. “Thanks, cuz,” she said, “now I feel a whole lot better.”
I’m taking this summer off because I need to wake from my trance. I need to remember who I am when plans don’t run my life and the future doesn’t own me. I need to travel. I need to sit. I need to sleep past six AM. I need to have adventures. I need to catch precious moments with my son, clearing out his room for college. I need to walk with my daughter on the streets of Paris and hear her chatter in French as she bargains for fashionable hand-me-downs in French flea markets. I need to walk to “my” beach in Santa Cruz, to have days where I get up and don’t know what I’m going to do—even if it’s scary. I need to melt into open spaces, to feel empty and uncertain again. I need to feel whatever there is to feel underneath all that busy.
And so no matter how scary and challenging it is to stop my momentum and my teaching and my business, that’s exactly what I’m going to do. And I hope come fall when I’m back from vacation and Eli is launched—I’ll re-enter this life—the busy, doing life with a measure more sanity and grace and humor—and a much more sustained ability to say no—most of all to myself.