By Susan Lilley
When I was a lucky, lucky child, summer was full of books and dreamy hours of not doing much. On vacations with my parents, I was responsible for nothing more than making sure I had my own stuff. In the family station wagon, we took long road trips out of Florida through historic sites, Civil War battlefields, empty New England ski lodges, and curvy mountain roads that made it hard to concentrate on my reading in a corner of the back seat. Occasionally Dad would spy access to a delicious-looking stream bubbling on the side of the road and pull over.
“Mountain stream! Everybody out!” he would command. By God, his flatland barefoot Florida kids were going to experience this. I would reluctantly put down my Nancy Drew or Louisa May Alcott and follow my brothers into the rushing mini-rapids, letting the cold water rush around my legs as I stared at the colorful rocks beneath the surface. I was content, knowing that summer would last forever.
These were the days before portable electronic entertainment. We played license plate games and my brothers played Password (travel version!) and a card game called War. When we rented a beach house, Mom hired teenage girls to ride herd on us kids while my parents read and relaxed, and at the end of each long, shining day they would make old fashioneds and chat with other vacationing parents as the sun slowly, slowly went down.
Fast forward to high summer, 2014. My adult life. “It’s been 14 days since your last backup,” blinks the message at the top of my computer screen. What? How did the time go by so quickly? I am trying, really trying to love and enjoy summer. After all, I am not waking up at 6 a.m. to teach time-rich teenagers at school every day, so I must be on vacation. But it sure doesn’t feel like it.
Believe me, I know how freaking lucky I am to have a summer break of any size. The United States boasts the teensiest number of vacation days of any developed country, except maybe Japan, where kids go to school all year long and homework IS an after-school extracurricular activity. Double that for working adults. But here, despite our nostalgic celebration of the concept of a summer vacation, my past corporate experience reminds me that if you dare to take your allotted vacation days, you risk falling behind in your career and not being taken seriously by your colleagues. Vacations are disappearing along with the middle class. Most parents I know are too busy, financially strapped, and exhausted to pull off the kind of leisurely explorations of the world that my parents gave me.
People are jealous of us teachers who often have so many weeks that look free and clear in the summer. Just like I am insanely jealous of my professor friends who get something called sabbatical, a concept now under threat in many institutions. Taking much needed time for your own research and creative work, the stuff that got you your career in the first place, is under fire due to the unquenchable American thirst for productivity. During the school year, teachers take more work home than most and spend far too many weekends grading papers, all while enjoying the lowest salaries in the professions. Still, the perception is flawed, even within the school environment.
At my school there is a very lovely and intelligent technology chief who believes that when the faculty is not at school we are at the beach. She often assures us, when introducing some new school-related app or process, that it’s so accessible to us remotely that we can do it while we’re at the beach. Or when we leave for the summer that our wonderful tech crew will be working on this or that new system while we are at the beach. We stare back at her sunny delusion with momentary ecstasy followed by absolute bewilderment. We almost believe it, just for a second. Who is she talking about? Oh God, I wish it were so!
Here’s what really happens. I finish school then start teaching a summer school course that packs an entire semester into two and a half weeks. When I wake up from that herculean effort, I bask for moment in what seems like a timeless bubble, lit with blue sky and time stretching out like a golf green path to infinity. It’s not even July yet! All the time in the world. This stage is quickly followed by the earnest planning of everything I am going to accomplish in the next 5 weeks, before the faculty reports back for the planning week in preparation for another school year.
Being “off” from school is a fool’s paradise. But a relatively nice one. Every day I scurry to get more things accomplished while longing for that moment when I can turn off the world, turn on the TV, and spend hours binge-watching All Creatures Great and Small or Jeeves and Wooster while sipping chardonnay and eating 40%-less-fat potato chips. Or pick up the new novel I optimistically bought in May and finally finish it. Every day I believe that moment is coming. I marvel at friends on Facebook who chronicle time off with confessions of watching Netflix for 8 hours while consuming enough ice cream to fill a Volkswagen Bug. Or reading their 7th book this summer. Or going to the actual movies, as in a delicious dark theatre where even to glance at your cell phone is a possible life-threatening move (at least in gun-haven Florida). Bliss.
By the way, that old three-month vacay myth has not been a reality for most teachers for decades! Plus, summer is the time to work on new texts, methods, and all kinds of plans for the following school year, because it is impossible to do that kind of exploration in any depth during the breakneck pace of those rollicking months of school. If you don’t believe me, go hang out with a daily schoolteacher for a week. Just watching will exhaust you. But in the summer, there are workshops to attend, profession-related books to read, people to confer with, articles to write.
I also have major business with my own writing that must be attended to or I become a non-writer, a fraud, a frozen zombie who used to write. This particular panic applies more pressure than the most sadistic mammogram technician could dream of. The fragile cloud of unlimited time to revise a full length manuscript, finish and submit several poems a month, and strike out into nonfiction territory with more essays currently languishing in notes form, well, it starts to feel more and more like a mist evaporating in the Florida sun. In a cycle of panicky mornings, minutia-filled afternoons, and a social schedule crammed with fun at night with friends that I finally get to spend a bit of time with because it’s SUMMER, I wonder how I fit in going to work during the school year! I am busy All. The. Time. And nobody cares if you read or write. Not your dog, not your doc and dental appointments put off until summer, not the gym, which applies its own greedy pressure.
In my youth, I HAD that “beach” that seems to elude me in adult years. Oh yes, I have been to the beach plenty as a grown-up. For me, a week at the beach usually goes like this:
- Cough up huge amount of money.
- Pack for a day. Drive to beach house. Move in and grocery shop. Plan dinner.
- Next day—breakfast in stages depending on who gets up when. Then people start asking about lunch, then dinner, then I stare at the ocean wondering where the day went.
- 5 more days—similar with a few sublime hours here and there beside the sea, under an umbrella, actually READING.
Perhaps simply being female in our culture prevents the level of sloth that I aspire to. But it isn’t even sloth, really. It’s enough time and mental space to concentrate on the most crucial part of life for me, writing and reading. Which takes quite a bit more protected time than many people realize.
It seems that the most radical thing I can do at this rapidly dissolving, fizzy July moment is to declare that I will only do what I F-ing want for the remaining sliver of summer. Which might include being as slothful as a bookish 12-year-old reading everything from James Bond to Agatha Christie under the covers with a flashlight at night and sleeping past 10 in the morning. And writing in her own notebook instead of tending to any of life’s other business. Because when school starts again I need to know I had some summer. But a real summer is hard for me to do at home.
Next week I fly to Oregon for a 2-week writing retreat with a few other writers, all as ready as I am for some time dedicated to the crucial. It is my last chance to make serious headway before the machinery of the school year fires up and time becomes the impossible dream. Yes, there will be a beach, but there will also be writer-sisters who understand how hard it is to make this time happen. From the outside, this might look exactly like sloth–reading on a deck overlooking the ocean! But there will be writing and revising like a madwoman for hours at a time. There will be vodka lemonade at the end of the day and laughter at night. And quite a bit of self-inflicted pressure. I can’t wait.