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So last week Hanna and I took a few days vacation around the long Columbus Day weekend. Back when I asked for the time off from work — I think sometime in mid-June — I had the vague idea we might have the energy and disposable income to spend a few days in Vermont, just the two of us. We like Vermont. But hotels are expensive, and car rentals are expensive, and someone has to look after the cat, and even if none of that had been an obstacle what it turned out we both kinda sorta really wanted to do with our five days of not working was stay at home and do nothing.

Breakfast at Crema Cafe (Harvard Square, Cambride, Mass.), July 2011,
photo by Anna.

Well, not nothing. We spent a lot of time being cosmopolitan and sitting in coffee shops reading and drinking espresso and cafe au lait and eating brioche.

We were brave and tried walking somewhere new — out to Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge — which is the first landscaped cemetery in America, consecrated 1831, and had fun taking pictures of headstones.

Anna checks the map in Mt. Auburn Cemetery, October 2011,
photo by Hanna.

We read about Charles Darwin and Hillbilly Patriots and biopolitics.

We applied (and were accepted!) to become reviewers for Library Journal.

We wrote fan fiction about Dean Winchester and Castiel and about Sybil Crawley and Gwen.

We had a friend over to watch (a disappointing installment of) Inspector Lewis and baked a pumpkin pie.

Apple pie and beer, October 2011,
photo by Anna

We stayed up until midnight and slept in until quarter of nine in the morning.

We took afternoon naps on the living room couch.

When I returned to work on Thursday my colleagues asked how the vacation was and did we go to Maine. “Actually,” I confessed, “We stayed at home and made no plans and that was exactly what we needed.” My co-workers were totally on board with this idea.

What struck me last week as I was thinking about our approach to this latest vacation is how it is the complete opposite of how I understood vacations as a child. When I was young, the above activities (except for naps, since I was not a nap-taker) would basically have described my everyday life. Stay up late reading, wake up to muffins or pancakes around ten, do more reading, maybe go for a walk or a bike ride, ram around outside with siblings or friends for a few hours, go back to reading, maybe some food at some point, a trip to the library.

Pippi Longstocking and Mister Nielsen

There’s a great story in one of the Pippi Longstocking collections in which Pippi (in my child’s mind possibly the ur-homeschooler) becomes jealous of her friends Tommy and Annika because they get summer holidays and Christmas vacation at school. She figures if she attends school then she, too, will get the holidays that her friends seem to enjoy. Obviously her attempt to become a “normal” child is short-lived and the moral of the story is that she’s really better off living her own kind of life and doing what she wants to do rather than trying to be someone she’s not. As a kid, I thought this story was hilarious because it was obvious (to me) that not going to school meant that you could have “vacation” (that is, school-free days) all the time.

Storm clouds over the horizon (Bend, Oregon), March 2007
Photo by Anna

As a child, vacation-vacation meant travel. We went on vacation every spring to a tiny cinder block cottage on the shore of Lake Michigan, where we got to sleep in bunkbeds (!), toast marshmallows over the bonfire (!!), spend all day wet and sandy on the beach, and poke at antlion sand traps with twigs.

As a child, vacation-vacation meant flying to Bend, Oregon, for a month to stay with my grandparents and explore the high desert. It meant taking the overnight train from Bend to San Francisco to visit our aunt and ride the trolley cars. It meant my first solo trip by airplane to spend a month of summer with a friend of mine who grew up on Vancouver Island, British Columbia.

As a child, vacation meant, in the immortal words of Toad, “The open road, the dusty highway, the heath, the common, the hedgerows, the rolling downs! Camps, villages, towns, cities! Here to-day, up and off to somewhere else to-morrow! Travel, change, interest, excitement!”

Vacation sometimes still means travel, now that I’m an adult, but of course travel now requires effort in a way that it didn’t when I was small. As a child, I remember being responsible for, you know, creating a travel journal and some sort of packing list. Preparation for trips meant reading novels set in the locations where we’d be traveling, and saving up spending money for souvenirs. I didn’t have to worry about such pesky details as driving routes, airplane tickets, hotel reservations, and train schedules.

Drover’s Inn, West Highlands, Scotland, May 2004
Photo by Mark Cook

Not that trip planning can’t be fun — sometimes planning travel (as Alain de Botton once observed) is more than half the fun. I remember the thrill of being in my teens and developing enough independence that I could plan and execute solo vacations (perhaps the topic of another “thirty at thirty” post). But I find, as an adult, that travel is no longer synonymous with vacation the way it once was. Instead, the two have developed along often-overlapping yet distinct pathways in the geography of my (our) life.

Travel usually must take place during vacation, but is not the whole of it.

I think in my thirties I would like to develop more fully the art of non-travel vacation time. I don’t want to be one of those people who needs to go off to the White Mountains with no laptop or cell phone in order to stop checking my work email. And I don’t want to fight the persistent, nagging feeling that I had during graduate school that time spent not working should translate into time spent doing other “productive” activities, the sort of activities that “count” in whatever complex internal matrices of value I have constructed for myself.

I think my parents, what with the home education and through continuous personal example, have given me some good tools for this. The experience of home education really blew open the myth that unstructured time isn’t worthwhile, and similarly gave me the distance from mainstream expectations needed to respond to all assertions of value or non-value with an interrogative “why?” So doing nothing in lazy? Why? So in order to be a valuable citizen you need to be “productive”? Why? What is productive? Who says? Why should I believe them? Convince me.

Take your time off from the “have tos” of daily adult life seriously, people. I know some of us have more luxury to do this than others — believe me, I never realized how amazing paid vacation  can be until I started earning it — but I hope that everyone in our productivity-obsessed culture can learn to appreciate the art of down time a little bit more. In ourselves, and in others.