I have a memory of our vacation to Italy last year that is so embarrassing it makes me both laugh and cringe.
It was a trip to celebrate the end of Enrico’s long medical training. We had just bought our house, and we had jumped through all sorts of hoops so that Enrico could go back home before starting his new job.
We went to Sardinia, a huge island north of Sicily known for its beautiful beaches. Because Enrico’s mother was born there, the trip was kind-of like a celebration, a pilgrimmage, and a family reunion rolled into one. Looking back, it’s not the cost that I regret. It’s that we didn’t enjoy the vacation to the fullest. Basically we didn’t act like Italians.
We brought our laptop. During nap times, Enrico and I took turns lugging the heavy hand-me-down laptop down the hill to the main building where we could get online. We checked emails, I wrote blog posts, Enrico dealt with some paperwork issues. But it gets worse. We took the laptop to the beach.
Enrico likes to read the news online, so I wasn’t totally taken aback when he wanted to bring the computer to the shore. But then we decided to take a walk along the beach. The morning sun cast a peachy light, and the bleached sand and ancient tumbled rock promised peace and discovery.
We were the only ones in the family at the beach that early, and Enrico didn’t feel we could leave the computer there, so he put it in its gray padded carrying case and brought it along. The ridiculousness of this act didn’t totally hit me until later into our walk, and here is where I hang my head in smiling shame.
The water was warm and serene so he kept getting deeper and deeper as we walked toward a lighthouse in the distance. At one point I looked over at him and he was holding the computer case by its short handle just above the licks of the waves, like a briefcase.
What Italian in their right mind — what human, for that matter — would carry a computer in the Mediterranean Sea? At the time I may have worried about the electronic equipment, but now I worry more about the brain equipment.
And not just his. I was just as guilty of not taking a real vacation — even though we were paying for it. It’s true that just five days before we had moved our family across four states. It would have been very difficult for me to pre-write enough blog posts and freelance articles to fill that three-week vacation, but I didn’t even try. I just trudged along as if I had no control over my life.
To be sure, I didn’t see writing as a burden. In fact, I love what I do, but I now realize how important it is — if even just once a year — to take a complete break from normal daily life and from work.
For so many of us, that daily life is increasingly dominated by electronics. I’m an at-home mom and a part-time blogger, but I spend several hours a day on the computer, and as my career has grown, my work has seeped into evenings, weekends, even vacations.
So when our week-long trip to meet Enrico’s family in the Dominican Republic was looming, I decided it would be good for me to power down. It had been longer than I could remember that I spent a week without email, writing deadlines, online news, social media blips and pings, and the constant bombardment of new material to read and process. Yet . . . why? As Tim Kreider points out in must-read The Busy Trap, I definitely don’t have one of those essential jobs that are performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scarry book.
Getting my work done ahead of time, and not sneaking into the business center at the hotel, took discipline. But then again so do most good things in life, as I was reminded by re-reading one of my favorite books, The Road Less Traveled. My reward for giving up the Internet — which had become like a life-jacket for a good swimmer, an indulgent crutch — was huge.
Not only did I fully experience each moment with my husband, my children, my relatives who we see so rarely, but I felt a deep sense of relaxation. And here is what I had forgotten about living without screens and work — I was given mental and emotional clarity. Instead of laboring over answers, they came to me. Big ones, like what life pursuits and actions would make me look back on my life with satisfaction and not regret.
I think this is because when we silence the constant buzz of busyness — whatever form that takes for each of us — we allow the important stuff to rise up. It’s as if, instead of treading water to stay alive, we stop, lie back, and float. We look up at the stars. We mute the world through the water, and we listen to our own breathing.
So if you’re feeling at an impasse and you don’t know where to go, if you want to make a change in your life but you don’t know what, if you’re feeling like your life has gotten too frenetic but you’re not feeling fulfilled, then take those questions with you. But just be.
And especially if you’re a little intense and ambitious, or if the idea of leaving your [favorite digital device] at home feels like giving up wine for a week (ahem), then you need the respite the most. And don’t think you’re slacking. Great writers have been known to get their best stuff done while taking long walks, far from their typewriters, because creativity is fueled by daydreaming, by looking at one thing and seeing another.
This morning I am taking the kids to visit my parents in southern Ohio, and that’s just what I am going to do. I have a few posts scheduled, but don’t let that fool you. I’m really playing with my children, taking naps, reading books, and taking long walks.
I know I’ll come back with more insights and more hope. And I’ll feel good about having really been in the moment with my family. For having really experienced, as fully as my busy mind can, my trip home.
I hope you can afford to pull the plug sometime this summer, over the weekend, or even for just a few hours. You won’t regret it.