Good morning good morning — the birds are not awake yet. Are you? It’s 5am and I am back in the saddle. We are returned from vacation, the coffee is brewing, the dog is asleep in her chair, the garden is still quiet. Everything is at my back. Backside. Support. Lumbar. Supine. Behind. There. Before. Past.
I went back to the place I could have once said I was from, the place that was once home to me and still lives in my body. We spent two weeks away from home, away from Sophie, away from work. I took all kinds of work with me, of course, with the idea that now I would be able to Get Things Done, but once we got to the coast of Maine, I didn’t want to do any of it. Instead, I sat and read books for fourteen says. Not quite so consistently — we had a stretch of just-two-of-us together vacation and then 5 days of here’s-all-the-family vacation with my sweetheart’s son there, too.
I am thinking this morning of the pleasure — and the struggle, for me — of a long vacation, taking two full weeks of time “off.” Time to fall apart, get panicked, feel guilty and unworthy, and then actually drop all the way away from work. I didn’t even get much writing done during this vacation — I did morning pages the first week, but the second week, when the boys were awake early and draped across their computers in the living room, I didn’t worry about trying to hunt down private space for my writing time Instead, I walked with my sweetheart. We read and read and read. We let the sun bake us to relaxation. We slept. We learned the beach’s varying contours. We made routines and then broke them. We didn’t watch tv, and I stayed off the computer. We biked around the beachside communities and I swam in the ocean, diving through wave after wave until I felt the tides moving in me even after I came back to shore. Slowly but surely, the vacation opened up in me, and I was able to unwind there on this beautiful beach.
I don’t remember the last time I had this many days away in a row — time to actually let the work stress fall away. It didn’t happen at all during the first week we were away. I still work up every day afraid about what I had forgotten to get done, panicked about somebody needing to hear from me, harassed about the thought of the email that would be waiting for me when I got back from this time away. I was sure that everything would be ruined — my business would fall apart — if I didn’t get back to email right away and respond to everyone now. Would they understand I was on vacation, and wait patiently for an answer from me? Who did I think I was to believe I got to truly go on vacation? For goodness’ sake, the editors of the ERC anthology, Sex Still Spoken Here, (of which I am one!) had launched a fundraising campaign and I wasn’t even participating! But I knew that once I opened my email, it would be all over — I’d see what needed doing, and feel like I had to do all of it now. So, for the most part, I kept my email turned off. I stayed of of facebook. On two occasions, I gave in to the anxiety and let myself send messages that were ricocheting around in my head, needing outlet, not letting me be present at the beach or with the people we were visiting: it’s ok not to be perfect on vacation, too. Sometimes work gets in.
I wrestled with the idea of taking time like this away from my life — I was certain that I did not deserve it. Who am I to take a vacation? To really let myself be in my body, to walk on a beach almost every single day? This was my struggle in the first week — all those defenses, those muscles, those parts of myself that work so hard to stay vigilant, keep me focused, keep me on task — they didn’t want to let me go: If you stop worrying about this, how can we trust that you will pick it up again after your break? And those voices are right to worry about that — because I haven’t picked up some of those worries yet.
In the middle of these two weeks, I headed up for a 36-hour solo trip to Monhegan Island — and that’s where I felt my vacation fully begin. On the island, there was no cell service, no data reception (at least for me, given my at&t coverage, which can generally assure me that I will have little coverage outside of major cities, and poor service in them), which meant that I couldn’t even text back to my sweetheart to let her know where I was or what I was doing at that minute. For those hours, that overnight on an island 10 miles off the coat of Maine, I wasn’t doing anything for anybody else. I was fully on my own. I wandered around the island, takings short hikes punctuated with opportunities to sit on shale that tucked itself into the broad ocean waves and write in my notebook, as had been one of my favorite pastimes when I lived in Maine back 10 years ago. I made up some new stories. I walked and examined all the patches of clover, looking for that one with 4 leaves. I immersed myself in the Maine seaside scent: salt, brine, rosa rugosa, pine, and something else that I have never been able to describe— woodsy and sweet that tells me I am back on that coast. I kept my own company for those hours, reading and writing and walking as I was drawn. I wandered around the western coast of the island to Lobster Cove, sat on the rocks and wrote awhile, watched the tide and family of small ducks. I watched the people passing on their hikes around the whole island, trying to get it all done before they had to be back on their ferry back to the mainland. I settled my muscles more deeply into the rockside. I listened to the pound of water around me everywhere, the unceasingness of it, the not restlessness but persistence. The sea was in my whole body. I didn’t swim while I was on Monhegan, but I got into the ocean almost every day of vacation otherwise, braving the cold morning waves sometimes, more often waiting until the sea and my body had warmed up some and taking longer swims in the afternoon. So the salt was everywhere on me, my hairs stood straight up in stiff peaks. I listened to the chickadees, the blue jays, the birsdsong weather of the western shore of the us. And I couldn’t tell anyone about it or perform my experience for anyone using social media. I just had to be there and feel it.
Why is it so difficult to let ourselves be fully on vacation? Why do we think the world will fall apart if we’re not there to manage everything?
I remembered who I was when I lived in this part of the country — a seeker, terrified and hopeful. I remembered the kind of pace I prefer to keep: early to bed, early to rise. On my one morning on the island, I set the timer for 3:45 so I could go out and meet the sunrise, but when I woke, not even the birds were awake yet. I dozed another half an hour, then walked across town in my pajamas — not meeting another soul on the way there or the way back — to climb the wooded path to the lighthouse and watch the clouds at the horizon turn a deep and unctious orange-pink. It was me and the seagulls out there, and one bright goldfinch who joined me as I did a sun salutation on the rocks behind the one-room schoolhouse. Then I walked back to my room, with its view of the ocean pounding into the tail of Manana Island, wrote some more of my letter home, and then got so sleepy that I climbed back into bed to sleep until breakfast time.
While I was on Monhegan, I read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, a book about the strengths of introverts and how we can take care of ourselves in a culture that valorizes extroversion — those who prefer time alone are often looked on as suspect. I thought about how ashamed I have felt that I don’t have a community of friends that looks like my sweetheart’s: she will get together with friends for coffee or dinner dates or breakfast or other gatherings many times a week, sometimes connecting with many folks a single day. This exhausts me just to hear about — but it brings her alive. The friend I am closest to is someone who lives across the country from me— we talk by phone about weekly (ideally, at least!) and then it’s to leave messages, not even to have a direct conversation one-on-one — that happens much less frequently. Reading this book helped me to feel less guilty about the way I am: I didn’t organize many opportunities to see my east coast friends while I was on vacation because I knew I needed as much open space as possible to really let the vacation take root in me. It reminded me that I am — we are, each of us — ok in our own temperaments. It is ok for you to want to be with people every hour of the day if that’s what feeds you; and it’s ok for me to take the time alone that feeds me.
I remembered that my preference is to have wide open space in my days, where the writing can come in. I had forgotten about that — or made myself feel bad about it — even though I have created a life in which this is available to me. I simply forget, or succumb to the extrovert-demand of the culture, thinking that I should fill my non-family, non-workshop hours with meetings and coffees and networking opportunities — and being online, on social media, is the same experience for me as going to a party — I get overwhelmed and fragmented really fast, losing my focus.
For me, living a writing life means cultivating focus, nurturing time to let ideas and stories percolate, open, and expand. When I am living this way, I blossom. It’s not that I don’t want to see people, or have close friendships. It’s that I tend to be closest to people who can go for months without hearing from me, and then fall into a real conversation about what’s actually going on for us when we do get together. If you struggle with the sense that there’s something wrong with you because you don’t want to be with people every minute of every day (as our culture tends to encourage), I’d invite you to check out Quiet (or another that I read often and appreciate: Party of One: The Loner’s Manifesto).
Maybe that’s all I want to say about this for now. I am slowly returning to my non-vacation life. I’ve decided to come back to this daily morning writing practice for the blog, to reclaim those morning thoughts for this place. and to work on my books. It’s time to visit the garden, move with the dog. Later this morning I will get into all that email that’s waiting for me — and then maybe the dog and I will go to the beach. How will you take care of your deepest needs this day? How will you hold open space for your words to come? Be easy with you, ok? And please keep writing.