I’ve encountered a strange phenomenon over the past few weeks. I haven’t said anything for fear of appearing ungrateful, but the more I experience this oddity, the more convinced I am that I’m not the only one observing this habit.
As a school teacher, I am gifted the truly wondrous present of summer vacation. From June 5th until August 20th, I am a woman of leisure, picking up small jobs here and there. There are few alarms, nights spent reading until midnight, lunches shared with friends, and untainted Sunday evenings. I am grateful for the chance to recharge my batteries and enjoy the summer sun while I can.
I am fully aware of the jealousy this may provoke from friends and acquaintances who do not have the luxury of summer idleness. I am careful to not overemphasize how lazy I’ve been during the day or how many episodes of Big Bang Theory I was able to watch (currently on Season 2, Episode 5). I try to keep my unbridled joy at bay once the final school bell rings, and I must sustain this discretion until the summer sunset turns to an autumn dusk. Ironically enough, much of my summer time is spent preparing for the next school year, but I can at least review and revise from the comfort of my backyard. There are pros and cons to every job, and this is undoubtedly one of the biggest pros.
For the first few days of vacation, I marveled over the little things I was able to do with my time: wake up after 7 AM, make a cup of coffee and drink it while in still in the house, go for a jog with ample daylight, etc. These small things become paramount when your time is at a premium in the mornings. I reveled in having a flexible schedule. I could say yes to a lunch date with little notice or I could spontaneously drive to Findley Lake with my dog. This, I thought…this will be the summer I get things done.
I was a to-do list master during that first week of bliss. I checked off mundane projects that had escaped me for months. I caught up with people I hadn’t seen in weeks. I began working on my backyard. I started my blog again. I ticked off a bevy of other things from my list and felt, for the first time in a long time, relaxed. It was a wonderful mix of productivity and leisure that I thought I could maintain until the late weeks of August.
The conundrum I mentioned earlier starting roughly into my second week of summer recess. I remember feeling distinctly anxious on a rainy Tuesday morning. I had just finished my morning cup of coffee, caught up on some emails, and completed some yoga. If you’ve ever done yoga, you know that it typically leaves you in a very relaxed state (unless you’re doing hot yoga in a room maintained at 104 degrees…then you’re probably as anxious as a chihuahua on the 4th of July). However, as I finished my yoga session, I felt irritable. Thoughts of work flooded into my mind: it’s already June 16th and you haven’t started revising your plans…you haven’t placed your music order…you haven’t even looked at your grad class. This thought process blurred over into other areas: you’ve haven’t started reading a single book…you haven’t planted any flowers…you haven’t made a trip home. Why, oh why was I feeling so suddenly tense?
I struggled with this pattern of anxiety over the next few days and into the next week. Suddenly, I lost my determined drive to get things done. I found myself content to stay on the couch for an afternoon, yet I beat myself up over it. My brain would remind me of the summer bucket list I made weeks prior, and I felt bad for relaxing. If you keep spending days inside like this, you will regret wasting time. The more I struggled with this fact, the worse I made myself feel.
What had happened? How had the simplistic joy of Week #1 been lost to the nervous anxiety of Week #3? The calm, pleasant act of sipping coffee on my patio had lost its allure. I stopped waking up eager to start the day and began sleeping later and later. I remember one afternoon that I spent writing outside. I sat on my laptop from 1:00 PM-5:00 PM drafting a blog post. Instead of being ecstatic when it was finished, I was more upset that I had lost half a day to one activity. I had things to do, after all! This was going to be the summer to beat all summers! I was going to fill every day with something important, and I was going to create moments to remember. Yet, here I sat, lamenting an afternoon spent placidly by a computer screen.
But I was working, gosh darn it! I was spending time on school-related matters. However, I was also straying farther and farther away from my precious to-do list (well, I did one thing today…guess I can play video games the rest of the afternoon!). If I wasn’t careful, I thought, I was going to wind up with another summer that vanished without doing something significant.
Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we expect so much out our well-laid plans? Why is there this need to feel accomplished? We concoct so many flights of fancy, intend to see them through, and wind up feeling disappointed when they don’t turn out as we originally planned. This is a common thread for many of us, I’m sure. My mind leaps to the holidays. How many times have we planned the “Christmas to beat all Christmases,” or “the best New Year’s Eve Party ever“? We envision a impeccable scene involving our preparation and predict how everything will turn out. In our own minds, the result is perfection. And yet, when the dust settles, why are we so frequently disappointed?
I had spent three days cherishing the warmth of a coffee cup in my hands before the hour of 8AM. I took great pleasure in simply letting the world unfold around me during that first week of vacation. How had I marred the unadulterated comfort of free time into something that made me feel despondent? There had to be a solution to this problem.
We, as creatures of habit, continually think about the future. We constantly look towards a finish line of our own making that holds expectations, fulfillment, and the promise that things will be better. When I get that job, I’ll be happy. When we save $500, we’ll buy that TV. When this project is done, I’ll feel more relaxed. You can also substitute the word “when” for “if.” If my brother can behave himself, it will be a great wedding. If the rain holds off, it will be a great race. If I can find a guy by the time I’m 35, I’ll finally be content. We project, project, project…and in the process of placing our hopes in the future, we lose the awareness of the present moment.
I sat down to lunch today with three great friends. I bring this encounter up for a very specific reason. Prior to our meal, the following thoughts ran through my head:
- Ugh, Chipotle? I prefer Qdoba. I’m going to wind up with a burrito the size of an infant.
- I hate Peach Street at lunch time. I hate Peach Street anytime. Isn’t there anything closer?
- This is going to be a rushed meal. I have to leave by 1:00.
- I don’t want to work this afternoon. I want to surf the Internet and order fragrant soaps.
- This day is tired. I’m tired. The weather’s tired, too.
I have a very active head. Too active, as I’ve come to understand. Before I even got to the restaurant, I had already psyched myself out for the day. The lunch date was just going to be another faded memory of this summer, and it would leave me with that familiar disappointed feeling for the rest of the day.
Despite my mental projections, however, the oddest thing happened: I had a lunch that will remain a favorite memory of this summer. Nothing that ran through my head happened. Nothing transpired from my inner monologue. Instead, what did happen was:
- I had an awesome, flavorful salad that I would totally order again (even though they had no ranch dressing…dumb Commies).
- I laughed and kvetched in a light-hearted way.
- I saw a friend I was not planning on seeing.
- I made it to my next appointment with time to spare.
- Nothing was rushed. Lunch was full of laughter.
- No animal were hurt in the production of this lunch (except the chicken I ate on my salad…sorry).
I walked away from this encounter with a refreshed view of my summer. You cannot bank upon an expectation for happiness. Your happiness then becomes dependent on the expectation’s outcome. And, as we’ve learned, life rarely turns out as we’ve planned. What becomes important, then, is how we approach our experiences. It’s one of the only things we do have control over. If my summer break passes by without a single road trip, that will be sad, indeed, but what about all of the other things I was actually able to do with my time? What about the experiences I did have?
Sometimes life surprises you with something wonderful, but you cannot see it until months after the subtle gift. Sometimes we lose our ability to view these experiences as gifts. I call it the “Tourist Effect.” When I laid my eyes upon my first coffee shop in Florence, I was captivated. So enchanted was I with the town that I found everything infused with a life unbeknownst to me at home. Somehow, the coffee was better in Italy. The streets were better. The food was better. The first time you experience anything is always better. So the question is: how can we experience things in our own lives as tourists, stumbling upon familiar places and faces as if we are seeing them for the first time?
I think the crux of everything is anchored in gratefulness. Gratefulness…and perspective. Yes, I did just spend an afternoon entirely on Netflix…but that goodness I am allotted the time to do it. Yes, I am just running to the store…but thank goodness I don’t have to rush. Yes, I didn’t finish a single lesson plan today, but I cooked a great meal. And, my own personal revelation: yes, it is only a cup of Keurig coffee, but at least I don’t have to rush out the door to 25 eighth grade zombies!
We are given what we are given, and by the time your head hits the pillow each night, you can’t go back and change it. You may not reach every expectation you place on yourself, but the real victory…the true contentment…comes when you can appreciate every experience for what it is.
I had a great lunch today. The rest of the day was a typical Monday, but I had a great lunch. Tomorrow, who knows? Maybe I’ll knock off some more to-do list tasks…maybe I’ll read a book…and maybe I won’t do anything of any importance or value. But the thing is: whatever materializes tomorrow is my own experience, and only I can decide what to make of it.