STONE HARBOR, NJ – Just midway through my week vacation, I am beginning to learning the art of relaxation.
That has changed somewhat for me since becoming an Associate Dean. When the semester ends, the structure of my work week remains largely unchanged – I continue to come to the office each day to meet and work with staff, faculty and students. The result is that when I take vacation, it really feels like time off. Of course, all the research pressures of a regular faculty member remain, which casts a shadow over every vacation.
This year, however, I have had some success in learning how to relax in this context. A few of my strategies are probably a bit counter-intuitive.
Keep in touch. Many people set up an automatic email message that says something like “I will be away from my email until x, if you have an emergency, please contact …” I never do that, even on vacation. I know enough about myself to know that allowing email to pile up while I am away increases my anxiety. I am less relaxed in such situations. Rather, I check mail periodically, deleting things I don’t need, delegating things to staff at work, responding briefly if possible or adding more involved tasks to OmniFocus, my To-Do list, for when I return. The result is a bit of time over vacation, but I save two or three days of being behind when I return. I am more relaxed when I take the time to do this.
Be unscheduled. The biggest challenge for me is to settle into being unscheduled. My days are hyper-scheduled, down to half-hour time periods. Even my unscheduled time has a research or administrative work schedule imposed on it by me to ensure I am maximally productive. On vacation, I find myself often trying to schedule the day: let’s go to the beach in the morning, then do X for lunch, then let’s go to the pool … I simply need to let go of that compulsion to schedule, at least for a vacation like a week at the beach.
Attend to the Moment. During my work-a-day week, I have sought to cultivate the ability to attend to the moment and the task at hand. My Photo of the Day project has helped me practice attentive seeing. This week at the beach, I have relied on that practice as I listen to my daughters’ stories, notice the play of light on the ocean, and enjoy the smell of the beach. I have written before about the beach as a liminal space and the details of life at the beach. One of the important reasons I try to practice the habit of being present to the moment is that the disposition is then there when you need it most: when vacation time slips slowly away and life appears to pass too quickly.
One of the reasons why these strategies work for me, I realize, is that I don’t feel the need to separate radically from my working life when I am on vacation. I am lucky to have a career I love, one that feels more like a calling than a burden. This too, was a matter of intentionally attending to the course of my life, which I take to be one of the primary purposes of living a philosophical life.