A little bit is not enough
Last year, around this time, I wrote about the importance of teachers being mindful and intentional about taking time to recharge in the summer. (If you missed those missives, you may read them here and here). Now, a year later, I am once again trying to take my own advice. I am having mixed success, but it still is a worthwhile endeavor.
There are several important realities to our tech-saturated lives, and at least one is directly important to this topic. Since we can now be reached or distracted 24/7 - via the phone, email, and browsing device in our pockets - our daily lives are chopped up in smaller and smaller slices of time. But it is not possible to truly refresh, relax, and rejuvenate when your day is distracted and sliced up in small pieces. Oh, I know - you’ll find “3 minute” stretches and “5 minute” meditations all over the web. But those have an air of desperation to them, don’t they? They almost always start with the same caveat: “More time is better, but if you only have…” Go ahead - do those things during the year. But we all know, deep down, that if we are going to truly recharge, we have to get larger chunks of time back in which to do so.
Every year for the last 15, I have been taking a week to 10 days away from the daily obligations and busyness for what I call my annual “working retreat.” I know that sounds like a contradiction in terms. And it sort of is. But it has this key feature that the rest of the year never has: it gives me large uninterrupted chunks of time to rest, recharge, read, walk, and think through larger projects and concerns that I can not focus on in shorter slices of time. Maybe others can advance larger projects in those smaller slices of time during the year, but those people are better than me. I just can’t.
So every year, within a week after the last class of the year, I go away. Not to a fancy beach or resort - I have a fairly modest place I go to get away and think. It is a one-bedroom with a living room/dining room/kitchen. I never watch TV, I rarely go out to eat. I make sandwiches and salads, every day, and generally read through those meals. I make lists of what I want to accomplish, but rest time is always on it. I read books that have stacked up all year, and articles about teaching that I have not had time to focus on during the school year. I keep an ever-growing bin of this stuff during the year for my retreat time, and take it with me. It is always more than I can get to, but I get to a lot of it.
I freely admit that I stole this idea, from no less than Bill Gates. He calls them “Think Weeks” and has been doing them since the 1980s - he goes to a cabin in the woods that he can only reach by helicopter or seaplane. His weeks away sound much more intensively focused on work than what I do, and am suggesting for you. But work is definitely a part of it.
I listen to the birdsong. I go for walks. I enjoy the spring, particularly the flowers, but also the budding trees and bushes. I sleep until I get up, which sometimes is 6:00 (same time as at home) and sometimes is 7:30 (an extraordinary luxury to me). I listen to a lot of music. This trip, so far, I have been listening to a mix of Dylan, Beethoven, Roseanne Cash, Chopin, and Merle Travis. But I also do work-related reading, perhaps even some grading, and administrative stuff that seems to pile up at the end of the school year. And I start on major writing projects I have planned for the summer ahead.
My wife is very kind and loving to let me do this all these years. I hope I have made it up to her when she goes away for some time with her sisters, but I wish she would do more of that, for her benefit. And I am very aware how lucky I am to have a place I can borrow. But you can do this without having a specific place. AirBnB or VRBO will find you a place away, and often if you contact the owner and propose a longer stay, you will get a discount. Trust me, it’s worth it.
I will be honest about this part: it can be lonely at times. The busyness of the day provides its own comfort, which is one of the reasons we stay in it most of the time. And being around people, especially loved ones, is also comforting, of course. So doing this will get you out of that comfort zone, and be warned - it can be disorienting. But overall I have found it re-centering and totally worth the lonely bits.
I am going for a walk now. I’ll see you later.
Letters of Recommendation
Today’s letter of Recommendation is Mary Oliver reading her poem, Wild Geese:
Q of the Week
The Q of the Week this week are two questions I invite your comments on:
How do you rest and rejuvenate during the summer months?
How do you find those large chunks of time to read and walk and think?
Over the past two years, what had been an occasional, 30-minute walk two or three times a week has become an hour-and-a-half long walk, sometimes twice a day. And the biggest change is that I used to always walk with headphones in, usually with a podcast so I could continue being productive. But after a while, I switched to music, and then only part of the time, and recently, I haven't had anything in my ears at all. I've consciously tried to just "switch off" and let my mind drift off in any direction it wants while I moved my feet. It's been mostly freeing. And now I've begun to schedule the rest of my day around these walking times. And so, ironically, I rest by moving. It's not quite the same as retreating* to a cabin, but it's what I've got at the moment.
*I'm trying to think of a word that means to "disengage and go to a remote spot in which to recover" that doesn't have a negative, surrender-like connotation. Maybe retiring? But even that sounds like giving up, doesn't it?