The Fine Art of Doing Nothing

Vacations present us with an opportunity to view the world as a dichotomy. It’s a chance to divide humanity, in all its beauty and diversity, into two categories: those who “do” when on vacation, and those who “don’t” when on vacation. Which are you? Do you set your alarm and bound out of bed each morning, ready to visit the next Cathedral, stride purposely through a museum, or launch your canoe into a nearby lake? Or is your definition of a good time the absence of schedules and the presence of a nice cup of coffee on the veranda?

I generally find myself in the latter category. When I am on vacation, I want to slow down, savor small moments, catch some extra sleep, and quietly set fire to my endless to-do list. (Somehow the list manages to survive these metaphorical conflagrations and is always – ALWAYS – waiting for me when I return, right there next to the 10,000 emails in my inbox. The struggle is real, but the gesture is important.)

Yes, vacation in my world is a time to relax. But before I continue my musings on the subject, let us pause here for a moment to clarify that I am, in fact, talking about a real “vacation” as opposed to a “trip.” As anyone with small children knows well, the former happens without children, the latter happens with the beloved offspring in tow. One is restful. One is not. The length of the endeavor matters not at all for this definition. Two days or two weeks, the traveling companions are the determining factor.

I took a three day mini-vacation to Asheville, North Carolina last weekend. It was a much-needed moment of respite at the end of a busy work year and in the middle of a busy summer of chauffeuring children to various camps. My friend and I picked the location because it offered both outdoor recreation and a glorious arts scene, but beyond a vague desire to spend some of the time outdoors and some of the time in artist studios, we made no firm plans.

While I have a strong theoretical preference for laid-back vacations, doing nothing scares me a bit. It’s not a natural state of being for a single mom with a full-time job and a Type A personality. This anxiety tends to manifest itself via over-packing. For car rides with my kids, I’ve been known to work up an hour-by-hour schedule of activities and to create elaborate, perfectly-portioned snack kits. Sometimes the snacks also have activities associated with them – like drawing slips of paper from a hat to determine which snack will be eaten when.

For the long weekend away, I packed several board games, two new books, and my computer, and resisted the urge to toss a small sewing project into my bag. Ten minutes after setting foot in our beautiful Airbnb, I knew the computer would never leave its bag. Which is really as it should be when you’re on vacation.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say we did nothing. We hiked to a waterfall. We tramped through the River Arts District. We played many rounds of a new favorite board game. We ate takeout curry on the deck.

But all of that was optional and we approached all of it casually and with flexibility. At one point, we discussed a canoe rental but ultimately nixed the plan because it required arriving at the dock at a designated time and that just wasn’t how we were rolling. Spending an extra hour in the hammock with my Kindle was far more appealing.

There is a time and a place for productivity. Just not on vacation.

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