3: Vacation

Still Life with Cantaloupe, detail, Russell Steven Powell watercolor, 11"x15"

Still Life with Cantaloupe, detail, watercolor, 11″x15″

ON MOST VACATIONS, time speeds up. I just get settled in to a place and establish a rhythm, it seems, and I look up and it is already Thursday, and I begin to anticipate loss and return. Here in the dunes, every day is like a week of true living, each 24-hour period spawning several days within it.

It’s not exactly vacation by most people’s standards. There are few amenities—no going out to eat, no maid service, no shopping or museums (except to the extent that the shack itself is a living museum). Being here, for me at least, is not the absence of work, but rather an exchange: I replace labor for someone else with labor of my own making, on my terms and schedule.

Civilization, we know, requires the cumulative efforts of masses of people to accomplish common goals, such as manufacturing cars or running a college. But these shared endeavors are not innate to us as individuals. We labor on behalf of others for the money to buy goods necessary to support our independent lives, our separate houses and cars, our nuclear families. The world of work, for most of us, is no altruistic beehive or ant colony; our loyalty must be earned, or bought.

With our individuality comes the capacity for passion and independent thought, and these defy conscription. Thus many people become resigned to their work, accept it as a cost of living, and seek their true passion elsewhere, often vicariously. Hopefully they find their tasks worthy and colleagues pleasant, and feel adequately compensated.

Vacation may be a necessary compensation for the sacrifices we make to earn our money (and from our employer’s point of view, an essential ingredient to sustained productivity). But many people confuse the need for time off from our jobs with a break from labor. For those of us in white-collar positions, this is especially absurd, since our work is not physical, and includes enough repetitive tasks that its abstract mental challenges can hardly be considered taxing.

(Is thinking work? We don’t stop thinking on vacation, whether reading a mystery or exploring a new destination. But we exercise a different part of the brain than the one we use in the repetitive aspects of our jobs. Is exercise work?)

Still LIfe with Tomato, detail, Russell Steven Powell colored pencil, 17"x14"

Still LIfe with Tomato, detail, colored pencil, 17″x14″

With rare exceptions, few of us work to full capacity in our day jobs, and those who do often are less interested in vacation — they don’t feel as great a need to separate from activity they genuinely enjoy doing, on behalf of some organization or cause whose goals and culture they freely embrace. For the rest, the need for vacation can signify dissonance between how we spend our days and who we think we are.

A week in the dunes subverts this, in part because the shacks lack the traditional trappings of leisure. Like any vacation, we are free to do what we want here, true; the physical demands are slight. But without the usual distractions and filters of society, there are few barriers to realizing one’s self — our fundamental, holistic selves, not just what we do to “make a living.” Sleep, paint, read, write, walk or sunbathe here, the choice is not mediated by either a need to escape work, or an expectation about how, or when, to do it.

Most of the year we go to bed and set our alarms in the morning, shave and shower, eat, do chores and make plans for living, not according to our own rhythms, but in deference to our workplace. Perversely, we can’t wait for the week — and our lives — to speed by, so we can get to the next weekend. Then we look back and say, “I can’t believe summer’s over,” or “where did the time go?”

Living in the dunes, we are no longer on the clock, at work or away from it. Time slows down here. Our hours are no longer ordered and regulated around the workday axis — or in response to it.

Our institutions are necessary, and commerce inevitable. We are social animals, congenial for the most part when it comes to serving a larger purpose or need. Most people do not consciously rebel against their lack of control or feel deprived of passion, and are willing to trade the uncertainty of freedom for the security of a clear purpose and fixed schedule, with predictable costs and rewards. One of those rewards is vacation, prescribed periods away from the job offering just enough taste of the other side to satisfy our appetite for independence.

Certain words in our lexicon become appropriated or politicized beyond, or rather ahead of, their definition in dictionaries. Vacation is one of these — to “vacate” implying emptiness rather than the fullness of living according to our own desires. The term “vacation” is determined by, set in opposition to, the world of industrial work, from which we are granted a temporary escape.

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