It is day four of vacation. Thursday. It has been rainy, cold, and overall miserable, but, in an effort to cut off any criticism coming at me because I am on vacation, I will say that any vacation is better than no vacation.
Or is it?
As a teacher, I live my life by a rigorous and rigid schedule. My life is portioned out in forty-two minute segments, with a three minute breather in between. Most people don’t have this type of experience during their work day; their’s is a more flexible type of existence. They can, in extreme cases, actually set their own schedule, like my friend who appraises homes and is able to decide where he will be driving to (another weird concept for most teachers: there is a life outside the building?) that day. But not me. I hustle between rooms, deliver forty minutes of instruction that is, hopefully, thoughtful and engaging, and then move on to the next challenge. Sometimes I get to repeat the lesson to another section, sometimes it’s one and done for that day. Regardless of repetition, though, I can count on the regularity of a schedule dictated by a loud, obnoxious, buzzer.
And that’s where the problem, if you can call it a problem, sets in. I hate the bell, but I also love the bell. Stockholm Syndrome might be a bit extreme, but it’s probably accurate. I do love the captor of my day. Having your world parcelled out into segments carries with it a comforting sense of structure. Honestly, I’m a little worried about how I’ll react when I get to live without a bell; a bit of trepidation injected into the golden sheen of retirement (but only a bit: I’m sure I’ll survive). Vacations are little glimpses into what life is like without the bell, and, for me, it can be scary.
I get lost in large washes of time. The only commitment I have had over the week has been to help coach the JV baseball team, and that’s only two hours a day. Large stretches of open time remain, It’s weird, I know, but I don’t think I’m alone here. When left to my own devices, I get easily overwhelmed. Should I write? Read? See a movie? If it weren’t so damn cold I’d be outside on my bike, or cleaning up the yard (yeah, this one would be done under protest, but still). And so I sit, my mind spooling through the seemingly endless possibilities of projects, and very little movement actually happening.
My wife, on the other hand, is a woman of action. Being a teacher as well, she views the break as an opportunity to tackle a house project, which she does with vigor and joy. Those yawning expanses of uncommitted time are like little gifts from the house project deities. She’s a happy woman with a paint brush. In fact, this break she’s painting our hallway, a task that is necessary and doable in a week (in her early life, she had some issues with scope and scale, often taking on projects too big for the timeframe, leading to excessive amounts of stress). She has gathered the tarps and brushes, we bought the paint- me, trudging along to the paint store and she ready to burst into joyful song as we perused the different paint chips and debated color (is “Mexican Sand” that different from “Sandstorm?”)- and roped off the hallway from the dogs so they wouldn’t be wearing taupe striped warpaint. By day four she is nearly done with the wall painting, the trim painting, and the installation of a new light fixture. She has sore muscles, but the unmistakable sense of satisfaction she feels in completing her task she just can’t hide. Our three dogs are exhausted just watching her, as am I.
Which brings us back to me, and my apparent love/hate relationship with structure. You see, it’s day four of the break, and there has been a lot of activity at my house. I’ve orbited the activity, supporting when I could, maintaining other aspects of the house when I could, but now, finally, I have set my mind to writing. Through all of the floundering and flailing about, I am now ready to write. Of course, life at the end of a vacation changes. So, now that I’m prepared to write, I experience the compression of time (the Oh, s***, I only have three days left to do A, B, and C.) But I struggle through and, for a few hours, I can escape to that place in my head where the energy flows. Endorphins, perhaps, or serotonin, or just plain old psychic energy, I’m not sure what to call it; suffice to say that when it does start flowing I ride the energy wave and all becomes right with the world. I have given structure to an amorphous week. I have created. Carved out of the faceless block something that has a name, and for that I am grateful.
It’s a weird dynamic, one that I have lived with my entire life. No surprises. And I guess I have figured this out about myself. I need the structure. Or I don’t. But if I don’t have some structure, I will get lost in the haze and swirl of life’s distractions. And then I feel crappy, nauseous, unfulfilled. I have been lucky enough to have discipline given to me by the nature of my vocation, and, once stripped, I struggle to regain it. As I’ve often said, it’s all about balance. Striking that balance is the hard part, and one that I think we all struggle with in some ways. My wife cuts back her painting to share a glass of wine with me. I try to devote time to the writing but also to cleaning up the yard (yes, I know, still under protest), vacuuming, and schlepping to the paint store for more extra white trim paint. And when it all works and we both understand each other, then life runs smoothly.
With structure comes balance, and, perhaps, vice versa. It is what I strive for, what often eludes me, and what keeps me moving forward. Oh, s***, I have to leave for practice soon! Better end this and eat lunch. Only three more days of vacation left!
© 2015, Brian Stumbaugh. All rights reserved.