July 12, 2006

Time for contemplation


"Must you analyze everything?" my students will ask me sometimes, exasperated. The answer, of course, is yes. I’m not a big believer in turning off the brain and just accepting whatever the dominant culture hands me. My students complain that I spend too much time thinking, and that it is a contagious disease. They say I keep ruining things for them; I’ve wrecked their enjoyment of everything from television to high heels to fast food.

I even have a philosophy about vacation time. I'm not a fan of theme parks and environments that are carefully controlled by a big corporation. When we talk about this kind of thing in class, students will often defend Biggest Theme Park in the Country because it is "fun." That always seems a peculiar defense to me. Anyone who knows me can see that both the kids and adults in my family know how to have fun; I don't feel as a parent that fun is something I am obligated to provide. Sure, any vacation we take will include all kinds of fun. We have fun even when we are all locked in a vehicle on a highway, playing games. But I am wary of vacations that seem like an escape from life, rather than a way to embrace life.

On vacation, I want my kids to learn how to relax, how to enjoy quiet time, how to connect to the natural world. I suppose this is because that is the way I was raised. When I was a kid, summer was always about camping, hiking, swimming, and sailing. Summer was a time for reading, for thinking, and for relaxing. And I think that more than ever, in the busy, stressful world we live in, the ability to slow down and take time to think about life is an important survival skill. It's important to know how to make use of silence.

One of my friends actually said to me once, "You know what I like about your family? You all know how to do nothing." I think she meant it as a compliment.

That's one of the things I love about camp. Despite the whirl of activities like bocce and frisbee, sailing and canoeing and swimming, we have all kinds of quiet time. Time to take a nap, write in a journal, or stare into the water. Being in a beautiful outdoors setting teaches us how to be reflective. I'll often find one of the kids just sitting on the dock, staring at the little frogs, or lying in the sun, or relaxing on a rock. Even the youngest child in the family knows how to take a moment for contemplation.


BeachMama said...

Sounds perfect in so many ways. I remember the days of doing nothing, but doing so much. I think I can achieve that, but Hubby really needs to be doing "something". I think he has forgotten how to relax sometimes :)

Do you go to camp more than once in the summer?

jo(e) said...

Beachmama: We used to go to camp every weekend that was available, plus at least a couple full weeks. When my kids were little, I tried to spend more time there than at home.

Now that I have teenagers, I don't get there as often. But we've already been there for two vacations and will go a few more times certainly before the summer is out.

It's not a long drive -- so we can easily go for a weekend here or there, although my favorite thing is to just hang out for a whole week.

The whole extended family gathers three times each year: Memorial Day weekend, the Fourth of July week, and Labor Day weekend. Other times, it's usually just my parents and whoever has time to be there ....

Peri said...

Amen, Sister!
Teaching kids how to 'do nothing' is a very valuable skill. I can only hope I can teach my own two kids how to "be" comfortably in their own respective skins. Too many folks can't stand to be quiet or are afraid of it. They have no idea what they are missing. :)

Marie said...

A big Amen from me too! I frightens me how many kids are "bored" if someone isn't "doing something" with them or they aren't hooked up to some electronic device. Way to teach your children!

wolfa said...

I see room for both in my life -- vacations in the natural world and ones in the Theme Park. And enjoying the latter doesn't mean you are unable to enjoy quiet time and contemplation and doing nothing. They're just different sorts of pleasures.

I like to enjoy both. I like to enjoy books to think about and books to just read, tv and movies to think about or ones to be immersed in. Real beaches and parks and manmade ones and perfect gardens. Neither detract from the other. You want to be careful not to confuse them, but that's not impossible.

I think fun is a reasonable defense. Lots of things are fun -- and you can not enjoy yourself in places that are meant to be fun, because it is not about what is there but about how you are interacting with it.

This isn't intended to change your position on real world vacations versus escape vacations for yourself. But I think you are making this into a false dichotomy.

Chip said...

What an excellent philosophy, one with which I totally agree.

We've been getting more resistance from the kids to our annual get-away-from everything vacation to the rustic cabin in the woods, but every time they end up having a great time doing all of those camp things -- canoeing, hiking, swimming, exploring islands, reading, playing board games, just hanging out and talking or not talking. I can't wait for our week in the woods this summer.

As for the theme parks, I think some are more offensive than others. The biggest one in the country is especially awful, and we swore we'd never bring our kids there, and we haven't. It's not really fun, it's a kind of rat race (I went as a teenager)! We do go to a smaller local park but it is very low-key, very family-friendly, and very much not like the largest theme park in the country.

cloudscome said...

This is one of the things I like most about you! I think you are totally correct. Time to dream and stare and rest is what keeps us healthy and sane and able to play, learn, grow, love, and all the good stuff.

The thing that creeps me out about theme/entertainment parks is the high pressured consumption. The flagrant waste of energy and resources in a desperate effort to appear to be having "fun". I am starting to hate that word, actually. Eating junk and standing in line to flirt with danger is crazy behavior. It's where we are and where we are heading, and it is not good for kids or other humans!

I guess anyone reading this could say I have been hanging out with those Quakers too long... LOL

Mrs. Coulter said...

Ah, camp. We also had a camp when I was a kid, though on a different body of water. We never went to a theme park on vacation, though I did get to go on rides at the county fair. Instead, we spent most weekends there (especially when the weather got hot) and usually a least a full week or two). The experience was very similar. One of my favorite things to do was to lie at the end of the dock at night and look at the stars. Or sit on a rock and listen to the waves and dangle my feet in the (chilly) water. Since I was a kid, though, the area has been built up (less woods, more houses). Now my parents are building a year-round house there and plan to move there.

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

The flagrant waste of energy and resources in a desperate effort to appear to be having "fun".

When I visited the Biggest Theme Park in the Country, many years ago, all the trash cans said "Please, Waste" on them. It really freaked me out.

Anonymous said...

Although I chose 'anonymous' for my comments, I am 'Kindergarten friend'. After growing up with Jo(e)'s family, I learned how to have fun without spending a fortune. Now that I have a family, I would love for them to have the same experience. Unfortunately, somehow, the love the Huge Theme Park thing. This year, I have insisted that we spend two weeks at our cabin on the lake with no TV or technology. I'm sure they'll be bored at first, but after a while, they will learn that the environment around them is much more amusing than a mouse wearing stupid clothes.

Jaime said...

Ah sigh, that sounds divine. I still remember one childhood camping trip during which I spent three hours trying to get close to a herd of elk. It worked...sort of.

Leslee said...

*Sigh* Can I spend one fully year with you and your family? I'd like to know "how to do nothing" like you do it. I've had weekends where I don't change out of my pajamas but they're too far apart.

Tell me, how does one ruin high heels?

jo(e) said...

Leslee: Oh, I've ruined high heels for my students by analyzing them, and comparing them to Chinese foot binding and that sort of a thing. In our culture we tend to equate "feminine" with "helpless" and anyone who tries to walk in high heels will certainly be more helpless than someone walking in sensible footwear.

I've pointed out that high heels are physically damaging -- that high heels are bad for the feet, the legs, and the lower back. Any podiatrist in the country has backed this up. When I talked about this on my blog a while back, one reader argued that she loved high heels because they made her feel "sexy and powerful." How sad that we live in a culture in which women have to do something that is physically harmful in order to feel "sexy and powerful."

It's hard to imagine that men in our culture would embrace a fashion choice that was physically harmful -- in order to appear attractive to women.

Phoebe said...

The Biggest Theme Park in the Country, a.k.a. The Happiest Place on Earth, depressed me when I finally visited it in my 30s. Concrete as far as the eye could see, heat radiating off the concrete, long waiting lines, crying children waiting in the lines, parents losing patience with their crying children, crappy expensive food -- all drive the happiness deficit when the rides themselves are only mildly amusing.

And don't get me started on high heels :)

Tree of Knowledge said...

I've been feeling guilty about being lazy this summer (i.e. reading and thinking rather than working). Now I realize that I've actually been "relaxing." I feel much better. Thanks. :)

I'm not going to defend theme parks (the takers of money and sanity), but there is something very Zen about riding a roller coaster - getting caught up in the moment and only feeling the physical sensation and emotional thrill - the ride is all "now." That I miss.

THW said...

Wow, your photos are fantastic.

(Your writing is pretty good too.)

Cats & Dogma said...

My extended family has been camping at a lake in middle-of-nowhere Ontario for the past 45 summers. I've only been a twine since I graduated high school, and only once since I was married, but this year we'll be packing the kids up for the 10+ hour drive (over 2 days), over the Big Bridge near Your Camp, to a cabin with their grandparents and friend of ours.

I can't wait, and I'm avidly debating which pleasure reading I'll pick up first.

jar said...

I love this photo. It makes you feel the sun and hear the hypnotic sounds of the waves.

susan said...

One of the things I love about being an academic is the way my own schedule turns in the summer, too, so that my rhythms are also different. I'm reading this post from a vacation house we're borrowing on a bay in New Jersey, and I can hear the water lapping against the shore as I type. We spent the evening wandering around a terribly tacky NJ boardwalk, and Curious Girl had her first experience on rides. She loved them (she's been too scared to go previously). What I liked was watching her having fun doing something she used to be scared of, knowing that part of her enjoyment was coming in doing something she's no longer afraid of (she's very aware of getting over various fears this spring/summer). And I liked the freedom to wander, to people-watch, to be unscheduled. These aren't natural pleasures, to be sure (and yes, all the energy is a big waste), but there are other environments in which to find the kinds of summer feelings and summer attitudes you're writing about.

I really do envy you the remarkable sense of place, and the big family in that place. It's so far from my experience, and I just marvel at it as I read your posts.