July 23, 2021 • Recharge

What Is A Vacation?

Model in pink swimsuit with striped tent on beach, 1959. (Louise Dahl-Wolfe)

As a longtime freelancer, I’m able to make my own so-called vacation schedule. Also, as a longtime freelancer, I’ve learned the hard way that in order to actually have a vacation, and not simply move your office to a different location, getting off email is key. As with everything in life, learning to set boundaries is the secret to happiness. But this past week, I was reminded that an email OOO is only the first baby step towards giving your brain the actual rest it needs. More needs to happen. Otherwise, time off ends, and it can feel like you simply put some vacation wallpaper on your home screen, hoping this would somehow trick your brain into thinking it was away. Spoiler: it never does.

After eleven months away from family, I was able to travel to Canada last week to see my sister and niece and nephews. AKA three children under the age of eleven (plus, one large dog, one somewhat large snake, and a number of guinea pigs). Fortunately for all of us, they live near a large lake and have access to a boat, so the days have mostly been spent out on the water. Even so, the kids are at the age where, somewhat like Gremlins when they get wet, they replicate, and in the past week I’ve found myself not just making breakfast or lunch for three children but four or five (happily for everyone, my cooking skills align nicely with the culinary tastes of the six to ten set). In other words, it’s been chaotic, and (this will not be a surprise for anyone with children) somewhat non-stop from morning till night.

This is a significant shift from my regular life, and yet somehow my brain feels more rested after seven days of this than it has in the past year. The secret sauce: I don’t have time for social media. For the time being, real life has pushed out online life, and even though my level of interaction has increased, I can actively feel my brain healing.

I’m not suggesting parenting three children is relaxing. I’m not suggesting it’s anything but hard and relentless. It just happens to be the thing that’s temporarily pushed me off my phone, and it’s been extremely notable to me that even amidst all this, the absence of social media in my life has made such a difference to my mental health.

Earlier this week, Roxane Gay wrote a piece for the New York Times about her increasing disillusionment with life online. 

But I have more of a life than I once did. I have a wife, a busy career, aging parents and a large family. I have more physical mobility and, in turn, more interest in being active and out in the world. I now spend most of my time with people who are not Very Online. When I talk to them about some weird or frustrating internet conflagration, they tend to look at me as if I am speaking a foreign language from a distant land. And, I suppose, I am.

Being out in the world. As I consider what’s been so healing about the last week, it boils down to the fact that my whole brain is present in the real world. When I open Instagram, my mind is immediately splintered into a variety of places, whether it be my friend’s holiday, the happy lives of orphaned baby elephants, or 1990’s supermodel editorials. All at the same time. I don’t think I need to tell you we are not built to be in all these places at once (as every time travel movie goes to lengths to emphasize, we’re not supposed to exist in more than one timeline at the same time). And yet we are constantly being asked to exist in multiple dimensions simultaneously. No wonder we’re so exhausted. That so many of these places are hostile and/or built to assure that we are missing out (at best) and forever inferior, or worse, only adds to that exhaustion. 

Also this week, activist Patrisse Cullors-Brignac posted on her Instagram that she was “creating new rules and guidelines for myself and also for my followers” when it comes to social media. Many of her rules are aimed at the abuse she experiences online from trolls and followers as a black woman, and an activist. But all of us rethinking certain rules we have around this monstrosity that dominates much of our lives (and increasingly our wallets, ahem Instagram shopping) is very much warranted. As Cullors-Brignac notes, social media has been “manipulated and controlled by capitalism and corporations…creating a new infrastructure that doesn’t value human life.” 

One very small new rule I’m trying to adhere to this summer is to think about time off less as a getting away, and more as retrieving all the parts of me that exist on all these various apps and attempting to keep them in the same, real-world, place for as long as I can. Wholeness is a rare experience these days, and in fact, even one day of it is more restful than an entire week on a beach scrolling.