"Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare" -- Audre Lorde, A Burst of Light (1988)
When a close mentor asked me what I wanted to do this summer, I found myself at a loss for words.
Usually, I would have a carefully crafted recitation ready to go, the "I'm going to be at X doing Y for Z amount of time." Like clockwork, people would reply with "Oh, that's interesting" or "good choice" when I detailed my research goals or study abroad excursions. This mode of being was familiar to me. I was an self-made expert at creating tightly-woven summer plans, prizing their efficiency from my first year of high school. I imagined my summers as links between major events in my life, strengthening the bonds intrinsic to the calculus of my success. The nods and exclamations of approval cemented my plans as correct, proper, and aligned with my long-terms goals.
When my mentor repeated his question, my body did not fail me. My hands began their usual gesticulatory dance, my vocal cords tightened as I prepared to respond. But nothing came out. The mechanisms of my mind, normally hard at work churning out lists and goals, stopped. I fumbled out a meager "still working on it" and we continued our conversation, the spectre of my inaction flickering incessantly throughout my head.
As I walked home, despondent from what had occurred, a germ of a thought imbedded itself within my consciousness: "You don't have to do anything." Immediately, I pushed away the wayward notion, falling back on my automated desire to stay productive. With each step I took, however, I felt a warmness creep upward through my body. As my legs gained momentum, my mind buzzing with the kinetic energy of that singular thought: “You don’t have to do anything,” “you don’t have to do anything!” The buoyancy of my revelation carried me to my house in a daze, sweat and tears parting ways at the half-moon of my smile. I lied down on my bed and let the nothingness commence.
I share this story in order to better explain the “what” of my summer, and perhaps more importantly, the “how” of those few months. In making the decision to go straight from undergrad to a Ph.D. program, I spent countless hours—and make countless lists—on the pros and cons. Financial concerns, location and nature of program—all these were variables in the formula that determined my next steps. What I couldn’t include in those deliberations, what I didn’t understand until that moment with my mentor, was the way I worked and lived. True, I had read with gusto Audre Lorde’s ardent demand for our well-being, nodded with approval when my peers—in person and electronically-- shared their desire for a balanced lifestyle. I made time to spend time with close friends, logging countless hours on Netflix, Still, I saw myself as a body made full with emails and papers, a finely-tuned corpus made to achieve. The mechanization of how I saw myself made me uncomfortable. How could someone so invested in love and compassion as academic practice sustain themselves in an output-driven environment? What did that say about me as a scholar and teacher?
Going home for the summer, I told myself I’d do something eerily foreign, but ultimately necessary: do nothing.
I surprised myself by how easy it was. Returning to Southern California after four years on the East Coast, I expected to get restless. While I love my family and friends, the doldrums of suburban life always frustrated me. The monotony I perceived, the sameness that catalyzed my exodus to Connecticut, now was something I relished. This summer, I’ve spent hours sitting on my favorite spot in our living room, letting the faded couch remember my body’s form. Everyday, I listened to my siblings squabble and my mom describe her day at work, thankful to be included in their conversations.
Granted, I could never completely divorce myself from the need to be productive. I attended a conference, wrote a reflective piece for an anthology, and participated in a professionalization workshop. But these moments were the momentary breaks, the faults in an otherwise wonderfully wide expanse of free time. I took off the layers necessitated at college, the ones that kept me insulated and busy, and soaked in the rays of a care-free summer.
This summer, I gained a deep appreciation for the restorative powers of “doing nothing.” My definition of the term widened, exchanging my long-held skepticism for a more nuanced recognition of how I could be. I wish I would have known this sooner, that I didn’t wrap myself up so tightly with the need to be busy. I want these feelings to continue in graduate school. I am intentionally optimistic of their longevity.
When a friend from school asked my what I did this summer, I replied:
“I did nothing. And everything. It was great.”
References: Lorde, Audre (1988). A Burst of Light, Essays. London; Sheba Feminist Publishers.