Books + beach + baby turtles = respite

Sometimes we need a respite more than we need a vacation, or even before we can be fully present for a vacation. What’s the difference between a respite and a vacation? The dictionary tells us that a respite is a short period of rest or relief from something difficult or unpleasant, while a vacation is an extended period of recreation. When I left my home in Washington 10 days ago and headed for the beach,  I was fleeing from a stressful and frustrating situation. What I didn’t foresee was how many days it would take before I really felt like I was on vacation.

I knew I had to lower my stress level, and so I set some intentions from the start, the most important being to limit my email. I turned the mail function off on my devices and decided to only turn it on twice a day to check for things that were important. The rest of the time, I vowed not to check it at all.

Here are my other intentions:IMG_2188

I had been neglecting my yoga practice at home. In addition, I needed to spend some time learning how to use my new camera and updating my continuing education credits, as well as this blog. But it turned out to be many days before I could focus on the more mentally-tasking intentions.

On my first morning, I went to a yoga class and felt some of the stress begin to lift. On my second morning, I began a week of going out with other volunteers to monitor sea turtle nests on the beach. Each day at sunrise when we would begin our walk down the beach, a feeling of complete well-being would come over me and I would utterly relax. When we released some straggler baby turtles near the ocean one day, and people gathered to cheer them on as they made their way, I was filled with gratitude to be part of something so simple yet so much bigger than myself.

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The remainder of my first four or five days was spent reading books. I couldn’t seem to bring myself to do much more than that. Overcast weather justified my couch potato tendencies a bit, but if I’m honest I admit that I just didn’t have the energy or interest to do more than that. I finished three books in rapid succession, and would have read more if they had been available. Other people’s stories have always felt like a refuge for me when I needed one.

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By the fifth day, the sun came out, and with it my readiness to be “on vacation.” I finally felt like I could enjoy the recreation part of my stay — the swimming, boating, biking and other fun. I took my camera out and experimented with its different settings. I spent the hot part of one afternoon doing an online class to fulfill my CE requirement. I went kayaking with my husband, and enjoyed that wonderful feeling of physical tiredness that comes from exertion. It was such a welcome change from the mental and emotional exhaustion I was feeling a few days earlier.

Thich Nhat Hanh says that,

The purpose of a vacation is to have the time to rest. But many of us, even when we go on vacation, don’t know how to rest. We may even come back more tired than before we left.

I feel lucky that I had enough time to give myself both that respite and a vacation. But what I learned is that I need to build in more respites for myself at home, and probably more boundaries to keep myself from getting to the point of so much stress. Time to set more intentions!

 

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5 Ways to take a Vacation Day right now

In Washington, some of the bars opened early yesterday so that people could come and drink while watching James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. All around the country people took the day off from work so that they could stay riveted to the TV. It’s a crazy world when this is how we’re spending our days off!

Instead of sitting on a barstool, however, I turned to my “52 Lists Project” journal for inspiration and distraction (although I confess to a few sneak peeks at the testimony). List #22 asks us to think of favorite places we have been and what made them so appealing. But that’s not the end — the next step is to think of places in our communities that could “transport” us the same way. In other words, can we bring the vacation experience to our everyday lives? Can we transport ourselves for a little while away from all the chaos of recent times?

When I list my favorite vacations, in places like Croatia, Hawaii, Seattle, Yosemite or Australia, here are some of the characteristics that pop out:

  • Simplicity
  • Scenic drives
  • Grandeur
  • Friendly people
  • Fresh food
  • Connections to the past
  • Bringing the outdoors in

How do I replicate that at home?

1. Simplicity & fresh food:

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When I visited Croatia, I was impressed by the beautiful national parks, the simplicity of people’s lifestyles, the ability to eat a meal where every bite of food came from the farm we were on. Here at home the next best thing is to make a meal based on what comes from the farmer’s market or my yard:

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2. Bringing the outdoors in:

Poipu Beach Park

In Hawaii, the thing I liked best was the way the boundary between indoors and outdoors was so blurred. Nearly everyplace I went was open to the outside; there wasn’t a big reliance on artificial air conditioning.  This is hard to achieve during summer in DC, but I could spend more time on the roof of my building, eat at more outdoor restaurants, and open my windows when the temperature allows:

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3. Grandeur. I haven’t been to Yosemite in years, but the grandeur of the park is something one can never forget. Its sheer rock faces, memorialized by Ansel Adams and countless photographers since him, are familiar even to people who haven’t been there. It’s a place that is just jaw-dropping in all seasons. What my area offers:

Great Falls_3Great Falls Park – the rocky passage of the Potomac down the Mather Gorge, accessible by way of the Olmsted Island bridges, provides a pretty awe-inspiring outing that I never tire of.

IMG_2318The monuments, while man-made, have a whole lot of grandeur about them.

4. Connections to the past:Rome - Colosseum, Forum, Palatine (12)In America, we can’t compete with the Greeks or Romans on the ancient past, but we do have the advantage of recent history here in Washington:

Arboretum_20120407_13The original columns from the U.S. Capitol can be seen at the National Arboretum.  The way they rise up out of nothing, in the middle of a huge expanse of green, is spectacular.

5. Scenic drives:

Great Ocean Road_226In both Ireland and Australia, I took breathtaking drives along coastal roads. That’s tougher to replicate here where we’re inland, but how about the cherry blossoms in spring:

Cherry Blossoms (2)

In some ways, this prompt is very much like a values exercise we do in stress management. It asks you to imagine your perfect day and what it would include, then compare it to your typical day. How alike are they? Is there a way to make more days perfect, by incorporating more of what you value?

The columnist Earl Wilson once said that, “A vacation is what you take when you can no longer take what you’ve been taking.” As much as we might value watching important Senate testimony, a steady diet of it isn’t good for anyone. If you can’t take it anymore, perhaps it’s time to take a real vacation day.

 

Vacation days

First day of vacation: The monkey mind is still alive and well, jumping from thought to thought. I wake with an undercurrent of dis-ease. What am I “supposed” to be doing today? My mind isn’t yet allowing me to surrender to the idea of slowing down and doing nothing.
 
So I get up and make a list of things to do. I write some emails. I find something to clean. I sit in the sun and try to read. I start to doze off, the first moment of the day that feels lazy and luxurious. But soon I’m up again, going off to exercise. I believe in working out on vacation, but today it feels like part of my “organized” life, something I’ve scheduled, not something that says “vacation”.
 
Did you know that the majority of Americans don’t use all of their vacation days in the year, leaving billions of dollars of benefits on the table? Many don’t take vacation because they can’t afford a trip, but others are afraid for their job security if they ask for time off.
 
While most employers recognize the value when employees come back rested, refreshed, and more productive, many also expect their employees to answer emails while on vacation. In fact, more than half of the people in one survey said that they are expected to have email access on vacation. So while vacations usually enhance family relationships, work interruptions can actually impede that benefit.
 
Second day of vacation: I’m up early to walk the beach checking sea turtle nests. It’s light, but the sun isn’t up over the horizon yet, and the moon is still visible high in the sky. The shrimp boats are out on the water, and a group of deer graze on the dunes. They let me get amazingly close to them. I’m reminded that the only important things to do today are eating and spending time in nature.Kiawah 003
 
Psychology Today says that “Vacations have the potential to break into the stress cycle,” getting us off the merry-go-round of chronic stress, sleep deprivation and unquiet minds. Vacations are also good times to establish new health habits, especially around exercise.
 
Third day of vacation: I wake in the pre-dawn to the sound of rain beating on the roof. I drift back to sleep thinking about a day spent reading and watching movies indoors. But by 7:00 the storm clouds have moved out to sea and people start to wander onto the beach for morning runs and walks. What will the day ahead hold for me? Beach? Yoga? Biking? All three? Kiawah 006
 
While the joy of vacation wears off quickly when we return to work, people still say they are happiest having spent money on an experience rather than a material possession. Most of that positive feeling comes from being able to share the experience with friends or family. The vacation becomes part of the story of the social network.
 
Fourth day of vacation: Here’s the beauty of it — I don’t need to know what tomorrow will bring. Yes, there are are many more things to do, but there are also all the remaining vacation days on which to do them. It’s time to disconnect……

“No vacation goes unpunished”*

With President Obama vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard this week, some in the press have had a field day discussing whether or not he should be taking time “off”. I doubt a president is ever truly on vacation, but I can think of some good reasons for wanting him to have some down time.

Cindy Aron, the author of Working at Play: A History of Vacations, has said that “we have a love-hate relationship with our vacations”. America’s history of a Puritan work ethic has meant that we tend to frown on idleness. While the wealthy always traveled, and went to spas for their health, the middle class started vacationing later. Many early vacation choices for them were actually associated with churches. If you went to a Methodist campground, there was less temptation
to indulge in idleness or other vices while on vacation.

Only since the 1950s or 1960s have paid vacations been a common aspect of employment. Most employees currently receive paid time off ranging from five to thirty days per year. Since the financial downturn, however, many people don’t feel comfortable taking all of their vacation time anymore. They are either afraid of losing their jobs, or worried that they will have too much work to return to now that companies have downsized so much.

Even earlier, a 2005 survey by the Families & Work Institute found that one-third of employees said they were overworked, and did not use all their vacation days. Half said they worked often during vacation, and one-third said
they were contacted about work during non-work hours.

Research on the health benefits of vacation, or the detriments of not vacationing, is sparse. A study that is often cited is one conducted in 2000 with the Framingham sample. It found that men who took annual vacations had a 30% lower
risk of dying of heart disease. Factors thought to play a role were reduced stress, more sleep, more socialization and more exercise while on vacation.

In 2005, the Wisconsin Medical Journal published a study of women who did not take an annual break from work, which found that they had more psychological health risks. A 2010 study from the University of the Rockies concluded that sufficient vacation time stabilizes mental health and contributes to “professional well-being”. Those researchers also found that a vacation’s benefits peak at 10 days, making a 10-14 day vacation just about perfect.

Some experts, such as Saki Santorelli of the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness, suggest that we try to inject some of the qualities of a vacation into our daily lives at home. Getting more sleep and regular exercise, as well as practicing stress reduction techniques could help balance out the work vs vacation dichotomy.

At least one study backs up Santorelli’s ideas. It examined work engagement and burnout in a group of teachers. The researchers found that positive effects of vacation faded after one month; however, building more relaxation experiences into one’s daily schedule after vacation prolonged the vacation’s effects.

So, in that spirit, here are some tips for making both vacation days and work days better:

  • Consider whether you will benefit most from a very active or more relaxing vacation.
  • Don’t try to cram too much into your vacation. Make sure you actually take time to relax.
  • Set boundaries for work time, work calls and emails. Most of us don’t really need to be available 24/7.
  • Get outside every day, even if it’s just for a walk around the block at lunch time.
  • Take 5-10 minutes every day just to sit quietly and breathe.
  • Laugh. Milton Berle once said, “Laughter is an instant vacation.”

*Karl Hakkarainen