Social media, why must you torture me so? For someone prone to envy (me) and living on a wafer-thin budget (also me), this time of year is fraught with invitations to fall down the self-pity hole. Look, there’s my neighbor in France with her family! There’s a group of my friends in Iceland! Hey, there’s a bunch of other people I know with smiling faces in exotic places!
As a divorced mother of three squarely in the so-called creative class, my economic survival plan includes zero dollars for vacation. I thought I’d be in a better place by now. After 30 years of working really hard—full-time jobs, freelancing to supplement, frugal living—I thought I’d qualify for at least one mid-range vacation a year. But no dice.
So the snapshots slay me. Naturally, the Aperol spritzes in Venice are punches in the gut, as are the hikes up Machu Picchu. Even low-key family beach vacations make me yearn, and they’re way out of financial reach. After all, even a week with kids at a modest beach house has a several-thousand-dollar price tag, when all is said and done.
It’s not even my own disappointment that pains me the most. It’s that moment when my son looks at me as if he’s just had a really great idea and says, “Mom, we should travel!” That moment when my daughter tells me, trying not to sound wistful, where her friends are going for vacation. After all, one of the things I was most excited about when I brought children into this world was the prospect of showing it to them.
So where does that leave me?
Getting Past Envy
I’m not proud of this, but sometimes I engage in a timeworn pastime: deriving pleasure from other people’s misfortune. The 110-degree heat wave in Paris with toddlers. The airline that went out of business and left customers stranded in a foreign country. Flesh-eating bacteria along the coast near the beach house. I tell myself, “At least you didn’t scrimp thousands of dollars for that.” But schadenfreude can only get you so far.
This year, I tried something new. In early June, while my kids were still in school, I put in for a week’s worth of vacation days—and then told nobody and went nowhere. Time off for good behavior, if you will. Every morning I dragged my children out of bed and drove my daughter to school, per usual. But afterwards, I went to a coffee shop and ordered an espresso. “For here or to go?” asked the barista. “For here,” I said, happy to take my damn sweet time. Some mornings I brought a book. Other mornings I brought a knitting project.
At home, I spent unproductive hours in my garden. I watched various native bees and butterflies in my clover and a wren building a nest. Every day, I checked my milkweed for monarch larvae. I did a speck of creative writing. I folded laundry at a leisurely pace while watching Queer Eye. I unloaded and loaded the dishwasher, feeling no hurry whatsoever. I took my time making a healthy(ish) lunch.
I didn’t go overboard on chores, just the bare necessities, but I didn’t stress about getting them done. I wasn’t trying to cram three hours’ worth of housework into the hellscape that comes on the heels of a long work day. I took a short nap almost every afternoon, and I spent a lot of time cuddling with a new kitten. And at the end of the day, when the kids came home, it was dinner and homework and chores as usual, but without the post-workday stress. I didn’t allow myself to have a single project or goal: there would be no “tackling” the bathroom closet or “doing” a garden bed.
The Art of Doing Nothing
My vacation was notable not for what I did, but for what I didn’t do. If I were more gifted, I might be able to explain how much peace all this nothing brought me. At the risk of sounding trite, I felt like “myself” again, as if I were the rightful owner of the life I’d been building for myself. The more I thought about it, the more bizarre it seemed to me that we spend so much money—and, omigosh, so much effort—on vacations that make us abandon the homes we put so much money and effort into.
The more I relaxed, the more I realized how much stress gets crammed into a vacation. The packing alone! I can worry for weeks in advance of packing, especially when children are involved. And don’t get me started on flying. The experience of commercial air travel has become so thoroughly unpleasant that I barely miss it. Even (supposedly) little things like finding a pet-sitter can feel like a stress pile-on.
But staying put—that was restorative. Therapeutic, even. By not flying and not driving and not buying ridiculously overpriced products, my carbon footprint stayed low, and I didn’t have to manage the anxiety of spending too much money, the way I usually do on vacation. I hadn’t factored those things into the equation, but they turned out to be significant. I hadn’t consumed at any greater rate than usual, and who knew that could feel so nice?
Recently, a dear friend who’s footing the bill for her daughter’s college told me how sad—and desperate, actually—it made her to have to forgo vacation. “I feel you,” I said. “But it can be good on the other side,” I told her. She was skeptical, but I think I made the case. Who knows? Maybe next year I’ll make it two weeks, and she and I can have lunch.
Christine Grillo is a food systems and science writer at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She also writes about flora, fauna, people, health and human rights, and her work has appeared in Audubon, The New York Times, Utne Reader, Civil Eats, Last Word on Nothing and local magazines such as Baltimore Style.