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Back to School, Back to Work

Embracing the Rhythm of the School Year

As much as I anticipate and love summer, by the time we get to about mid-August I am looking forward to the start of the school year. I don’t exactly throw roses at the departing school bus (much to my children’s disappointment, we live too close to their schools for them to get to ride a school bus), but I definitely anticipate the uninterrupted time I don’t get during the summer. Although my boys went back to school last week, today was my three-year-old daughter’s first day back to preschool, so that means today is also my first real day back to work. Over the last few years, the school year has also largely become my work year.

As a freelance editor and writer, I have some measure of control over my schedule, and I used to try to work as much if not more during the summer as I did during the school year, but the last couple of years, I have found the summer to be an ideal time to slow down. This is not just because of the many and varied impracticalities of working in the summer, although the struggle is real. (I’ve finally realized that the suspicious silence that comes from the other room usually results in more cleaning up time than I actually got to spend working.) No, I try to take time off in the summer because I think it makes me better at my job when I come back in the fall.

When I was finishing up grad school, my dad told me something that’s stuck with me. He told me that I would miss the concrete beginnings and endings of the school year because they were few and far between in working life. Over the years, I’ve often reflected on how right he was. As stressful as the end of each semester could be, that chaotic time was always followed by a break, or at least a change. A lot of me really enjoyed the roller coaster ride of the school year and the adrenaline-filled rush of the end, especially that feeling of being finished. That may be one reason I gravitated to a career in writing and editing, with all the deadlines that come along with it.

When you’ve finished something and then had a little bit of time off, it’s much easier to feel excited and refreshed about starting the next new project. Author Isabel Allende is well known for only starting new books on January 8. When I first read that, it struck me as odd. Why wouldn’t you start a new book whenever you felt ready and excited about it? But I think I understand it better now. For her it is a special tradition, based on the day she began writing the letter that turned into her first book. But I also think there’s something to be said about the way the excitement and anticipation build up when you have to wait.

Most of us are not very good at waiting. Or maybe we mix up waiting in this context with procrastination. But taking time off is not the same thing as procrastination.

As a mom, of course, “time off” is always relative. Summer is not a break from the laundry and the dishes, but it does provide a lot of opportunities to have fun with all three of my kids and to spend a lot more time with them than I am able to during the school year. Yes, some of that time is me yelling, but having a lot of unscheduled time together is hard to overrate. Even this year’s dreaded Junior Lifeguards daily dropoffs and pickups–where what seems like thousands of frustrated parents have to drive at a snail’s pace in and out of a narrow little alley in the same fifteen-minute span while avoiding vacationing pedestrians, people riding their bikes while balancing surfboards and other parent’s Junior Lifeguards–actually ended up being fun as we made our way through some of my old CDs together. I thought the boys would love the Beastie Boys, but they seemed to prefer Billboard Hits of 1983. Who knew?

The height of our family’s time off in the summer always comes right before the school year begins. For the last few years we have headed out of town for the last week before school starts, to a family cabin in Northern California. It’s a beautiful place right on a quiet lake. Ryan has been going there in the summer ever since he was a baby, and now it’s become a tradition for our family too. In recent years, one of the things we’ve valued most about our time up there is that our phones don’t work. There’s no cell service at all (for our carrier at least) and certainly no WiFi. We have to talk to each other instead or (!) listen to our own thoughts.

For the kids, the week at the lake is their last chance to relax before school. But for me, it’s become a chance to think about the upcoming year. I’ve written often about silence and how much I try to protect it in my life, and at this place silence is easier to come by than at any other time during the year. I usually get the chance to hike, run or kayak by myself at least once a day, and I’m always struck by how few noises I hear when I’m doing so–sometimes just the wind rustling the leaves of the trees or the lap of the water against the shore. Not all the sounds are idyllic. This year, everywhere I went I seemed to hear the ominous hum of always-circling yellow jackets. Even the buzzing, however, was a welcome change from the sounds of my everyday life–endless phone alerts and depressing political news and alarms reminding me to rush to the next scheduled event. Away from all that, when I’m walking or paddling with nothing else to distract me, I always find it easier to think, plan and dream.

I’ve grown to look forward to this week as a time when I can set goals for the coming work year and in my personal life too. Last summer I came back with several action items for my writing and speaking platform. This year I came back with a more general personal goal to invest in certain friendships. Three years ago I found myself spending more time reflecting on the previous year, which had been a particularly eventful one, with the birth of a new daughter and a breast cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment.

I don’t know that I ever would have deliberately set out to establish this time for myself, but wow, do I appreciate it. And when it’s over, I look forward to the beginning of the school year as just that, a beginning. A fresh start.

My daughter was so ready for this new beginning that she had her backpack and shoes on about an hour before we actually needed to leave for school. And while I can very rarely match her general enthusiasm for life, in this one I’m right there with her.

Happy fall!


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