I used to work a fairly cushy, fairly mindless office job. When I happened to escape my desk for a doctor’s appointment or a mid-day hot dog in Brooklyn or lower Manhattan, I’d inevitably stop in a cafe to grab a coffee, steeling myself before my return. I’d look around the coffee shop at all the people there in the middle of the day, fiddling on their laptops or phones–they seemed to be on a ten-year-long summer break. Then, I’d think to myself, “Who are these people? Where did they come from? And why don’t they have jobs?”
And then I became one of those people. You might be one of them too.
Last summer I quit my job to be a freelance writer. Sometimes, I’d do my freelance work in a coffee shop with all the other proto-Claires, all of us hunched over the same model of computer, writing moving personal essays or finishing up graphic design consultancy contracting work (or whatever it is we all do now). Sometimes, I worked from my bed, or from my parents’ house in Chicago, once from Disney World, once while eating pierogies in a storefront next to the Gowanus Canal, or often, on the J train––my phone operating on 11 percent battery. It was a quiet, busy life, and I could work strange hours, like 8am-11am, and then 7pm-midnight, to piece together an eight hour work day. That first summer was dreamy, and I wrote a lot of articles for money, though I can’t recall the specifics of any of them now. Something about Real Housewives of Orange County and another one about motivational gym tank tops, maybe?
And then I determined I was going be a real writer. I decided I was going back to school, and I applied, and late this spring, I got in. I celebrated for twenty-five minutes with a beer and one third of the movie You’ve Got Mail on my Mom’s Amazon Prime account, finished a piece I had been working on for months about the Civil War, and then I cried for two weeks straight for reasons I couldn’t explain. When I came out of it, I decided I was cutting back on working for one last and final “free summer.”
It wasn’t even May yet.
Maybe I was tired, or maybe I had truly nothing left to say about any of the things I had been writing about all year (mostly skincare, food, women soldiers in the Confederacy, and myself), and likely, I never had much to say in the first place, but I decided I needed a break.
But there’s privilege in this decision–such an insane amount that the rest of this essay is probably moot. To take time to “rest up” before pursuing a terminal and non-mandatory creative writing degree is some sort of Brooklyn Creative Type punchline. And If I fuck up–and I’ve fucked up so many times this year–my parents will scold me via a one sentence email or a 20 minute phone call, bail me out, and forward my next article out to friends and relatives with pride a week later.
I’m not proud of it. And now, leisure is guilt, because leisure is money spent and potential squandered and youth wasted. Especially during the summer, especially in New York, because as I slow down, all my friends are just getting started. One’s interviewing a French pop star on the set of a fashion shoot; another’s starring in a Kardashian-themed performance of the musical Cats; one more has a fancy new editorial job and gets to go to PR events with cast members of Pretty Little Liars thrown by sandal companies. And Ann Friedman’s concept of Shine Theory is real–it pays to have powerful friends, and I’m proud of them because I’ve seen them in less productive, crushing jobs, and now they’re taking me along for the ride. But it’s hard not to feel like I’m falling behind, and I haven’t even begun the part of my life that I’ve told myself for a whole year will matter most.
So in lieu of interviewing and transcribing, I’ve tried to write every morning, and read what I’ve been meaning to for months. I walk home over the bridge from Manhattan when I’m wearing sensible shoes, I chug Nalgenes of water, and I sit for long periods of time on my couch waiting for mud masks to dry on my face. Once, I went to New Jersey. This sounds restoring, even as I write this out, but it doesn’t feel good. Every leisure activity acts as a deliberate proxy for actually doing any work: I hope to become a better writer and more hydrated reader with shapelier calves and smaller pores.
Physical activity is another way I’ve learned to make time productive. Yesterday, I was at a boutique fitness class for which a multi-date package costs more than I make for most articles I’ve been paid to write. Afterward, I overheard two Williamsburg moms who appeared to live in the condominium units next to each other ask what their kids were up to that summer. “What’s Camilla doing this summer?” she asked. “I signed her up for a gardening class at Brooklyn Botanical Gardens,” she replied, “And what about Harper?” [These are real names.] “Harper’s taking it easy this summer.”
And Harper, I gathered, is a five-year-old, and this is her first summer break for school. And she might relish in the first few days of watching Yo Gabba Gabba in the morning and eating sandwiches in the park by her building in the afternoons, but soon, probably by July, she will miss the hum-and-drum of kindergarten. She will pass by a summer sports camp at a basketball court and envy their gradual progress, and she will avoid contact with the other children with popsicle stains on their T-shirts who have been “taking it easy” like her for fear of association. It starts early in New York.
Labor Day will eventually come, and I will start working again, and I will become a student again, and I will cut down on walking and drinking and writing for leisure, cut down all of the motions that I’ve been going through with so little grace for the summer. Eventually, the weather will turn cold, and the greenery in the park by Harper’s building will shrivel, and I’ll transition into a busy girl with a heavy purse and freezing cold toes and fingers, a person who pines for free days and 8:30pm sunsets. And I’ll think to myself, “Have I become one of these people? Where did this come from?”