I settle into my room, delighting in all the warm memories of my favorite mahogany desk, plush, soft bedding and stacks upon stacks of worn journals and books. It is almost as I left it, save for the giant marine cooler my dad needed a spot for. It has been painted ten colors between playdates and prom prep, from potato chip yellow to lavender to the now cool grey that matches the floor. The hisses of 18-wheeler brakes on the freeway and hums of the ceiling fan — sounds I used to be afraid of — are now gentle, soothing.
I sink into my desk chair, checking all the drawers, pulling out chargers and random articles I bookmarked over the course of the year but never had time to read. I have a cup of my favorite chamomile tea in my favorite San Juan Islands mug. The quiet is peaceful, uncharged, lacking the static of thousands of stressed-out undergrads in Starr during finals week.
Two hours later, I am surrounded by sheets of white paper filled with application information for summer research internships, a list of emails I need to send and the realization that I still haven’t bought my two brothers Christmas gifts (wait, will they actually like Quentin Tarantino’s new book?). I must have a plan for my summer by the end of break, I tell myself over and over, I must have a plan. I can’t go back to school not having a plan. I can’t end this week not having a plan. I can’t go to bed not having a plan.
I am notoriously terrible at taking breaks; when asked at dinner what my fatal flaw was by a well-meaning friend, my dad remarked that I never knew when to slow down, to my own detriment. I operate at either zero or sixty miles per hour, as it seems many Yale students do, disguising my sprints across campus as walks under the banner of “what must be done, must be done” and relishing, secretly, in precariously balanced control. Sometimes, though, the adage morphs into “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” This is obviously inspiring when I need to hammer out papers, and find the last little drop of energy to send the email that marks evening’s end, but is wholly unsustainable over time. If there’s one word I remember from my FroCo, it’s “unsustainable.”
At Yale, it seems many things are unsustainable, the sleep schedule, the quantity of information flying in from all directions, the emails and texts and parties and friend drama. Yet we go on. Why? Because we all love operating at sixty miles an hour, careening off highway exits until we crash into the stop sign at the intersection just beyond home. It is lost on few, I think, that the reward is well worth it. With that said, there is a difference between learning about things you love (be it courses, friends or clubs) and compulsive productivity. It makes sense that the two are complements in-semester, but they are parasites the moment you hear Harkness’ last dinner bell.
The notion that I must question the purpose of a break is an absurd testament to the classic, incessant desire for certainty, knowledge and the assurance of future success that comes out of Yale. It’s called a break, for God’s sake, or “recess,” if you want to be technical. Did you ever work on your homework during recess in elementary school, let alone do next week’s homework or the next month’s homework? Yes, break offers the free time that forever seems to be in short supply. But free time should be indulged, not exploited.
There will always be things to do, positions to apply for, people to meet, interviews to prepare for and statements to write. I wrote two over break, for programs I really care about and want to get into. But I also know that the look on my mom’s face as she walked into my room and saw me furiously trying to organize my June self was a wake-up call. She was concerned for my well-being, far beyond the usual motherly tutting. Her eyebrows crinkled, and she paused with her hand on the door handle. “Anabel,” she started: “It’s Christmas Eve. Is it okay if you come spend time with us?”
My mom was asking for permission to gain my attention, something she had done all throughout the exhausting slog of high school, but this time it felt different. It was Christmas Eve. What was I doing? Yes, I had things to do, important things, but I needed rest. I needed my family, to sit down with my little old white dog who pretends she doesn’t like me but deep, deep down harbors some nugget of affection for the chicken I sneak her when no one is looking. I needed to smile a bit more, to laugh as my parents and I watch cheesy rom-coms at my dad’s behest (turns out he’s a secret Hugh Grant fan?). The persistent dark circles under my eyes — which stuck around even after a week’s worth of fabulous sleep — were a testament to the fact that the lifestyle of grinding for every next step and morsel of success is simply not healthy. Anyone who says otherwise is lying to themselves; myself sometimes included. The free time break provides can be overwhelming — I tend to turn inwards and reflect perhaps more than I should — but it is also (no surprise) freeing.
This doesn’t mean that I will not hustle for my goals when the time is right, but that when the opportunity arises — when break comes around — all that matters is being with who I love and enjoying all the little things that make me who I am. One must always do what must be done, but one does not need to run at sixty. I forget too easily that things can also get done at fifty, or even forty-five. The arterials’ speed limits are forty-five for a reason.
Ah, that reminds me: forty-five minutes in the oven for my mom’s and my apple tart. I can smell it wafting upstairs, a dreamy, comfortable coda as I finally read my art nouveau piece. Do your time when and where you must, but nothing more.