From people in other professions, questions accompany the joke: “So what are you doing?” or “What do you do with yourself all day?” or “Anything good on daytime TV?”
I get defensive. I want to answer, “You’re right, no real job requires so much time off,” or “You know what? I do like my job best when I’m not doing it.”
No one needs me on a farm. The old-fashioned, practical reason for summer has lapsed. If I argue teaching is a boundary-less job the rest of the year, occupying every evening and every weekend, people groan. What job doesn’t have sprawling hours in 2011?
Sometimes, I justify summer by saying I need time to restore my brake pads. By graduation, I say, I’ve run out of patience, I’m “metal to metal.” Year-round workers say, “Yeah, I’ve really got to figure out how to replace mine while the car is moving.” If I counter, “At least you don’t have to work with children,” they say, “Oh really?”
It’s also a bad idea to explain what I do with my day. I stop getting up early to grade papers and spend more time on family and household projects. I try to get more exercise, eat better, write, and paint. And I read five or six books I’ve been meaning to get to.
The sound you hear is a shovel digging a deeper and deeper hole. Truth is, my sense of guilt can produce an odd pressure to be productive, creative, and diligent. After the exhilaration of early June, summer can become a Sargasso Sea. With no lessons to prepare or papers to grade, no wind compels me. Every morning begins by putting oars to water. Trips—vacations from my vacation—can feel strange, false. I need to work to deserve fun.
And I still need some justification—some satisfying justification—for being off. My own reason.
In his oration “The American Scholar,” Ralph Waldo Emerson describes a fable in which the gods, “Divided Man into men, that he might be more helpful to himself; just as the hand was divided into fingers, the better to answer its end.” The point, Emerson says, is that there is really only, “One Man—present to all particular men only partially.” He bemoans that we are farmers, professors, or bankers first and people second. We should be people farming, people teaching, or people banking. We have to transcend individual labors to embrace humanity; otherwise, “The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters.” We are, “A good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow,” he says, “but never a man.”
These days, we celebrate our differences. Our understanding is often a “fill-in-the-blank thing” no one else can truly feel or understand. In contrast, Emerson says, “A man, rightly viewed, comprehendeth the particular natures of all men.”
In Understanding Emerson:“The American Scholar” and his Struggle for Self-Reliance, Kenneth Sacks treats the oration as Emerson’s coming-out party, the first time he bit a hand that fed him in the form of Harvard, the college that nurtured his entire family. From Emerson’s perspective, Harvard was increasingly obsessed with class rank and enhancing students’ cultural literacy and social standing. He felt the school had lost sight of the seeds of thought and creativity he revered. In failing to see themselves and their students as people first, the school overvalued material and undervalued humanity and the iconoclasm of the new nation. Emerson’s criticism came as a surprise—he had, after all, been invited to speak by the college—but the warmest response came from students who clustered at the windows to listen. One of them was Henry David Thoreau.
Perhaps you hear a justification—or rationalization—forming. If I do summer correctly, I become a person teaching. I can stop defining myself by what I do and examine who I am. I’ll remember the impulses that led me into teaching, fall back in love with learning, and forget academic politics and any rocky relationships with colleagues.
In the morning, I can scan the pages looking for a headline that piques my curiosity or addresses a subject on which I’d like to be feel educated. I seek, in an almost dreaming way, to add to what I know. The best aspect of reading and studying, in Emerson’s mind, is that it “says that which lies close to my own soul, that which I also had well nigh thought and said.”
“The one thing in the world, of value,” Emerson said, “is the active soul.”
So here’s to June, July, and August, the months of my active soul. Here’s to the responsibility to be human again.