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The Week of Doing Nothing

written by Thu Tran, MD,FACOG
on Saturday, 20th September ,2014

This year, my time off was a bit unconventional (for me).  My two partners and I have agreed on four weeks of vacation each year for a long time now.  We are, however, such workaholics that none of us has taken full advantage of our vacation time.  Every year, we carry over quite a few days into the next year.  In the past, typically each time I took a week off, I would go abroad with David and Sandy.  By the time Sandy was 14, he had visited each continent except for Antarctica.  I thought we were wise for living on the fast track, seeing the world outside of our backyard whenever we could.  Besides, after Sandy recovered from his illness, we felt as if we needed to give him a rich and full life because of its uncertainties.

At the end of March this year, I took two weeks off to join a medical mission in Myanmar (Burma).  I had a meaningful time, as you could tell from my blogs then, but David and Sandy were not with me.  My third week of vacation was to participate in a community service project with Sandy on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.  Again, as you could tell from my blog, I had an amazing and meaningful time.   

I recently decided to take another week off, toward the end of my son’s summer vacation, just to “relax,” the first time I have done this in many years.  I didn’t want to pack or unpack, to ride the cab to the airport and back, to stay in a hotel room somewhere where I would get up early to explore the area, to see and to do whatever a tourist is supposed to see and do to get “the whole picture” or experience of the place.  I am a type A tourist.  I always want to cover every item in “The Lonely Planet” guide wherever we go.   I want to live like a local, although a local might take a year to do all the things I manage to do in their locality in a week.  Many of my family members often complained about how stressful I made them feel whenever we vacationed together.  My younger sister once told my family how I vacuumed our rental apartment at 7AM to make sure she was up so we could get going to the beach!  I was concerned about people not living the full vacation moment.

To “relax,” the three of us went to our home on the Chesapeake bay, in a simple fishing town.  David and I agreed beforehand that we wouldn’t cook too much; we would act as if we were on an out of town vacation.  We would drive to adjacent towns to finally explore the area, as we had heard about all sorts of treasures in the area such as an Amish farmer’s market on the Patuxent River, and a great authentic German restaurant somewhere near Annapolis.  

Before we drove to our bay house, I spent the afternoon leisurely transferring perennials from our front to our backyard.  It is amazing to have some time for gardening, a peaceful activity as long as there are no gnats.  God created gnats, I have concluded, to remind us the world is not perfect!  I also exercised with my bootcamp friends, went to the Bethesda Farmer’s market, then finally drove to the bay.

The week on the bay turned out to be an amazing time for me to relax and contemplate.  We woke up at whatever time we wanted, since there was no agenda of what we needed to do.  On Monday afternoon, we listened to Kojo Nnandi interviewing our special friend Dr. Mary Marovich.  On Wednesday we woke up early enough to hear our other special friend Dr. Linda Yau on WTOP.  Otherwise, we sat out on our deck reading or watching the sunsets.  Around 7 P.M. each evening, the sky started turning lavender with a thin shade of orange on top, and the water became the light blue of the Caribbean sea, with streaks of salmon.  You have to see it to believe how mystically beautiful this area of Maryland is at sunset.  The shade of lavender began to change after a few minutes, becoming more purple, then blue, then almost dark blue to gray.  It made me appreciate my sense of vision, that I could tell as the shades of purple or blue started changing.

I spent several days reading Paolo Coelho’s The Pilgrimage, on the deck, listening to the gentle waves.  The Chesapeake Bay’s water is much more gentle than the ocean but can be loud enough to keep us up at night if the window is open.  Coelho’s book is perfect for a week of doing nothing or just little things.  Coelho always stresses the importance of simplicity, that in simplicity do we often find joy.  His book is full of incidences where , on pilgrimage, one met simple people, or those whom society often considers “simple.”  Yet these simple people taught him many great lessons about the joy of living.   

I took many walks and runs.  I did not sign up for any serious races over the last three years.  The two years I served as Chair of the Department, I spent many early mornings and late evenings in windowless conference rooms attending meetings.  There was no time for long running races or spinning classes.  This week, I finally had some days to start training for the Army Ten Miler coming up in mid October.  Like a child learning how to walk, I reminded myself of the essential rules for running, using my hips instead of my knees, hugging the hills as I ran up, slowing down as I descended... It was like the beginning of my running career!  Where have those three years gone?  Did I spend enough time doing what I truly enjoyed?  I quickly realized there was no time for regret.  Life evolves and we play different roles in different parts of life.  This week, I got to play the role of not doing anything in a hurry. 

David and I also swam laps in the neighborhood pool every afternoon and found ourselves alone on and off with the lifeguard, as the kids here already went back to school and rarely came out to the pool as in other weeks of the summer.  Sometimes a few neighbors would show up and join us in the pool briefly or in conversations around the pool.  I ended up cooking quite a bit, as ordinarily I don’t have time to experiment with some of the dishes I see in my favorite cookbooks.  When you intentionally cook what you like, it is not a chore; cooking can be a great hobby.  I used to like organic chemistry and find many similarities between cooking and organic chemistry.  Dinner time varied this week depending on how hungry we were.  There was no need for Sandy to go to bed early for school the next morning.

The Friday evening before Labor Day, we went with our next door neighbors to the local Farmer’s Market.  We strolled around watching a long line of people waiting to buy flavored popcorns from Calvert Popcorn, a local popcorn maker.  I even enjoyed looking at the Antique Car display, a routine part of this country farmer’s market.  People were in shorts and T shirts, colorful summer dresses or swimsuit coveralls.  They looked like they came straight from the beach, unlike the crowd at the Bethesda Farmer’s market who looked like they just came from or were about to go to their yoga studios.  I was pleased to buy a dozen sweet corn here for $5, half the price at the Bethesda Farmer’s Market.  Here, I could identify all the vegetables grown by an Amish family or other local farmers, eggplant, kale, radish, potatoes, green beans... At the Bethesda Farmer’s Market, my friend Serrin and I couldn’t tell the names of some of the leafy green vegetables or colorful beans.  There were no station with gourmet ravioli, homemade Mozarella cheese, gourmet bread like rosemary sourdough or Asiago cheese loaves, or Maine lobster rolls.  I was not disappointed, however, with the varieties of Amish breads or locally grown sugary sweet peaches and corn.  Every local farmer market’s has its own treasures.

Do you feel overwhelmed sometimes at work or at home?  Are you juggling all the impossible tasks trying to balance life at work and at home?  Have you taken time to do something meaningful for just yourself?  If you have not, you should do it soon.  Take days off just to be around your familial environment.  It might mean rearranging your sock drawers, weeding your garden, taking morning walks with your friends or just hanging around your kitchen with a cup of coffee and the daily newspaper.   

Our hectic world continues to evolve, but everybody at the office probably is envious of your relaxation. If you think your office or your companies can’t continue in your absence, that’s your grandiosity.  The stock market will not fluctuate because you are not working that week.  The world can function for a few weeks while waiting for your next brilliant invention whenever you come back from your vacation.  My patients still go into labor in my absence and somebody in my group will deliver them.  I used to have anxiety when I looked at the list of deliveries for a certain month when I would have a week off.  Who will deliver Mrs Jones?  Will she be upset not seeing me when she is in labor?  That was my grandiosity or the immaturity of my youth when I thought I was the most important obstetrician in my practice.  I now realize we are not the center of the universe.  Somehow the world will continue as there are many other competent worker bees just like us.  

In the mundane activities while you take time off, you never know what you discover.  An old book you read when you were younger and more idealistic?  An old music album when the Beatles were all alive and well and Paul McCarney was not called “Sir”?  Your high school album when you had more hair or longer hair or thicker glasses?  While gardening or weeding, you might find some of your favorite perennials being buried under a thick layers of weeds, finally rescued to see the sun again.  In cooking for leisure, you might experience the exquisite taste of your favorite recipes hidden in some cookbooks, collecting dust on the shelves.  

Think of no flight to and from an airport, no check-in or check-out time, no dirty laundry in the suitcase, and sleeping at night in your own bed.   If you pay close attention to your environment, like Coelho the writer, you may realize there are many wonderful things around us that we miss all the time.  We have missed noticing them because of our busy life or because we only pay attention to what is deemed “important” in the eyes of others.  If we slow down and remove ourselves from the constant distractions created by others, we might discover that treasures are right in our home environment or in our own backyard, or inside of us.

I have to remind you how you don’t have to own a house in a sleepy little fishing town to see the sunsets on the Chesapeake bay.  It’s a short one hour ride from our area to the bay.  It isn’t a difficult day trip.  Better yet, you might chose to see the sunset on the C&O canal which is majestic too.  Sunsets are everywhere, you just have to take time to enjoy it.  

I have never taken this many days off in the same year, which is quite disturbing to those of you who think it is so unwise that I am such a workaholic.  I still will carry a few days off to next year, although less than usual, as all my partners will be doing the same.  Maybe I should convince them to take a day here and there from now to the end of the year, just to do nothing...well,to be precise, nothing “important” in the eyes of others.  Maybe we will find more satisfaction when we go back to work and stop complaining that we only live for someone else and not for ourselves.  

I am glad I had my place in the sun this week.  I will miss my daily run along the quiet boardwalk of the town, below a hill dotted with bungalows.  I will miss the flower boxes full of summer annuals basking in the sun, looking out to the bay.  Everybody has his place in the sun with some, fortunately, in a more tranquil place.  I appreciated the privacy of being able to enjoy my time off without a thousand cameras waiting to catch a glimpse of me or my family on a bike or on a hike.  Nobody questioned how I could have relaxed while the world is in chaos.  If you are not mindful about nurturing your inner self once in a while, you might end up living only for someone else or living under someone else’s expectation about how a good life should be.  It is not a selfish act to take care of yourself.  A more healthy you inside will be more helpful to those around you.  Also, remember how you don’t have to go far or look wide for a good life.  You might already be in a good life.

Believe it or not, during this week of relaxation, I woke up often before 6 AM to see the sunrise.  I sat alone on the deck with a cup of tea.  Years ago, as you have guessed, I would have made a lot of noise brushing my teeth to make sure David was up and ready for the sunrise too.  I have mellowed down.  Maybe I have become wiser.

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