taking a break

You can’t rush spring. That much has been painfully, frigidly obvious since mid-March. You can’t rush the flowers that somehow know when it’s safe to poke their heads up. You can’t rush the tiny glistening shoots growing off the rose stems or the brilliant spear-shaped leaves misting the lilac bush in green. They’ll come when they’re ready no matter how often you stroll around the yard, socks wedged between your toes by the strap of your flip flops, squatting unsteadily by each plant and poking around under last year’s leaves in case you’ve missed something. They’ll come up, placid and glorious, exactly when they planned to. A wizard is never late, nor is he early. You can’t rush spring.

I don’t like taking breaks, and I’ve had to take a break lately. It’s very annoying. Breaks are when you’re not working. If you’re not working, you’re not getting closer to your goals. If you’re not working, there are probably things that need doing. If you’re not working, you can start to feel a bit aimless and unsettled and angsty. Breaks aren’t very comfortable. Ask anybody who’s been relieved to get a fifteen minute break from the desk only to sit uncomfortably in the lunch room or their car, scrolling aimlessly, waiting for the clock to start again. Awkward, I know. 

But if you believe God or mental-health experts, taking breaks is apparently a good thing. It’s the reset, recharge, refuel moments that make going back possible, or even enjoyable. Breaks make you productive, weirdly enough. If you want to do your best work, you’ve got to step away for a minute sometimes. You need good sleep and some quiet evenings and a pint with friends, or a walk in the woods, a hammock in your garden. Even just a can of sparkling water sipped in the sunshine on the back steps, looking at all the dirt that will hopefully be a yard by the end of the summer (sparkling water is great for adding a splash of vodka.)

Breaks are all well and fine when you choose them, like a carefully planned vacation. I haven’t heard anybody complain about their vacation in Hawaii or a backpacking trip through the Colorado Rockies. The harder breaks are the ones you didn’t sign up for. The sick days, the cancelled projects you were excited about. When you have to set down a hobby in order to work an extra job, or take a break from school to earn money for the next semester. When you have to take a break from living on your own and move back in with your parents for a month or three during a transition. (I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with your parents. You know what I mean.)

That’s the type of break I’m talking about. The type where your doctor asks how you plan to relax over the next months, and lines up a row of supplements for you to take home. The type where nothing’s wrong that time and a little rest won’t fix, but time and rest are as challenging a prescription to fill as any. 

I don’t think any of us believe that breaks really aren’t important, but sometimes the lie creeps in that if we take a break now, we won’t get going again later. You worry that if you don’t take this opportunity to run a half marathon, you’ll lose momentum in your training. Or if you set down the writing project half-finished, you’ll never pick it up again. What if this tale also disappears into the dark abyss of stories-never-finished? If I postpone climbing mountains now, will I ever start hiking again? If I don’t plant tulip bulbs this year, will I ever start a garden? I know how it goes. The narrative gets fatalistic fast. If I stop now, I’ve stopped forever

Only, that isn’t how it works. I know it doesn’t work that way because I’ve stopped writing half a dozen times now. I stopped in college, I stopped after I moved to Colorado, I stopped after my first baby was born and again after my second. Lots of stops. But I always find my way back to it because writing is what I love. It’s not just important, it’s a form of breathing. Inhale, exhale, string words together. I have been shaping stories in my head since I was a kid, hiking and fishing and biking with my family. I created worlds a half hour at a time on my breaks from schoolwork. I sculpted careful sentences word by word while I stirred pasta for Mac’n’cheese or pushed a stroller down the sidewalk or scrubbed the dinner dishes. Taking a break from writing feels fatal and permanent and awful, even when I’m so tired it’s all I can do to sit on the back steps with sparkling water and hope the grass seed takes, but even a long and necessary break isn’t meant to last forever. 

Winter isn’t forever either you know. Sometime in the fall you trim back the dead foliage in your garden and rake leaves over the beds. You turn off the sprinkler and empty out the hose and winterize the lawn mower. And then a few months later you rake off the garden beds and discover tiny green shoots. You squat down in your socks-and-sandals and grin at the miracle of it. The daffodils came back, just like they always do. Turns out they just needed a little break.

The writing comes back. It always comes back. I always find a way to set a new pattern or rhythm for writing – the nap-times, the mornings. The moment I get back from my after-dinner walk. This is the thing I’m reminding you because I need to hear it so desperately myself: breaks don’t last forever. We sleep for eight hours and wake up with the kind of energy you don’t find pulling an all-nighter. Breaks are like that too: you go away, you come back better. You come back with perspective and fresh ideas and a new project tingling in your fingertips because somehow, even when you’d rather be prescribed a cup or two of afternoon coffee with just a swirl of cream, a break is what you needed after all.