Breaks Large and Small, a Manifesto

In this era of hard-won freedom from the inflexible, linear career paths that so chained the stonefaced baby boomers, a good friend is one who always shoots résumé padding your way. So perhaps I should have been delighted when I received two blue bleeps from my companion and your resident campus Arts Editor, Joe Mariani.

“Hey dude. CJ this week is about ‘taking a break.’ You wanna write about taking a year off?,” read the bleeps.

“Mmm. Probably better not to announce my departure to the whole school,” I thoughtfully responded.

But here I am, blabbing off into a thousand word quota. Part of me feels as though now might be exactly the right moment to bare it all in front of our Quaker-valued community. Maybe mine is a valuable voice right now, since I am taking quite a big break. After all, I will be having myself a rather sizeable slice of self-care this Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, Eid Al-Fitr, and the Independence and Labor days. I have not quite wrapped my mind around the scale of the decision yet. In any case, limelight is not too bad with the EXIT sign right at your back.

I did not change my mind to Joe so I could rattle off personal issues, or even a scathing takedown of the administration or the culture it fosters. There are others who do each better, and have more reason to. So I will go ahead and deliberately obfuscate the gritty private-life bits, the big “why” of my taking a break. I don’t really have that answer anyways. As anyone who has taken time off from this lovely little brain-oven will tell you, there is no one reason. I am explaining it in one way to my therapist, and another to professors, and giving my parents something in the middle. There’s a line about adventure for my younger brothers. I have a whole spectrum of reasons for friends, distributed according to position from dearest to least acquainted. Bottom line: I started senior year feeling as though I had tried several times to get the hang of life at Swarthmore. And I haven’t yet. So I am taking time to work and learn extra-bubble, and that’s all the pathos you’ll get off me. Back to the obfuscation.

There are big breaks, and there are little breaks. Long breaks like mine, where its destination is so far off that you wonder if it’s just a horizon-esque trick, have no end in sight meaning no end at all. And following that thought is its alternative, that this is one of those off-the-cliff-of-the-earth situations. Of course, the voyage does end and you arrive in trans-continental port ten pounds lighter and full of regret, three months wasted on card games, hard-tack, and rum when there was the whole open sea to ponder. And then there are the shortest of breaks. A break could be a meditative breath staring up the inner spire of McCabe. Just one cigarette in the Kohlberg courtyard — if you have the nasty habit. A trek with a friend to Science Center for coffee you could really do without but intimacy that you really couldn’t. At the outset of a rather large break, I am here to make the case for the other kind. The small kind.

I am not the only one who has problems correctly sizing and apportioning breaks. Really, it feels like a pretty endemic social problem at this college. It feels like we’re all talking about it all the time, all kind of recognizing at this point, it’s tough here sometimes. We don’t always know how to take care of ourselves very well. There’s the sense that if anyone ever bothered to pore through the Phoenix archive, they would find ample evidence that this is not a new problem. This quaker matchbox is a fire hazard, sometimes.  

The friends of mine who I feel cope best here are masters of the break within work, and are bold and self-expressive in their choices. One seems to have decided that if they are going to be the intellectual powerhouse of a literature department one day, they’ll need to develop a taste in film. So in between crunching up theories of nation and globalization – all the other nations, I guess – they carefully select classics to pop in every third night or so. Another friend delights in the new arts of the internet age and, having learned the hard limits of life at Swarthmore, stows away time at the end of each day for quiet, happy shitposting. A third makes the long trans-crum hike to Media every single Sunday morning, hangover be damned, and has a built-in social calendar because of it. An invite to the walk is a special honor. These people are not the happiest people I know, nor are they markedly more productive. The masters of the break are not the ones who have the most footnotes, always have the answer the professor wants, or who buddy-buddy when the industries descend on campus. Coping is relative anyways. The ones who take coping seriously intend to live and they do not want this school to live for them.

Nobody I know here who copes at all has not learned to find some joy in the upkeep tasks. Laundry as regularly as you can, hygiene and dental care, cleaning the room, the program of flu-alleviation that always involves some mix of home and pharmaceutical remedies. Today I have received my first and last round of Swat plague of the year, and I find myself reflecting on what I’ve seen better-copers do to heal. We do not learn to take breaks alone, and isolation is the best way to forget to take any break at all. Sometimes, of course, these small tasks must be treated as to-dos to be crossed off, because we are busy people. We intend to be busy our whole lives, even those of us who are fighting the hard fight against slender and even neoliberal notions of success. So we must learn to take breaks, especially the small ones. I certainly have to.

So maybe taking a break could be anything. Does this render the phrase meaningless? This is the most common and most dull criticism of another term that stands in for all of this: self care. There are self-care thinkpieces that valorize conspicuous consumption as the key to healthy independence. There are also self-care thinkpieces that remind us that intimacy, vulnerability, and care of the body are necessary aids to any resistant subject. And, by the way, if you already think that Foucault pops up everywhere with the power/resistance bit, one of his influential later books is titled ‘Care of the Self.’ So the mad Frenchman really is lurking behind every corner, it’s not just your imagination. I think he may have defended the thinkpiece had he lived to see its rise.

All that aside, the phrase, “to take a break,” does actually hold a lesson for me that “self care” does not. Self care seems receptive to all kinds of normativity about healthy and unhealthy life. And then health becomes another link in the endless offerings to productivity. Four times a week at the Matchbox (gym, not metaphor) to stay sharp and achieve more. Taking a break is not about health, breaks represent our physical limits. We have to take breaks. If you do not find a way to take a break, the break finds a way to take you. They will happen whether you want them to or not. If you do not respect this law, it may not be a break in just your schedule, in the end.

So I will go back on my decision again, and end the piece with a bit more confession. I have not been stellar in the breaks-department throughout my time at Swarthmore. I do not mean to say that I have studied as hard as I possibly could, put academics above all else, and managed my time with the end of productivity in mind alone. That is certainly not true. There are walks to Wa-Wa that were justifiable and spirit-raising. And there were walks to Wa-Wa that I just did not have time for and were also, in the moment, spirit-raising. I did not take seriously, at any point here, the necessity of breaks. And that if they are necessary, that we must be very careful, and caring, about them.

Without this sense of respect, I found myself in a cycle that feels very pathological and just-me right now, but perhaps will sound familiar. Arrive each semester with a sacrosanct New Plan for life at Swarthmore, carefully forged in the anxious last week of summer or winter vacation. Believe truly that a new approach will allow me to feel like myself here without giving up any commitments. Power through the first half of the semester, kicking old bad habits under the bed all the way to midterms at least. Accrue all kinds of positive and negative reinforcement along the way, construe both as confirmations to the Plan. Yet find by the time finals come around that my knot has not miraculously unwound, and I am exhausted, exhausted, exhausted. Go home tired, finish up a late paper or two, and crash hard. Then I crawl through winter or summer break to the next grand planning session. The big vacations, by the way, are long breaks, the kind that lie to you, a little bit.

What I wish I knew when I came into this place was that nobody was going to tell me to take a break. In a sense, that’s not true at all. Professors here, who have seen the students rise-and-grind-and-graduate time and again, tend to be quite adamant in telling you, “seriously, take breaks.” But they write the syllabi, and they have no access to your Google calendar. Friends, because they are the best thing you have here, will encourage you to put down the pen and come live a little and share their presence. But friends cannot know what you need unless you learn to tell them, and that’s awfully hard. And sometimes even a good friend might get a little confused, their needs crossing sneakily over into yours. Nobody is going to be able to teach you how to value the break. Taking a break is not selfish, and taking a break is not actually even for you, unless you think that your life is yours alone. Breaks are not an antidote, a life hack, or some kind of indirect mode of self-improvement. Breaks are the unplan within the life of any young productive type. Breaks permit the whole.

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