Friday Takeaway: In Praise of Blank Space

  • Naomi Shulman. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

@naomishulman
Published: 7/7/2017 9:38:56 AM

When I was a kid, summer was sharply and clearly delineated by two very different days: the last day of school and the first day of school. Both were celebratory in their way. The last day was marked by a sense of massive unburdening — every responsibility I had was suddenly lifted, or so it seemed. I would shove my backpack down in the corner of closet and not pick it up again for weeks and weeks — a time that stretched before me as a mini eternity, each day open to anything. I was a not a summer-camp kid, and we didn’t take extended beach vacations; my parents let their children roam relatively freely, and that’s what we did. My summers were hours of TV reruns, bike rides to the store to buy candy, open swim at the local public pool, our towels stretched over concrete. Summer sounded like a box fan whirring in the window, a screen door banging shut, crickets singing into the evening. It was endless blank space. 

But over the course of the summer, the first day would inch ever closer. Did I mind? No. As the hot, aimless days of summer unfolded, I began to genuinely long for that first day. By late August I was bored, hungry for more structure, and I missed my friends. Buying school supplies was a highly anticipatory ritual; picking out crisp, smooth notebooks and bright yellow, unsharpened pencils was deeply pleasurable. The first day of school might be hotter and more humid than the last day was, but summer would still be officially over. My face was rosy with sun, my legs were pocked with mosquito bites, and I was utterly ready for responsibilities to begin anew. 

My summers no longer have those obvious bookends. Work continues unabated; there is no last day, no first day. When I worked in publishing, years ago, we had summer Fridays — the entire office would lop off the last day of the week and head to the beach or the mountains or wherever they were lucky enough to have a place to go. Now, even if I do get away for a little while, I bring my laptop with me; there are no true days off.

At 13 and 16, my daughters still have a Summer with a capital S, but it doesn’t have the aimlessness that I remember from my own; they have always had more of a schedule, and school seems to end later and start earlier than it did when I was a kid, anyway. I don’t let them watch TV lazily the way my parents let me; they don’t bike all over town the way I did, and nor do any of their peers. If they have longer than a week of downtime, I feel pressure to help them fill it. 

I’m not sure why I do this, since I know from my own experience how important the blank space is. I needed a span of unplanned time to let my thoughts unravel. The unscheduled hours of long summer days were the hours when I was learning how to frame my own life — to fill it with activity of my own choosing, or to simply stare at the sky and let the minutes tick by. It was because I had that expanse of time that I was not just willing but actually eager to turn back to the burden of a school day when the moment arrived. 

It’s too late for my kids this summer; I’ve filled the next six weeks to the gills. They’ll each have a week before school starts to catch their breath, and I don’t think that’s nearly enough. But next year! Next year will be the year. I’ll save myself the camp tuition and the carpooling to and fro and instead will let them have a chance to get bored.

When spring rolls around, don’t let me change my mind — hold me to it. I’ve tried hard to give my girls everything I can, but I know that can backfire. I sense that letting them get bored is itself a gift — a gift I have yet to give them. 

 

 

 


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