What I Learned on My Summer Furlough

After three months on furlough, I was scared to gear up again. I had forgotten how to use a zipper; stopped even bothering with lip gloss for Zoom. I was not sure my adrenal glands still functioned. Taking permission from catastrophe, I ate, drank, and slept as I chose, cheesecake on the Titanic. On furlough, you are not even allowed to talk about work, and having no one expect anything of me had fast become a habit.

Could I still do this?

I desperately wanted my job back. But I also wanted to keep waking up slowly, cuddling with the puppy instead of flying out of bed to an alarm. I wanted to keep this marvelous new practice of finishing one task before I moved on to the next; I wanted to finish my coffee even though a text was beeping on my phone. I was taking Feldenkrais classes on the aforementioned Zoom, and our teacher often suggested, after a particularly awkward or unfamiliar move, “Try that again, but without holding your breath or tensing your jaw or pressing your tongue to the back of your teeth. What would it feel like to do it lightly, easily, without efforting?”

I bristle at verbification, and efforting is right up there with adulting, but I forgave her because her words were water in the desert. I have been efforting my whole life. On furlough, I wrote nearly as much as I had for my job, but I did so playfully, even when the topic was serious, and often pro bono. A steamy-hot afternoon? Maybe I would stay inside and write a bit. An idea caught my attention? I scribbled at the dog park. A project felt worth doing? I climbed the stairs to my office and wrote, sometimes well into the night, knowing I could sleep in the next morning.

What was gone was the sense of necessity, the expectation of quantity, the need to measure up to my own skewed, uncertain standards. Writing on furlough was like cooking when the supply chain fell apart: I could be creative, experiment a little, and not apologize for the unpredictable results because, hey, this was the art of the possible.

I wanted to hold on to that.

So, apparently, does the marketplace. In The Wall Street Journal, Annie Gasparro says it has finally dawned on corporate America that it, too, has been trying too hard. Turns out “we may not need 40 different varieties of toilet paper.” Or 400 different kinds of Campbell’s soup. Or more than 605,000 vehicle configurations (not even including colors). The supply chain lost a few links and consumers, long dizzied by excess choice, realized we preferred it that way. Our getting and spending were more efficient when there was less to agonize over. All those absurd variations had been as unnecessary as my, er, efforting.

A few years before her stint in the brig, I interviewed Martha Stewart, bent on skewering her for making the rest of us look bad, what with our fast food treats and dust bunnies. Instead, I left with some real advice.

“Do things lightly, ”Martha urged me.“Paint the garden furniture because you want to; don’t make it a heavy chore or drudgery.”

This kindergarten-simple suggestion meshed nicely with Feldenkrais and furlough. I started asking myself, midway through some dreary chore or tense errand, “What would it be like if I did this more lightly, more playfully, with less strain?”

Up in New England, the Puritan’s graves cracked open as they spun. The Calvinists hit their knees, sure of my damnation. The Catholic nuns who had schooled me to be disciplined, sober, and conscientious grabbed their light-up-in-the-dark rosary beads.

We are a country that spends billions on amusements, but with the possible exception of the Roaring Twenties—and those ended badly—we have never known how to lighten up. This big, culturally rich country had access to laughing Buddhas and lilies that neither toiled nor spun and the Talmud’s warning to account for all permitted pleasures we failed to enjoy, yet we ignored all that wisdom, consumed by the need to prove ourselves in the material world and thus ensure immortality. As a result, most of us take ourselves far too seriously and try far too hard, confusing diligence and excess for quality and forgetting that there is no greater luxury than free time.

We have done this to each other. My parents’ generation caved to authority figures’ strict rules and expectations. My generation bragged about its impossible workload, how busy busy busy we were. The next generation dodged that but switched to an expectation of instantaneous response. It is immensely difficult to detach from any of those norms and still be taken, well, seriously. Work, for those of us lucky enough to like it, becomes our source of identity, solace, and transcendence; our relief from existential flutters of nerves; our source of the social connections it has weakened in every other realm of life. In other words, our religion. And we shame one another into false piety.

Squirrels egg each other on, too, sending panicked alarms through the trees and scampering back and forth with crazed speed. But researchers recently noticed that Eastern gray squirrels eavesdrop on birds. And when the wrens and cardinals are chattering lightly back and forth with no evidence of alarm, the squirrels’ little nervous systems go quiet.

During lockdown, we all eavesdropped, and we saw that people can still be productive when they are sitting on their back porch. When toddlers and dogs interrupt intense meetings. When nobody’s hair is “done.”

We all got a little more human with one another. There should be no more need for efforting.