Every Memorial Day weekend, our family and a bunch of friends from our parish all load up the cars and head for Lopez Island in the San Juan Islands of Puget Sound here in our beloved Washington State.
I love every part of this annual sojourn. I love the packing. I love the excitement of the kids. I love the drive up to Anacortes. I even love waiting in the (hours long) line for the ferry (there’s lots of beachcombing and picnicking while you wait). I love the ferry ride across the Sound. I love the salt wind, the water, the seabirds, the islands that jut out of the water. I love the kids cheering when our car rolls off the boat onto the terra firma of Lopez. I love the quiet pokey country roads of the island, where all the drivers wave at each other and car and bicycle share the road cheerfully. I love pulling into Spencer Spit campground, and all the hurly burly of checking in, unpacking our stuff, setting up camp, blowing up air mattresses, and getting all the gear where it needs to be.
And best of all, I love that, after that, there is not going to be much to report in terms of a Story. Stories, you see, are wars. That’s what makes them interesting. A story is always about a conflict: Ahab vs. Moby, Hamlet vs. himself, Frodo vs. the Power of the Ring. A story without conflict is not a story.
Vacations aren’t stories unless they are catastrophes. Good vacations are poems. They are little gems of beauty that sit there, being what they are and not having to carry us along on some battle of good vs. evil.
One of the things our civilization has managed to do is more or less eradicate the notion of poetry as a serious thing for adults. Poets are widely regarded as unemployed ne’er-do-wells who need to get a job, get a haircut and start living in the real world. In antiquity and even up until relatively recently, a poet was a figure in the community who was taken so seriously that he was regarded as a sort of quasi-oracle. To be sure, a great poet was also often a great storyteller, which is why we remember Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare and the authors of Beowulf and Job.
But a great poet didn’t have to be a storyteller. He could write, not only to narrate the war between good and evil, but to remind us that grass is green and water is wet. He could do this and be celebrated in antiquity because our ancestors knew that something in the human soul needs to be reminded of the primal truth that life is a gift just as much as we need to be reminded of the-less-than primal truth that life is a war. The backward barbarians who lived before us understood the importance of story—of conflict—and knew that it is important to be on the right side of the cosmic struggle along with Frodo, Oliver Twist, and Innocent Smith. But they also saw that it was good to simply rest in the fact that love was like a red, red rose, that death should be not proud, and that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth and gave the whole thing to us out of pure love.
I have this odd notion that our civilization’s loss of poetry is, in a curious way, linked to the dark and sinister invention known as the Working Vacation. Both are rooted in the same sense that life is all struggle, all work to stay alive, all the need to be productive and justify the use of resources like oxygen. So we take even moments that should be devoted to what used to be called “holy leisure” or contemplation and turn them into further skirmishes against the forces of grim economic necessity.
A true vacation is a chance to give that Storyteller View of the World—the view that says life is a battle—a bit of rest and to recall the Poet’s View of the World: the view that says life is a gift.
A life that is all battle and no gift is a life that will tend to think upside down and major in minors. A vacation, rightly celebrated, is not a working vacation, but a playing vacation, because it was in play and leisure that most of the things that really matter have been invented, thought and sung. Everything from the Bible to the theory of relativity was the product of somebody’s spare time. Paul’s tents are dust. His letters are the word of God. There’s a reason the Son of God first manifested his glory, not at the office, but at a party.