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The Last Two Weeks of Summer

August 31, 2012

Redwood grove near our campsite in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Photo by the author.

“Are you excited about our vacation?” he asked me.

“No,” I replied sheepishly.

“Why not?” he asked with surprise.

“Because every time I think about our vacation, I think about everything that need to be done before I can go,” I confessed.

It is a very familiar feeling.  It comes every semester, when the pressure of finals outweighs our ability to look forward to the break.  But this was summer.  I hadn’t been in classes for three months.  Instead, I was assisting the university on a very important project – a project due just two weeks after my contract ended. It felt nevertheless like “my project,” and I wanted to leave it in the best possible shape, but I knew that was impossible.  Because it was such an important project, it relied on the contributions of many people and some of them simply hadn’t come through yet.

Regardless, the time of our vacation drew closer, my work wound down, and I began to get excited.  I cleaned out my office, moved my things back to my house, cat included, and on the Friday before classes began we flew to San Jose to meet Colin’s mother.  A two hour drive through a beautiful sunset brought us back to Pacific Grove, a little town sandwiched between larger neighbors on the southern tip of Monterey Bay.  There, we sat visiting with his Grams and glancing out her large living room windows at the tall pines covered in Spanish moss.  Although it was too dark to see the ocean, I could picture it from our earlier visits, just a bit of bluish grey between the branches.

The next morning while everyone slept, I snuck out the front door and walked along the quiet streets.  Should I head downhill, toward the beach? Or uphill, toward town?  Ultimately, I chose uphill and coffee.  It was drizzling a little, but I didn’t mind.  After the oppressive heat and smog of Southern California, the drizzle felt just lovely.  Once I got moving, I was even warm enough to remove my wool jacket.  I called my mother as I walked and admired the brightly painted Victorians along Lighthouse.

“I’m unemployed again!” I gleefully reported.

She was not amused, but took it in the tone it was meant.  I listened as she recounted the family’s collective battle with her upstairs carpet.  I suspect stripping the carpet was not nearly so taxing as moving all of her innumerable things before hand.

“You might just have floors when you come to visit, but probably not furniture.”

“As long as there’s a mattress, we’ll be fine.”

“Hrmmm, we’ll have to see about that…” she teased.  “Well, I’d better get back up there.  If I disappear for too long, my helpers just might vanish on me!”

I felt a handful of sympathy for my father, brother, and sister-in-law, a dash of guilt for not helping, and a pinch of relief at not being there for this latest renovation – not to mention my brother and sister-in-law’s move from my folk’s home to a new house which precipitated the carpet project in the first place.  I miss my family.  One thing I’ve always enjoyed it how much we help each other, but being two-thousand miles away does reduce the amount of manual labor I’m called for.

Colin’s mother and grandmother were up by the time I returned.  His aunt had called.  They were making plans.  We spend the day with his family, driving and shopping and packing, preparing for our trip down the Pacific Coast Highway the next day.

We spend the week in a fairy wonderland, camping beneath the redwoods along the Big Sur River in Pfieffer Big Sur State Park.  It was luxury camping to be sure, with air mattresses, lazy days reading by the water, and frequent trips to the nearby Big Sur Bakery.  We hiked, talked, cooked, and donned wetsuits to play in the cold river.  For the first time, I felt right at home relaxing in the cold swimming holes and jumping off rocks into the clear, greenish waters.  (Rather than shivering, wrapped in a towel, waiting for everyone to be done so we could go back to camp and warm up.)

It was my first time camping with Colin’s family, but I wasn’t the only one.  Colin’s cousins brought their boyfriends, one of whom was equally new to the family but already at ease.  We made for a rather large group altogether, seven tents sprawled across two, and sometimes three, campsites, aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, children, and old friends all back together for the tail end of summer.

About midweek, Colin and I had a spat.  He’d forgotten about my plans to join the Navy Reserves and was surprised as I talked to his mother one night around the campfire about doctoral programs and annual training camps.  I invested meaning in this lapse of memory while he added my Navy plans to the picture of how I tend to wander by myself and created his own interpretation.  We both spent about twenty-four hours speculating about the other person’s motives and randomly sniping at one another (okay, I’ll take most of the blame for that, but he “didn’t want to fight,” so what am I supposed to do with my feelings?) before we finally took the time necessary to talk it out.  He just had a lapse of memory.  I’ve got too many plans to keep them all straight, but he wants to support me in what I want to do.  I just like being independent, it’s a lifelong habit, and my wandering is not a reflection of how I feel about him or our relationship.  I learned a lot.  The rest of the week was better.

I was happy to spend time with Colin’s family.  Between his mother and grandmother, I got some of the best birthday presents every – the aforementioned wetsuit and a twelve-foot-long, hand-knitted, Doctor Who scarf in Tom Baker style.  It’s possibly the most brilliant and ridiculous piece of clothing I own, and I’m deeply grateful to Sandra for taking the time to not only knit it (and the matching hat), but find all the episodes in which it was featured on DVD.  We left Big Sur reluctantly and enjoyed one last visit to Pacific Grove before making the drive back to the San Jose airport.

We crashed back into Los Angeles with a jolt.  A quinceanera was blaring music two doors down from my house.  Colin’s electricity had been turned off in his absence.  And the project I left behind remained unfinished.  After meeting with the President of the university following my Monday morning class (and a wonderful birthday lunch thanks to all my awesome classmates), my blissful unemployment was cut short.  I put in thirty hours on the project between two o’clock on Monday and six o’clock Thursday evening (between classes) before catching the train to Riverside.  My poor boss, who’s also stuck with this project on top of her regular already more than full-time job, had already put in sixteen hour days every day last week.  I’m now keeping my phone close, praying for the text message that tells me it’s in the mail to our accreditation agency.

Despite it all, I don’t feel that bad.  The trip to Big Sur was wonderful and refreshing.  I read an entire book!  (The Passage by Erin Cronin. It’s good if you like well written vampire apocalyptic novels with deep characters.  Actually, it’s still good, even if you don’t.)  I returned with my gas tank full.  Wednesday, we worked from nine in the morning until almost midnight, but I didn’t blink at coming back at nine the next morning – because the work is meaningful, important, stimulating, and my boss, Vanessa, was right there with me the whole time.  I feel bad that I couldn’t be right there with her all last week, but I think the work I did this week was better, stronger, and more useful for my time away.  I wait anxiously for that text message in part because it means she can take a break, stop, breath, sleep, and spend time with her family again.  She deserves it.

I have faith that our university will remain fully accredited and the trajectory we’re on is a good one.  I have faith that my relationship will remain strong, despite our ongoing ups and down, and hope for our future together.  I look forward to all my classes this semester, which are shaping up to be awesome (if daunting).   I enjoyed my time back home with my cat, in my own bed (however briefly), and I’m looking forward to a weekend of sun and surfing in San Clemente (a new adventure).

There’s no moral to this story.  It’s just a story I thought I’d share.  As school is back in session, please look forward to many more posts in the On Dharma section.  I’m still working my way through Bhikkhu Boddhi’s book, so there will be more Dharma Bites, plus I’ve started a class covering the Chinese Mahayana sutras (in translation).  I hope everyone had a wonderful summer and is looking forward to a fabulous fall.

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