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  • Erin Jane Schaeffer

Summer is for paying attention

Updated: Sep 27, 2023

" Rules for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it." - Mary Oliver, poet

My parents are retired schoolteachers. I'm proud to recite this fact when I meet new people because I value education and I value my parents. Sharing this information with strangers also helps me, as the saying goes, separate the wheat from the chaffholes.

Many will smile and nod warmly, radiating appreciation, picturing their own educational hero, the one who sparked a love of reading, encouraged them to apply for that study abroad program, or the kindergarten teacher who smelled like cinnamon and safety. Others smirk sarcastically and deliver the tired line "teachers have it made, they have summers off."

Those who don't value teachers or education usually imply that the months off are the lazy driving force behind becoming an educator. This ignores that teachers work a vast amount of unpaid hours during the school year, grading papers, supporting events and planning. Plus, many teachers work a different, additional job in the summer. Putting all of that aside, I find there is no shame in shifting your annual schedule to include some gaps in full time work. If possible, people should take time, months even, to do something different. I appreciate and salute those who take time off to flex different muscles, to think different thoughts, to listen, to shape days differently, time to step away and regroup, even from a vocation that is loved.

My dad has spent most of his days balancing being a writer and a teacher of writing, so I know he spent most of the early Pacific Northwest mornings writing. Some summers my dad also spent a lot of time in his vegetable garden. He'd carve out rows for corn and mound dirt hills to support the creeping cucumber plants. He'd count pumpkins who showed up green, then turned orange and finally were hauled inside to carve weeks after the school days had recommenced. He wrote, he plotted, planted and harvested something different from the garden, and in fall he was ready to teach again.

This August, I embarked on a break. I wrapped up one job and before finding the next, I decided to take some time off. I know this is a privilege and similar to teachers, I've had to adjust and save accordingly. Similar to a summer vacation from school, I paused to reflect, to pay attention, as Mary Oliver recommends, and to be astonished. I have enjoyed this break shamelessly. I checked out library books and read them and returned them. I cooked with the bok choy from my garden, wrote some letters and reorganized my laundry room. I got up early to walk with my best friend, and occasionally I slept in late. I listened to my children recap their wacky dreams, I played a lot of cards and records with my husband. I grew flowers and took them to neighbors and aunts. I ate cucumbers. While plotting my next move, I listened to input inside and outside, with the aim of determining what I should plant next and going forward how I want to grow and how I want to tell about it.


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