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What I Did on My Winter Vacation

1.27.12

You could, in theory, take a yoga class; listen to Johnstone Family professor of psychology Steven Pinker talk about his new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature (and possibly snag a signed copy); attend computer science and entrepreneurship seminars at Hack Harvard, the new tech incubator; take a spoken-word poetry workshop; learn the “house” style of hip hop—and that would just be Monday.

This January, the College had a weeklong “Wintersession.” Official options ranged from the Winter Writing Program to Winter Break at Harvard Forest to Networking NOW, with various small, student-run activities sprinkled through the day—an inflatable-boat regatta, experimental cooking, comedy workshops.

I found the catalog mildly terrifying, and avoided it. Once, I think, I would have gone through the list meticulously and methodically, finding events to occupy every moment of my day. This year I didn’t, and I was still busy.

It was this January that I finally started using Google Calendar. For five semesters of college, a mental list and a small notebook had been sufficient, but Wintersession was too much. I was doing research during the day, planning experiments around meetings and talks. In the evening, I participated in the writing program, designed and taught by journalists Evan Thomas ’73 [now Ferris professor of journalism at Princeton] and Walter Isaacson ’74 [an Overseer who’s the author of the current, best-selling biography of the late Steven Jobs], and heard from a series of guests—President Drew Faust, novelist Allegra Goodman ’89, RI ’07, and deputy editor Craig Lambert of Harvard Magazine, among others.

This wasn’t what I’d expected. I’ve liked to think of winter break as a time for slowing down and being still. Curling up under a blanket with a mug of hot chocolate—my personal hibernation. I’d imagined having time to do nothing.

But nothing was also supposed to be something—a chance to do things I don’t do during the semester. Drawing, writing, running…finally reading a book. In the absence of classes and formal activities, I’d wanted to take time for informal things, a pause for personal garden-tending.

(Infinite Jest is actually infinite.)

I never attained the sort of meditative stillness and quietness I’d been looking for. During the two weeks that I was back, I was busy—my mind frayed with spring courses and fellowship deadlines and misbehaving experiments. I finished three other books to avoid opening Infinite Jest again. One night I went ice-skating in Bright Hockey Center; another, to a lab party. A friend turned 21. I did other worthwhile things, like losing horribly in a trivia competition. Somehow I was tired before classes even started. It’s unimpressively easy to be busy, no great accomplishment to fill a calendar. This is a pattern that’s taken me a while to recognize. I suppose it’s fine that I did things I liked and learned a lot and found myriad ways to occupy myself. Still—and probably it’s silly—part of me wishes that I hadn’t.

(Now that I think about it, there was a meditation workshop, too, on Thursday night, and I forget why I was too busy to go.)

There was one evening when it started snowing close to midnight, and from my dorm room I sat and watched—I’ve always loved watching snow fall. It called to mind a poem I think I understand better now, about stopping and watching, but also about promises, and how much I have to do, before I sleep.

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