Having just returned to work following a satisfying staycation, and after taking several of these close-to-home breaks over the last 10 years or so, here’s what I’ve learned:

The key to a good staycation is unstructured time, that rarest of all luxuries. To carve out a stretch for yourself, however, you need to be busy beforehand in order to be un-busy during your “time off.” And you must resist all urges to structure your time once it begins.

Routine can be comforting but also numbing. We need a break from all the things we “have to” do. It doesn’t help to unplug from the job if you then give in to the temptation to “catch up” on household chores and personal tasks, the ones we neglect due to the busyness of ordinary time.

Unstructured time is extraordinary time, so it is precious and should be defended. We have become so conditioned to structuring time and so hyper-connected through technology that “open” time now makes many people anxious. Freedom feels too free. We don’t know what to do with it, so we settle for busyness. Hey, it still beats working, right? 

It takes discipline to resist busyness. It means staying away from the computer, the television, the smartphone. It means leaving chores for ordinary time. Better to while away a beautiful Monday morning reading a good book in Mills Park or watching sunsets from a rooftop deck high above Forest Park or taking yourself out to breakfast at Hemmingway’s Bistro on a still-cool summer morning. Days when marking the progress of cumulus clouds across a blue sky becomes the highest priority. Living a life that pleases.

Despite the name, a good “stay”-cation involves getting away — not only from day-to-day demands and drudgery, but also from the friendly confines of Oak Park. A change of scenery refreshes the senses. One day I journeyed to Geneva via Metra, rolling gently through River Forest, Maywood, Melrose Park, Bellwood, Berkeley, Elmhurst, Villa Park, Lombard, Glen Ellyn, Wheaton, Winfield and West Chicago. Different communities, varied economic strata. 

Metra is a lot less stressful than driving, and stress reduction is one of staycation’s primary objectives — the stress of work, commuting during rush hour, planning and taking longer trips, meeting deadlines, having too much to do and not enough time to do it in.

Above all, the stress of being in a constant hurry. A leisurely pace is one of life’s exquisite pleasures. The unhurried body unwinds. The better angels of our nature emerge — more centered, reflective, insightful. One can think more clearly about life — what’s good about it, what needs to change, examining why we can’t take that leap of faith we’re always reading about in self-improvement magazines and live the life we’ve always fantasized.

During a staycation, that life seems more accessible: bike rides on my favorite trail because the virtual flight of cycling through sun-dappled forest preserves is where I feel freest, hikes along the Prairie Path because that’s when time moves slowest.

The days basically organized themselves. A second-run movie at the Glen Art Theater in Glen Ellyn about aging Boomers who don’t give up on embracing life caught my eye, so I bought a ticket. Another (from the Oak Park Public Library collection), which featured philosophers talking about “The Examined Life,” fit right in with my mental meanderings.

A good staycation requires some good fortune — weather as fine as we’ve had all summer with plenty of sunshine and no meltdowns, breakdowns or catastrophes demanding attention. Gathering to celebrate my mother’s 89th birthday, my sister-in-law’s 60th and my niece’s 30th with flaming cheese and plenty of Opaa! at Greek Islands, a reminder that time is of the essence and waits for no one. Following the flourishes of Saint-Saens’ second piano concerto in Millennium Park with friends and striking up a conversation with people sitting next to us, visiting from Toronto. 

I was blessed by a good week. I worked hard, then let it unfold. Extraordinary time is precious. I want more of it.

The truth is we might dream of being “truly free,” but we’re too connected, involved, entangled. We have responsibilities. We’re not islands and wouldn’t want to be. On my “solitary” walks around town, I regularly run into people I know, people I like and admire. Stopping to chat (and having the time to do so) makes those walks that much more enjoyable.

But from time to time we need to disconnect, if only so we can reconnect, in a better way, later on.

My staycation lasted just eight days — the tip of the iceberg of longing. Now that I’m back in the harness of my indentured servitude (or, as I like to call it, the world’s longest apprenticeship), I am comforted (and haunted) by vivid moments from my week of living as I pleased. 

Come the frigid dark next December and January, those memories will sustain me, giving me hope (I hope) as I creep closer to the life I want to live.

Done right, a good staycation can really take you places.

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