This Thing They Call a Vacation


I think I first read about it in a primary school reader. Dick, Jane, Mother, Father, and Spot went on vacation. It was a ruthless, vivid regime. The colours blazed. There was a beach, and a beach ball. A picnic was required, its potato salad and ham sandwiches part of a rigid, summery normalcy. Perhaps there was, on alternate summers, a Farm, with Grandmother and Grandfather and a panoply of dull farm animals. I submitted to these stories as though to ancient Greek myths. Improbable, I thought, yet perhaps full of their own allegorical teachings which I hoped to someday understand.

My parents did not go On Vacation. Summer was full of its own specific, repetitive labour: weeding, lawn-mowing, pie-making, garage-cleaning. My father, the distracted academic, would make vague promises of an end-of-summer trip to an unnamed cottage, or an imagined lake with a sketchy cabin at its perimeter. By mid-August he’d throw up his hands and admit to not really having given it any thought.

“Let’s all go to Upper Canada Village,” he’d say, with faux-heartiness, and by way of consolation.

It was better than nothing. It was fascinatingly dreary. Women in aprons and bonnets churned butter, relentlessly. Men in overalls worked furiously at their anvils. We watched them as though we were spectators at a zoo, thus marvelling at our own twentieth century good fortune, our Mixmasters and our Canadian Tire stores. For my father the concentration-camp-survivor, this was, perhaps, a friendly simulation of earlier horrors, of dirt and hardship and hard beds that, in a different way, reminded him that a there were worse things than six children and lifetime sentence to the suburbs.


Am I my father’s daughter? I struggle with the notion of vacation. Freelance writer and contract academic labourer for so long, paid vacations were never in my purview, and if they weren’t paid for, I reasoned, they must pay for themselves. Like my father, I have used gigs and conferences to stand in for vacation. Thus have I voyaged to Istanbul, and Turin, and to Dallas, Texas.

This summer is rather different. I just published and promoted a new book. I begin a steady gig in August. While not exactly a paid vacation, this summer has been designated (by myself and my bossy friends) as a time of repose. These friends and lovers impose their own, well-meaning, loving legislation. I struggle earnestly to comply.

Mornings are easy. A latte and a rattan chair on my deck combine into a compound sentence that is undoubtedly the argot of vacationing. I can easily extend this sentence into a paragraph that takes me to lunch and its luxurious preparation. Cold soba noodles with tofu and a sesame oil dressing. Greek salad. Tuna salad with dried cranberries. These, surely, are the vocabulary of vacation fare!

Still, there is unease caught at the back of my throat, a surfeit of words unwritten, of aspiration untended.

From time to time, a friend or a lover takes me firmly by the hand and leads me into the very portal, the langourously beating heart of vacation. Five hot, slow, fragrant, delicious days in Fanny Bay. A trip to a funky cottage. Or, today, a bicycle trip and picnic to Toronto Island with M, a fellow epicure. I shall bring my picnic knapsack with its gingham napkins and its goblets. We will eat great food: dolmades, brie, Greek salad, M’s spicy fish, rhubarb-strawberry pie.

Still, I wonder: how do other artists, academics, and freelancers of various stripes deal with vacation…


  1. When my grandmother prepared a picnic I was always satisfied. A hot thermos of pork and beans, bread and butter, hot sauerkraut with weiner’s cut into it, coleslaw, slices of beef steak tomatoes sprinkled with salt and pepper, rootbeer and chocolate brownies. Seems so unlikely a picnic now, but I bet I would still go for it.

    At the Drop-In Art Program, working with a peer and our supervisor at a homeless shelter, the subject came up:

    ‘We should organize a summer outing. There’s funding.’

    My peer co-facilitator announces ‘I think we should have a real picnic.’

    ‘Okay, like what?’

    ‘Well not bagged lunches, not a bunch of sandwiches. We get that everyday. It should be special. We should have fried chicken and potato salad.’ I thought that was a great idea. ‘How about BBQ’d chicken drums and some chocolate brownies too?’ She smiled a big one.

  2. Ha! I was only thinking of this moments ago. An artist’s summer is all about the working holiday. We are going to a family reunion in the Okanagan, but that’s going to be work.
    This summer I am going to abandon my family for at least one day and head to Wreak Beach with a bunch of rowdy women. I’ve been to paradise… but I’ve never been to Wreak Beach. We will drink cocktails, get sunburnt and plan the revolution.

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