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Busy No More

By Julia L. Ryan

I’ve always hated New Hampshire.

Freshmen remember it fondly as the state they camped through for FOP. Upperclassmen flock to it as the land of tax-free booze. I know it as home, and I take it as a huge compliment when someone mistakes me for a citizen of almost anywhere else.

My problem with New Hampshire goes way back. I don’t know where or when it started; maybe it was after one too many tumbles skiing down the bunny slope, or after spending hours tracking deer through the woods behind my house for a seventh-grade science project. Maybe it was the time I discovered a squirrel hiding in a potted plant in our living room, or the time I found a bat hanging from the ceiling beam above our TV. Regardless of how it began, I prefer the indoors to the outdoors, city streets to dirt roads, and leather flats to snow boots.

So when I caught mononucleosis at the end of last semester and had to come home for the summer to recover, I was not amused. The summer after junior year is supposed to be a big eye-opening experience, when you figure out, to some extent anyway, where you want to be after graduation. I’ve known that I do not want to be in New Hampshire since a nor’easter ruined my fifth birthday party.

But I had no options come the end of May; I was too sick to go anywhere but home. It was like someone had hit the pause button on my life. From my perch on the couch I watched as my sister packed a bag to go hiking with her friends and my father tethered kayaks to the top of his SUV. I clicked through photos of classmates in faraway places and talked to friends about their internships and jobs.

Meanwhile, I was mostly sleeping. There was very little to report about my life in New Hampshire. I dreaded the inevitable question: “What are you up to?” Sometimes I managed a cheerful “Not much!” Most of the time I mumbled a bitter, “Nothing.”

At some point during these weeks of inactivity, I read Tim Kreider’s “The Busy Trap” in the New York Times, which looked at our culture’s preoccupation with maintaining overscheduled lives.  Kreider wrote about adult circles, in which mothers run from boardroom meeting to soccer game and young professionals struggle to squeeze in a drink with friends. But I realized the same thing was happening in my dorm room at college, the place that is supposed to be a responsibility-free break between our high school helicopter parents and our demanding bosses at future jobs.

Harvard students love talking about how busy they are. And many of us really are living life at a breakneck speed, sprinting through classes, extracurriculars, meals, friendships, reading assignments, and phone calls home. But more than just reflecting a zest for life, being busy is a status symbol among the ambitious. Our hectic schedules and endless commitments mean we must be important. Busyness implies that we have more than our peers—more meetings, more friends, more extracurriculars, and more drive. It means we are somehow getting ahead of everyone else in a game no one can quite name.

So responding “Nothing,” when asked what I was up to, was humiliating. Even though it was medically mandated, I was ashamed of the absence of an important internship in my life and guilty about my lack of activity. I could hear my résumé calling out from within the depths of my computer, “What about me?”

I struggled against taking a break from my “busy” life, but in the end, mono won. Sleeping wasn’t a commodity I could put off until the weekend, or until a paper was done, or until Thanksgiving break. It was something that was happening, whether I liked it or not, for 16 hours a day, every day. Resistance was futile; I eventually surrendered to a summer lazed away in New Hampshire.

I came to appreciate the thing I had always hated most about being in New Hampshire: an abundance of time. I have spent years rushing through high school and Harvard, terrified of what would happen if I fell behind in the race we are all running. Well, if I was in that race, I have certainly fallen behind after my three-month-long hiatus. Yet I think I have gained more than I’ve lost. Without the constant din of papers to write and reading to do, and without the quiet guilt of knowing I have friends to see and a mother to call, I have discovered that life lived slowly is a worthwhile enterprise.

Don’t get me wrong: I will never be okay with wildlife visiting my living room, and I will always hate myself a little bit for thinking Dunkin’ Donuts coffee tastes like home even though Starbucks is so much better. But I have grown fond of a chair on the back porch. I’ve enjoyed books the way I did before I knew what comparative literature was, and I have spent hours writing e-mails to friends I haven’t talked to in years. I am almost never sleep deprived; now I drink coffee because I really like coffee. And I no longer hear my résumé calling. Maybe it’s given up on me. Or maybe I just can’t hear it from the porch.

Julia L. Ryan ’13, a Crimson news executive editor, is an English concentrator in Winthrop house.

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