Beach House Diaries: The Benefits of Busy Work


When my mother's family sailed from Holland to New York in 1662, high hopes and a lingering love of cheese weren't the only things they brought with them. They also carried over a conviction that "idle hands do the devil's work," which -- for better or worse -- I seem to have inherited. The "worse" part predominates on vacation since it makes it hard for me to truly leave my job behind. Especially in those first days at the shore when I haven't yet been hypnotized by the sound of lapping waves, I always feel that I must do some work to earn my downtime.

Missing my computer, I write paragraphs in my head as my drumming fingers unconsciously mimic the motion of hands on a keyboard. But even without a bunch of laziness-loathing ancestors swimming in their bloodline, many people find it difficult to let go: mainly because, when you live your everyday life in overdrive, suddenly slamming on the brakes -- even for a much-anticipated beach house holiday -- is a jarring experience. So people continue to work (or at least obsess about it) and then return home without having really relaxed at all.

Ironically, I've discovered that the key for me is to unwind gradually by doing something that feels productive yet is totally unrelated to what I'm paid to do. I'm talking easy tasks -- just enough to keep my buzzing brain distracted, my hands busy and my workaholic habits at bay.

Enter "The Annual Start-of-Season Project."

A few summers ago, I decided to create a sculpture garden out of odd, oversized chunks of driftwood I'd collected. One of my "art installations" was booted down after my husband mistakenly walked into it on a moonless night and almost lost an eye; wind took care of the rest. I didn't mind my epic fail, though. It was the making of it that mattered. This summer, my project is to organize several shoeboxes full of pre-digital photos, which will likely involve a teary trip down Memory Lane. My favorite undertaking, however, was crafting a quilt.

I couldn't assemble it on Pictou Island. Being off the grid, I have no electricity to run a sewing machine -- plus my skill in that department is pretty limited. My mother had been the family seamstress, and she could make anything: party dresses for me, mini versions for my dolls. As a result, I never needed to learn when I was young. (I've since figured out how to replace a button but am still paralyzed by the sight of un-hemmed pants.)

quilt making Pictou IslandWhat I could do at my beach house was cut out squares for the idiot-proof quilt pattern I'd chosen; and that piece work turned out to be, well, peace work. Using whatever I had on hand, I scissored off swaths of the kids' outgrown clothing that I'd sentimentally kept. Then I delved into a stash of thrift store linens: trousseau-style tea towels and pillowcases that had presumably been saved for a special occasion that never came.

As you'd expect, quilt making is a time-honored tradition here. Back when store-bought blankets were rare, women did it out of necessity, often transforming utilitarian objects into unsigned works of art. In a modern twist, five local women are now stitching a gorgeous quilt that tells the Pictou Island story with each bright, incredibly detailed block capturing a different scene or season (it will be raffled later this year to raise funds for the Community Association). While my quilt looks clumsy and plain compared to theirs, it too tells a tale.

The scraps of old clothing speak of my family; the vintage bits say every day should be treated as special; and the alternating blue and white colors evoke a place where white sand separates sea from sky. Because I wouldn't have relaxed enough to appreciate any of the above if I hadn't first gone to the effort of snipping all that fabric up, my quilt is also a reminder that sometimes the best way to calm your mind is to use your hands.

Next:10 Tips for Transitioning from Work to Vacation Mode

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Each week writer Susan MacCallum-Whitcomb will report on summer beach house life from her vacation home on Pictou Island, Nova Scotia. Follow along for a glimpse of the shore, plus tips on what to pack, how to entertain guests and how to relax at your own beach house.
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