Scene4 Magazine: Michael Bettencourt
Michael Bettencourt
The Puritan Soul

This essay roots itself in a discussion with Marvelous Maria-Beatriz about vacations.  In our office, the boss gives us the first two weeks of August off as a kind of gift for having worked hard from the previous September.  The only problem with this is that the "world" still continues: phone calls come in, mail comes in, emails come in, problems must be resolved, and so on and so on.

Dealing with that falls to me, as the office manager, so I can never take those two weeks off.  I may get a day or so here and there, but generally I drag myself off the office to make sure the center still runs even though every one else is somewhere else.

The Marvelous MB chides me incessantly about this, insisting that I take the vacation time I've been handed. I smile, nod, murmur "You're right" — but I don't really believe it.

Because there is a part of me that likes not taking the vacation time, that likes going into the office when no one else is there and getting done the many projects I always have in hand, that enjoys the feeling of not giving into the luxury that everyone else has so readily indulged.

The odd-angled (some may say twisted) enjoyment, that is, felt by the puritan soul.

I've always felt that vacations were a cheat anyway — dispensations granted by corporate overlords so that the workers don't go completely revolutionary on them.  The return from a vacation has always depressed me — coming back to the unchanged conditions that made the vacation necessary in the first place, any centeredness or clarity immediately evaporated in the mosh pit of catching up with all that is unfinished and demanding attention.  Much prefer just skipping the whole charade.

I don't necessarily like my job, I don't necessarily enjoy being a wage slave, but I do enjoy the satisfaction that comes from accomplishing the tasks I set out for myself, even if those tasks are, on the face of it, mundane, dulling, insignificant.  Because, for the puritan soul, "work" is the thing that makes a life a human life — the physical/intellectual engagement with the stuff of the world in order to shape the world.  Just because much of the work we are forced to do these days is soulless and silly doesn't lessen its importance in how it feeds our concept of ourselves as active and consequential beings.  "To go to work" may not make me feel effervescent, but it does mean that I am a person with a place to go and a purpose to serve.

I also can't deny that there's also a bit of egotistical smugness here as well in not doing what everyone else has chosen to do, that I was the one that stayed connected while everyone else went off and disconnected themselves.  This self-satisfaction comes, in part, from the puritan soul's disdain for much of what passes as "life" in our modern corporatized culture, as a life given over to too much self-indulgence (obesity, iPods), and self-deception (Limbaugh, religion), intellectually and physically lazy, infantile in its demands that existence be fair or comprehensible or comforting.  Anything that grinds against that grain is grist for the puritan soul.

The puritan soul also aims for a simple design aesthetic — spare, clean-lined, restricted.  I see this in myself it ways that drive the Marvelous MB a bit crazy.  I have my rules: my coffee always goes in a certain ceramic mug I bought in Arlington (MA) that is embossed with a raven; my small eatables go on a square Japanese-figured plate; I use a certain spoon that has a wide rather than narrow bowl; my bowl for cereal comes from the same Arlington shop with the same raven figure. And many others.  The rules may seem constricted and constricting but, for me, they provide boundaries; boundaries provide topography; topography provides direction, if not certainty (and the uncertainty provides space for the occasionally necessary serendipity, just to keep things interesting and ironical).

The puritan soul has its trials.  Because at heart it is ironical, it can never take anything as settled or completely authoritative — it can only have faith in a faithless view of the world.  And simplicity is not such an easy discipline. Thoreau, in one of his journals, once said that learning how not to want was the hardest thing he had ever tried to do — doubly so in a culture like ours that feeds on turning every passing want into an insistent need that can then be marketed and sold.

But I like this soul — it fits me, it fits me into the world in a way that makes it possible for me to enjoy it without being seduced by it, to laugh at its imperfections without (too much) smugness because of all the imperfect beings around me, I head the list, and it is my imperfections that keep me balanced.

Back to the discussion about vacations.

The Marvelous MB and I will take a trip in September, to Argentina, but I will not consider it a vacation because, unless I come back to an unexpected fortune that allows me to quit my day job, I will not be able to "vacate" my employment. Instead, I look to make it a working vacation — not office work but lifework — no reason to suspend the rules, no reason to pretend I am living at a different pace in a different place, no reason to have re-entry problems when I return because I will not have been made lax by the trip.  Vacations are often focused too much on forgetting ourselves.  The puritan soul never wants to forget, it always wants to stay engaged.  And so off we will go.


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©2009 Michael Bettencourt
©2009 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Michael Bettencourt is a produced and published playwright and a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
Continued thanks to his "prime mate" and wife, Maria-Beatriz

For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives


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