Is it the natural abundance of vitamin D, or the energy boost of eating fresh foods, or those things we call vacations that remind us how life should be?

Everyone feels the happiness, the ease, of summer. This year I noticed something a bit new, though. I’ve spent the last several years developing a critique of current American “civilization” that began with a deepening awareness of the perilousness of climate change. It expanded–because I’m a critic by nature–to include my understanding of what Peak Oil was going to mean, to seeing the effects of our economic recession as a symptom of collapse, to a sense of the depth of cultural denial of the crisis. I’ve faced real despair about the path of human existence–not to put too fine a point on it! It’s been rough. And of course you’re all here with me, aren’t you?

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And then, the summer of 2010 dawned, and I was happy. I was happy despite the heat, the ongoing saga of building the JP Green House, and some pretty serious family trouble. I was so happy creating my garden (out of a weedy and abandoned city lot) that I charged out each morning at dawn to work, and a couple times nearly fainted in the heat around noon. I was so pleased with my handsome, quirky sons that I took endless photographs of them to post on Facebook. I took pleasure, even, in the premature demise of my car, which gave me the opportunity to join Zipcar, study bus routes, and buy cool biking gear.

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I think I discovered the practice of joy.

Or rediscovered. I know that joy is a practice, and not just a blessing randomly bestowed. The practice came alive for me through my garden, my children, my bicycle. But it was more noticeable in certain situations: Namely summer camp.

Now I’m a bit old for summer camp, but still I indulge. Each year my boys and I spend a week in Maine at a faith-based camp by the sea for families, where we sing, make art, worship and swim in the ocean with a crowd of regulars who come back every year at the same time. The other place I call “camp” is a family cottage in Woods Hole, on Cape Cod, where my sisters and I gather our seven children (ages 2-13) for a month by the sea. Woods Hole can be described in a nutshell: We do nothing; it’s divine.

These two experiences have certain qualities in common: They involve groups of people of all ages, allow almost no personal space, are based outdoors, and involve ample unstructured time for play, exercise and creativity.

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I hear people describe other such sweet places: Camps of all sorts, vacation homes, annual backpacking trips, music festivals. What they have in common are the same things I described above.
We retreat to these havens, have wonderful times, and we ask ourselves why all of life can’t be this way. Then we go home to the constricted lives we lead in school, at work, in the nuclear family (which I have come to feel is just too small to contain the big dramas of life.)

What internal forces of punishment deny us the life of an endless summer? It’s clear that we know how to live well, so why don’t we? We know that less is more, that the best things in life are not things. (Hey, cliches exist for a reason!) To top it all off is the clear fact that to live simply, in community, close to the land, is the very definition of sustainability.

And yes, Mom, I do realize we have to work, and that “life can’t be just one long vacation.”

I’d like to hear what you think. We seem to know exactly what we need–why don’t we make it happen?