Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Living on vacation

It’s sad how we spend very little of our lives actually living. The days seem to overfill with planning, as if to-do lists and schedules have a mind of their own. We go from one task to the next, always working, never completing. And at the end of it all we wonder why life passed us by.

This past weekend, Eric and I packed up the kids and the RV to check out a new campsite we’d heard about. It was another thing on the list that needed to get done. We chose a spot by the stream, a spot where we could hear the rushing water as we went to sleep at night, a spot too beautiful for the passing glance we gave it as we rushed about setting up our camp.

I had an agenda. I’m sure you’ve heard of it, and probably tried to follow it yourself in the past. The “Relaxing Weekend” agenda. We were going to go on hikes as a family, have picnics, sit by the river and watch nature. There was going to be at least one barbeque, at least one night spent drinking wine at the picnic table after the kids went to bed, and at least one morning spent sipping coffee and watching the sunrise. It would be memorable, it would be enjoyable, it would be that great weekend we always talked about later.

Except great weekends cannot be planned, because plans fall apart, especially plans where you try to script perfection. I clung to my preconceived notions of relaxation, so tightly I found myself whining by day two, complaining that our perfect weekend was not going as perfectly as planned. There had been no family hikes, no picnics, none of the memorable moments I’d expected to have. Eric told me to take a hike, and I don’t think he meant so I could check it off my list.

There was a playground a little further downstream, an old wooden one with a tire ladder like they used to make when I was a kid. Carter was obsessed by this playground. That’s all he wanted to do. “Go to the park.” It was his idea of perfection. Because he is three and because hiking with a toddler usually means hiking with a toddler on your shoulders, we ended up spending most of our weekend at this playground. I fought it hard in the beginning, because it wasn’t fitting into my plan. But then, late into day two, a strange thing started happening that never seems to happen at home.

I started to forget about schedules. I opened my eyes and let the day unfold around me. I didn’t try to shape it or force it or turn it into something it wasn’t: I just enjoyed it for what it was.

There was a little girl around ten who ran over every time we showed up at the slide. I will always remember her smile, the slap of her shoes on cement, how much she liked playing with my son. She had long blond hair, gold glasses, and a heart you could see right through. Her smile for us was shy, but her smile for Carter was true.

One warm evening as we were getting ready to go, Eric spotted a few lizards lying out on the sand. He spent an hour teaching Carter how to catch them, taking him down to the stream to find long, supple branches to tie into traps. They lay on their bellies for longer than I’ve ever seen my son stay still, trying to loop the nooses around the necks of the sleeping lizards. Carter almost caught one. Eric was more impressed by this than he’s been by the other developmental milestones. I’d never seen him so proud.

Brody and I sat in the sun on a blanket watching them, letting the wind redden our cheeks and tear our eyes. I watched my baby play with a flower, transferring it from hand to hand, feeling its petals, learning its smell. I only took it away when he tried to eat it, and then only after I’d let him have a taste. Eric brought over his catch, a lizard with a belly as blue as the night sky. I remembered how he used to do this when we dated, how he’d taught me to make my own noose out of a branch so thin the lizards won’t know it’s there. Sometimes the things that impress you most about a person are the least expected.

It was a perfectly memorable weekend, and there was no surprise when Eric rolled over on the morning of our last day there to tell me that he didn’t want to go home. I didn’t either. I didn’t want to return to plans and lists and days that fly by in a blink. I didn’t want to be too busy to know my family.

I don’t know how to bottle those moments, I only know they cannot be planned. They can never be expected or demanded. They must be savored. And perhaps in those few subtle seconds, when we are living and not just doing, we learn more about life than any years could ever teach us.