Being here, exactly where I am, shouldn’t be hard. In fact, it is impossible to be anywhere else, at least physically. Every time I go on vacation however, it takes two or three days for my whole self to arrive – this time, here was camping with my family. Even on the shore of a big lake, sun pressing on us, warm sand holding our feet, I’m mentally checking where we are “supposed” to be, what we “should” be doing, or anticipating where we need to be that isn’t here.
A few days in, my anxiety and irritability hit a peak – unfortunately for those who happen to be on vacation with me – and then they begin to retreat. Somehow, my cells get the notice that we are on vacation, and I stop checking my watch, worrying about bedtime, insisting on routine. The sinking feeling that I have forgotten something disappears, and I know that I am fully here, available to what is right now.
When I arrived where I was last week, the kids were happily hunting for beautiful rocks under perfectly clear water at 9:30 in the morning, a half hour boat ride from the campsite. A conversation with friends from a few months before rang in my ears as I stood in the cool water. We had been talking about catching up on rest and relaxation on vacation, and I had said two things that I didn’t know I thought until I heard them come out of my mouth. First, with three small kids, I felt like vacation was just as much or more work than ordinary life because the changes to their routine require a lot of energy both in advance planning and in being with them in unfamiliar experiences. Second, I remember saying that I am trying to live so that I don’t need a rest from my life, since I so rarely get time away anyway.
I’m not alone on that first thought that vacation is a lot of work. I regularly hear people say they need a vacation to recover from their vacation. Other parents share wonderful stories about the effort they put in to making special memories with their families. Cabin owners tell me about getting to the lake to mow the grass and saving to replace a leaky roof at the lake. Ask any mother how much work camping is: we pack up all the things we need to eat, sleep, work, and play – things that are readily accessible at home – and move them to a small outdoor space to do the things we would be doing at home, plus itching and unfamiliar sleeping arrangements.
I’m more of a hotel and blow dryer kind of woman, but I camp so that my children will discover a love of nature, have memories of hunting frogs and swimming in seaweed, and falling asleep exhausted with marshmallow crusted in their eyebrows. And I am learning to love the camping, to pack the stuff and do the work with more joyful anticipation than premeditated resentment because these little people and their wonder at shiny rocks is a school for me in the art of being here. It takes effort for me to be present to what surrounds me here and now, to let go of the past and stop mapping out my future, let alone everyone else’s. I guess that is why presence is a spiritual discipline.
The second thought that traveled from the kitchen to the beach surprised me. I want to live so that I do not need a break from my life. I have been getting more sleep, saying no more often, and practicing gratitude to stay more present. I can specifically pinpoint the moments when I have felt like I arrived “here” on my vacations for the last several years, and with greater frequency, I notice when I show up fully in my everyday life. But I realized, standing on the beach smiling at my kids playing, that I have not become more attentive to how and when I check out of here, to the habits, attitudes and behaviours that rob me from the present. I need to pay attention to what makes me run.
I left the campsite last week to fly to a conference where I get to sit at the feet of others and soak in their wisdom. In ways I haven’t felt before, I can feel the temptation to escape from here in list making and scheduling the coming weeks, in “shoulds ” and “have-tos”. The pull to being busy, putting pressure on myself, and expecting perfection is gravitational for me. Being present to the people here, to making time to rest well, to giving space for walking and thinking and nothing is an act of resistance, an art I want to become second nature in my ordinary life.
Being here looks no different on the outside than being not here; it feels different. It feels like there is enough time, like this challenge is interesting instead of suffocating, like God is with me and I am not alone. So I am going to practice being here now. I’m going for a walk.