My daughter Ariel and I recently returned from a week’s vacation in St. Augustine, Florida. Every morning, we walked the dew-drenched boardwalk to the beach to hunt for seashells and sea creatures that washed ashore during the night. We spent the afternoons lounging by the pool and soaking up the Florida sunshine. In between, we explored the shops, art galleries, and museums of our nation’s oldest city. At the end of the day, we either ventured out to find some local seafood fare or collaborated in our condo’s small kitchen to cook the fresh Mahi-Mahi and salad greens we bought at the Farmer’s Market in Anastasisa State Park. In one week, we spent more actual time together than we had in years. The experience was priceless.
Home now for a week, I keep feeling like something essential is missing from my day. Even though I am back among my familiar surroundings, I feel surprisingly displaced. At first I thought that I missed Florida, the beautiful beaches, the sun, the jellyfish floating in the foamy surf, but then I realized that what I really missed was the person I had been while on vacation. In Florida, I certainly felt freer and more relaxed. Other than the few hours before catching our plane, I worried less and enjoyed more. There had to be a way, I thought, to capture whatever magic I had experienced on vacation and bring it back into my “regular” life. I wondered, is it possible to live every day as if it were vacation?
Vacations have a certain mass appeal. Everybody wants one. We regard them as “special times” because they take us on adventures outside the realms of the ordinary, and who doesn’t love an adventure? When we are on vacation, we are more likely to try new things, to experience new places, and meet new people. Our mornings on vacation usually start more slowly. Perhaps we taste test a local coffee and pastry sitting on a lanai with a soft breeze warming the air. Without hurry, we consider the emerging day like a present waiting to be opened, an experience full of infinite possibility. For once, we actually take the time to decide what we want to do, rather than feeling tied to what we have to do. We begin each day with anticipation of nothing but good things ahead. We allow and take more time to enjoy the simple pleasures like the company and conversation of the people we love and care about. We are more likely to devote time to admire the natural surroundings—the color of sunrises and sunsets—watching the slow transitions of the day, which seem, in all their colorful glory, paramount to the vacation experience. We explore, discover, and make attempts to connect with place—the history, culture, and people that make it unique. We often stop along the way to evaluate our experiences, and when the day draws to a close, we reflect on what we have discovered; journal our day or review pictures we took along the way. Vacations can be likened to a living meditation.
Yet, all of these opportunities are also available to us every day, no matter where we are. But rarely do we take the same time to relish and appreciate all that surrounds us. We are usually either too stuck in our routines to wander very far from our well-beaten path, or simply too busy to notice the variety and beauty in our lives. Why do we have to leave home to take real living more seriously? As a word geek, I like to consider the meaning in the words we assign things like “vacation.” At its root, vacate means to remove one’s self from a place or situation. So when we plan a trip like the one I just took, I wonder, are we vacating to someplace new and exotic, or really just away from someplace that has lost its luster, and in our ignorance, become dull and boring? Some might believe that we leave home because we want to escape the uneventful lives we are living, that we are bored, restless, or perhaps numb to what we have chosen. And that may be partly true, but I think that the desire to leave home may have spiritual roots as well. Even if our travel seems on the surface simply a leisure trip, we will be changed along the way.
My friend Julie recently took a trip to India with her 25–year-old son and I asked her how she thought she had been affected by her experience. She told me that she felt completely out of control while travelling there. She explained, in a country like India, she could not fall back on what she knew. The more she tried to take control of any situation, the more frustrated she became because the problem-solving strategies and coping means she was familiar with at home didn’t work in Tiruvannalamia. She had to surrender to awkward situations, a language barrier, and cultural differences too large to navigate. Even something as simple as how to eat with proper etiquette proved to be a great challenge. Whether she wanted to, or not, she had to surrender to India. She was forced (by frustration and failure) to give up her control. If even for a few days, she had to trust that her humanity would get her by; not her wits, her intelligence, or strength, but her vulnerability and faith in the connectedness of humans everywhere.
Immersed in our day-to-day lives, the illusion of control can seem very real. In general, we can expect most of our days to look very similar and for the people around us to act in a fairly consistent manner the majority of the time. Luckily, most of us can also handle some amount of unpredictability in our lives, as long as the background doesn’t change too much. But when we enter unfamiliar territory, we must learn to adapt to new ways of doing and being and let go of what we already know. Vacations require an open mind. Being pushed beyond our realm of control, we often learn that our limits are not as firm as we once believed, that we can indeed trust the world around us, and that the humans we encounter are just that, human-beings, a friendly breed. Perhaps these are lessons we can eventually learn in the confines of our own homes, but being “on vacation,” without the resources and comforts of our familiar, the process is certainly expedited. And that, my friends, is why we seek adventure–to experience the other parts of our being that we know exist, but are kept carefully hidden behind our solid façade of control.
And in between the times when we are lucky enough to get away, we can make every day more like our vacations. We can learn to tone down our desire to control the people and events in our lives, and allow the warp and weave of the Universe to affect and direct us more often. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating we ditch our regular routines and take up a willy-nilly approach to life. That would be insane. Rather, I am suggesting that we bring an entirely new perspective to how we approach our days on a regular basis. Within the framework of our lives, we can create pockets that allow us to decorate, color, bedazzle, and embellish the basic structure of our days. Stretching our boundaries allows us to grow as individuals, to add depth and breadth to our beings. Doing so simply makes life more interesting. When possible, we can slow down and take notice of what makes up the lives we have already created; not just to smell the proverbial roses, but to seek out new experiences, do mysterious things, and go unfamiliar places we would never encounter in our regular everyday routine. We can try a new ethnic restaurant and order a dish that is hard to pronounce. We can explore an obscure local museum where we might learn a thing or two about where we live. Perhaps we can take a class to learn to dance, paint, or speak in public. Joining a meet-up group could produce a new friend, maybe a new relationship. Take a different route home from work. Shake it up; work it loose. You might surprise yourself and befriend a hot-pink jellyfish that needs to hitch a ride back to the water. Perhaps you might oblige.