15: Time to Relax

My stomach is cramping and my eyes are teary. I can’t get out of the fetal position and every time I try to speak, I’m gasping for breath.

It’s like that, with me and my brother. We laugh so hard we cry, and hurt, and can’t move and can’t speak and can’t do anything, but keep laughing.

We’re in a motel room, during a rare moment of downtime, blocks from the entrance to Disneyland park. We’re watching Patrick Ewing being interviewed on T.V and making ridiculous jokes about the Main Street Electrical Parade. It’s the summer before seventh grade and my family is on the last vacation we ever took together.

None of us know how the next two, six, fifteen years, will change us.

We never do.

Every year of my childhood my dad planned an elaborate, intellectually enriching, family vacation. He had the same two weeks off every year, the last week of July, and the first week of August. They were the only consecutive days, all year where I saw my dad for both breakfast and dinner.  The only family movie nights and daytime adventures and father-son time spent without the yelling, and the homework.

We traveled for exactly ten days and covered between five and eight thousand miles, depending on the destination. We’d fly somewhere domestically, then put as many miles on the rental car as the company allowed, before we outright owned the thing.

We visited a museum dedicated to the artwork of Salvador Dali and another showcasing swords from a spectrum of historical eras and geographic locations. We walked inside Louisa May Alcott’s house and the one with the Seven Gables. We learned about the Salem Witch trials and how Francis Scott Key wrote the national anthem. There were dinosaur remains and scientific phenomena and alligators, eerily close to us, in the Florida everglades. Exotic fish and rare, northwestern mega-fauna, and every Smithsosonian there is, in a single day.

All before I was 12 years old.

In high school, when most of my friends failed it,  I got a “5” on the AP history exam for no reason other than I walked all two and a half miles of Boston’s freedom trail, in size 3 tennis shoes, during the summer of 1995.

We worked for the time we spent at amusement parks, and lounging on the beach. The activities and imagery that define most families’ leisure time, amounted to mere footnotes on our rigorous itinerary.

Every meal had meaning, and every minute had a purpose, and beginning on our visit to Lancaster Pennsylvania, my dad woke us up at Sunrise, every morning with a quote from the movie “Witness.”

“4:30, time for milking.”

Back then, all I knew about my dad is that he had a demanding job and a rare, eccentric personality. I figured our hyper-scheduled family vacations were more a product of who he was, rather than how he did things. To me, the bizarre destinations, long driving stretches and multiple lodging changes were an expression of his uniqueness, more than anything else.

In my adulthood, I spend more time with my dad. We talk and email and share meals where I learn about his life through stories and reflection. I’ve pieced together my childhood memories of him: cleaning car windshields while our extended family is gathered inside around coffee and donuts and the Indianapolis 500; inviting my brother and I to accompany him to the hardware store, plant trees in the backyard or pick weeds from the garden on his days off; fixing appliances or building new toys at my grandparents’ house while everyone else is napping on Christmas morning; and, of course, his relentless pursuit of activity during family vacations.

My dad can’t relax.

He is constantly engaged in a project or challenging task. He only sits when he’s sleeping and he’s uncomfortable with small talk and casual conversation.

He lives to work, even when he’s not working.

Three months ago, when I left my own demanding job, I assumed everything in my life would slow down. I thought the free-time and the deep breaths and the lazy Sundays would show up, automatically. I was exhausted, and over-committed and in a constant state of fear that I was forgetting something important. I was answering emails, in my mind, on my yoga mat and rushing out of class with my head down, determined to avoid any conversation that would delay the checking off of the next item on my to-do list.

I was living to work, even when I wasn’t working.

Anytime I share something about my dad with my friend Parker, he has the same response:

“That nut didn’t fall very far from the tree, did it?”

And sure enough, two weeks after I stopped being a lawyer, I was still running, and running, at full speed. I was measurably happier but still incapable of rest and relaxation. I worked fewer hours but filled the space on my schedule with things to accomplish and energetically aggressive activities.

I mapped out each day with a rigorous,  ambitious itinerary.

I still do.

What I remember most about my family vacations are the sounds and feelings in the spaces between the scheduled events: Cracking inside jokes with my brother while we both rode patiently in the back seat; curled up on the floor of the hotel room, re-capping the days events; important life-talks at the edge of the Northern Atlantic Ocean, with sandy hair and half-zipped wet suits.

The uncontrollable laughter and the quiet comfort of recovering from an adventurous day.

What I remember most about my life are the sounds and feelings in the spaces between the scheduled events: Delirious conversations with my best friend, right before bed; sprawled on the floor with my college roommates entrenched in an important feminist dialogue, then suddenly wondering whether Foster’s Freeze is still open; circled up with my camp kids, reliving beautiful moments from another unforgettable summer. Sitting in the dark in Nick’s living room, laughing hysterically at each other, for no reason at all.

The tears. The silence. The long, deep hugs.

Most days it requires my patience, and focus and renewed dedication.

To live fully in the spaces between the demands of my life. To soak up the beauty, the value, the memories, created in the time to relax.

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