My family and I were lucky enough to travel to Europe for a few weeks this summer. We had an amazing time in England, France, Spain and Italy. Of course we had all the usual European vacation fun: jet-lag, long days of walking and public transit, crowded subways, amazing meals and those we couldn’t stomach, getting lost, eating too many croissants and too much gelato, the ongoing search for wifi and vegetarian food, and then some. But I was also offered the opportunity to wake up, again and again, to the gift of the present moment. To look deeply into the ordinary moments of family travel and discover the gems that are usually laying right under the surface. All we have to do is be awake.
Every day was a new adventure—even the one day in Paris when the kids were sick and we stayed in the apartment most of the day. When traveling with little ones this would be par for the course, but teenagers? I thought we’d be out and about and on-the-go the whole trip! I had to adjust my expectations and get intimate with the present moment. That day in Paris gave me the opportunity to sink into my mindfulness practice a little bit deeper. I had my own adventure in letting go and acceptance. Here we were in Paris, with two sick kids, and I had the choice to be upset and angry, to go exploring without them (bonus of traveling with older kids!), and/or to enjoy the present moment and accept what life was serving up that day. I ended up doing a little bit of each one, but mostly sank into an acceptance of the present moment and made the best of it. I caught up on my travel journal, wrote some postcards, did laundry, and had a nap in our quaint Parisian apartment. How lucky I was to have this down-time to putter about and relax!
Every day offered a new opportunity for gratitude, acceptance, and caring for the people I was with. We each had our moments of excitement, exhaustion, irritability and calm, and a lot of other moods and emotions. Family vacations can bring out the worst in us, and they can also be an opportunity to deepen our practice and open our hearts wider. I was tired most of the trip because I wasn’t sleeping well and I was expending extra energy supporting our two teens as they struggled with walking for miles and miles each day, new food choices, language barriers, jam-packed subway rides, thunderstorms, etc. I found myself reaching into a store of patience and gentleness to support my kids through these experiences.
On one particularly sardine-like subway ride through Barcelona my son and I were squeezed so tight I thought one of us was going to have a panic attack. We talked about staying calm and breathing slowly. We maintained eye contact and had a quiet conversation about the sounds and voices we were hearing all around us. There were many languages being spoken with a tiny smattering of English in the mix. A large group of young school kids got on and further smooshed us into each others’ bodies and the collective body of the subway. The kids were very loud. It was sensory overload to the max. I couldn’t see or hear my husband and my daughter. I was looking my fears of crowds, power outages, violence and terrorism right in the eye. A potentially very frightening and stressful event. By being present in the moment with my teen son I learned a few very important things:
1) His ability to stay calm was directly related to my ability to stay calm,
2) His memory of being 10 and on a crowded subway in Mexico City trumped this experience as “worse” and so this experience wasn’t bothering him much
3) My sensory-sensitive son with exceptional hearing was more relaxed with foreign languages filling up his space than his native language. He explained to me that since he couldn’t understand it, he didn’t have to listen to it or process it, so the voices became like white-noise to him.
Without the mindful attention and gentleness we brought forth in this situation I would never have learned these things about my son. Nor would I have emerged from that subway ride exhilarated, connected, present and ready for more.
There were also the times when my “vacation practice” was more about opening my heart and mind to be blown by magic and love. One of the first nights of the trip we were at a large hostel in London and our 12-year-old daughter had jet-lag induced insomnia. Of course, I was awake too because she kept talking to me, complaining, and crying. Eventually, after many attempts at soothing her, we got up and went down the long hall, past the elevators, through another hall to the women’s bathroom. We were greeted by the sound of several women in the showers singing at the top of their lungs. We stopped in our tracks, frozen from the beauty of this because what we heard was a group of Muslim women singing in Arabic the most beautiful songs and laughing together after each song. Their colorful wraps hung on hooks for the moment, veils cast off in the privacy of a female space. I said to my daughter: “Listen. This is a beautiful moment. This is freedom. This is love. This is sisterhood. This is community.” I wanted to explain how different their culture is from ours and some other things I learned about Muslim women when traveling in Turkey many years ago, but she was exhausted, and I was soaking in the moment trying to sear it into my memory for all eternity. So I stood still, enjoying their song, then moved quietly away and left them to their privacy.
And then there was that time on the beach in Italy… magical.
And when we found this perfectly-shaped heart rock.
And a million other moments that opened my heart and deepened my practice.
My spiritual practice now that we’re home is to hold the sweetness of travel and vacation in my daily life. To hold the calm trust that things will unfold as they should… the openness to meeting new people… accepting the offerings of the present moment…. caring gently for the ones you’re with…the slower pace of moving through the day… the satisfaction of trying something new… the creative flow that a shift in perspective brings…. to hold it in my now. my here. 🙏