On The Certainty I Need

Hubby is busy planning our fall vacation to California, picking the best places in Los Angeles and San Diego to visit. In addition to spending time with family, including meeting our precious new niece, we’ll relax at Disneyland and check in at the adoption agency for the latest update on our own adoption efforts. Beyond that, I have no idea what we will do, but I’m leaving the rest to him. Turning over our trip planning to my husband has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Sure, I’ve taken some amazing trips because of it, but, more importantly, I haven’t gotten my way.

Left to my own devices, there is exactly zero percent chance I would have traveled to Guatemala or Peru, or to Sedona, Arizona, or to Cape May, New Jersey, or even to the Brandywine Valley. Had those destinations crossed my mind, I would have acknowledged their interesting nature, and skated right on past. Having to compromise, though, resulted in a litany of incredible experiences, from the salt flats of Peru to the hotel nestled among volcanoes in Guatemala, from the classic boardwalk of Cape May to the red rock cliffs of Sedona. I found myself in awe of the beauty and uniqueness of each stop. The unexpected nature of my enjoyment often heightened the adventure. With every trip, I grew to understand that experiences outside my comfort zone reaped far greater rewards than those inside it.

Openness to new things is a type of flexibility,  and I fear our culture’s “progress” can, at times, stifle our flexibility. Our technology renders our daily lives more controlled, less unpredictable. Drive without our GPS and cell phones? No way.  Skip a text message and actually call someone on the phone, risking a demanding interpersonal exchange? No thanks. It’s all around us; the conveniences, the efficiencies, the progress. Along the way, we have greater control and greater knowledge, but fewer surprises and fewer incentives to wing it. Why risk a random restaurant when its Yelp review is so readily available? After all, if the meal is bad, we may not eat again for something like six whole hours.

So much of adult life — done right — is about planning and minimizing risk. We save for retirement; we guard our health and vitality via diet and exercise; and we order our lives by ideals of right and wrong to, in part, maximize the social contract by which we live together. And so, at times, it doesn’t feel natural to “go along for the ride,” to let someone else choose, to choose the unknown and risk our precious time, control, and independence. Nevertheless, the unexpected can bring unmatched rewards, a loosening of narrow boundaries, and an exposure to ideas and beauty that we otherwise would not anticipate. A solid sense of self is key to maturity, but too much rigidity and inflexibility and our lives become constrained, hemmed in by nothing more than our unwillingness to live a bigger, broader, richer life.

I’m rather fond of the admonition to not live the same year eighty times and call it a life. I am, admittedly, a creature of habit and enjoy my comforts, but I’ve also learned the great joy in trying something new, even if it’s a little scary, a little out of my comfort zone. And, so, in a few weeks, I’ll head off on vacation not quite certain of anything other than it will be wonderful, and that’s just about all the certainty I need.

On A Cookie in the Queen’s Kitchen

Hubby and I just completed a wonderful tour of London and Paris. We stayed in beautiful hotels, toured castles and palaces, and came face to face with works of art and architecture that reflect no less than the pinnacle of human creativity and genius. So, after ten days spent touring the height of culture, what’s the moment that my mind keeps returning to? But of course, eating a cookie on a wooden bench.

At Hampton Court Palace — most famously one of the royal residences of Henry VIII — Queen Elizabeth I’s kitchen has been converted into a public tea room. I’m not sure how she would take such commoners, but after hours of standing in portrait galleries and walking through the palace, the simple wooden benches felt blissfully soft to this member of the hoi polloi.  The red-eye flight over the pond, followed by several days of touring had taken their toll. London had enchanted me, but, at this point, my aching back and feet yanked my head out of the clouds and cried out for a pause that refreshes.

I grabbed a cookie and a hot chocolate from the kitchen, and sat across the table from Hubby to enjoy a few moments of peace, quiet, and rest. Then, a funny thing happened. I nibbled on my cookie, and my shoulders began to drop. My back and feet felt better. My peripheral vision came back. Untethered from the responsibilities of work and normal life, my mind came to rest on the very real fact that I was sitting in a 500 year old palace, across a table from the love of my life, eating a tasty cookie. I was on a quite grand adventure, inconceivable and inaccessible to most through history, but there I was, surely with the remnant of a chocolate chip smudged on the corner of my mouth. An unremarkable moment where life just feels unassailably profound and good and uncomplicated.

It’s one of those moments where all the tumblers of your soul fall into place, a bookmark moment in your life, seemingly banal but extraordinary in the millions of choices and chances that brought you to that point. I smiled at Hubby and watched him eat his treat, knowing he had no idea I had just dropped a psychic anchor in that moment.

Those moments of clarity never happen when you think they might. It’s not during the graduation ceremony or the religious service; rather, it’s when you pick up the baked beans from the grocery shelf or fold the underwear from the laundry. You’re yanked out of the mundanity of the moment and locked into a deeper conversation with yourself, a personal inventory of your trials and triumphs, scars and scores. Suddenly, everything makes sense, the prose becomes a little more poetic, and we momentarily grab the live wire of life. You can’t plan it, you can’t force it, you just enjoy it when you’re lucky enough to experience it.

Over ten days, I encountered beauty in almost every conceivable form. I encountered great wealth, great power, and great achievement. I marveled at two world-class cities, and humbled myself before works of indescribable exquisiteness. But none matched that cookie on that wooden bench across from my husband. That’s the moment I’ll remember.