Today’s the first day in a few I’ve had time to stop for a bit and breathe. I’m in Italy, sitting at a cafe in the plaza outside the Uffizi Museum, knocking back a cappuccino, and finishing the last bites of a fresh croissant, warm on the inside, flaky on the outside, dusted with powdered sugar and faintly flavored with orange. So you can see I’m suffering. THANK GOODNESS this trip isn’t like our last one to Italy. Those of you who’ve wandered around this blog for a while will understand the significance when I tell you my brain has been calm. THE MEDS ARE WORKING, in other words. HOT DAMN.
I’ve been running retreats at the Oregon Coast for several years, bringing in experts on writing, mindfulness, spiritual formation, and food and wine. This is our first international retreat, to Tuscany, Italy, with a small group of 14, taking the food and wine theme to the next level.
Imagine my relief that my brain’s not an asshole right now. Honestly, half of managing mental illness means staying on top of medical care and being diligent about making regular appointments whether I think it’s “bad enough” or not. The other half, I’m starting to suspect, is managing my own expectations about how my brain “should” behave and the anxiety I have over whether or not I’m going to be anxious. 🙄 I’m darling, friends. Just darling.
Yesterday, we had a four course dinner catered by the winery where we’re staying. It was as magnificent as you imagine, but the prize I value above good wine and stunning Tuscan food is, ever and always, human connection. We sat at a long table last night covered in plates and glasses and roses and bottles of wine grown and crafted and bottled within a few short meters of us, and we were LOUD. Laughing. Toasting. Telling ridiculous stories of our own human failures and shortcomings and giggling until our stomachs hurt. But the conversation that stands out here in the light of a new day was about expectations and travel and hopes realized or dashed. About money and how much we spend hoping for respite somewhere far from home. About how nervous we are about the things we don’t know and how to navigate new places and cultures to get our needs met without feeling out of place or ostracized or like we look stupid. About what we’re really after — experiences? Adventure? Memories? Or clear air and a path forward? An epiphany that will stick after we head home? A life lesson to carry with us always?
I thought about all the trips I’ve taken that I consider failures. The times I felt I’ve spent too much money and time and angst for too little a return on investment. The large family vacations where there was criticism and sighing and conflict and hurt feelings. The trips when my kids were small or my son with intellectual disability required constant care and supervision and melted down continuously, and I felt exhausted and alone and forced to maintain a happy facade for my own sake and the sake of others lest I ruin for them what felt ruined already for me.
But I’m beginning to understand now that each of those experiences, while I have no desire to repeat them, carried their own valuable lessons. In how to manage expectations; mine and others’. In demanding too much of myself and making incremental changes to honor what I can reasonably give. In taking a ruthless inventory of what I enjoy and what my family enjoys so we can find and focus on the places those intersect, rather than insisting one group or the other suffers sporadically. In traveling with groups large enough for a variety of social interaction (for Greg) and small enough not to feel overwhelmed (for me.) In unapologetically opting out of some activities (see also: Uffizi museum and sitting my butt down in a cafe instead) so my brain can rest and recharge.
Along the way, we’ve done some pretty unorthodox things, like no longer taking all our kids on vacation at once. Our son who experiences intellectual disability does best with one-on-one attention and a reliable routine. You know what’s the opposite of one-on-one attention and reliable routine? A vacation with five kids. So we do things separately with Ian now, and EVERYONE is thrilled. The way I thought family vacations Had to Be — all together, obvs — was shattered, and it took some time for me to adjust my mommy-brain around a new concept that didn’t force us all to be miserable together. But the New Thing, based in Reality and Lessons Learned and Meeting Actual Needs instead of forcing us into a culturally standard format I wanted to work but didn’t, is so much better. So. Much. Better. Like, infinitely. To the moon. BEYOND better, really. Because now we get to do things happily. It’s a game changer, I tell you.
And it makes me wonder… were those earlier trips when we were uncomfortable and angsty and miserable really mistakes? Or were they just another way to pay tuition for life lessons we could then either learn or reject? Were they opportunities to pay attention? Chances to re-evaluate our expectations and methods? To examine the box we’d placed ourselves in and ask ourselves whether there might be a way to think outside of it?
I found my life motto — or a version very closely related — in California recently.
Wrong Turn O.K.
Wrong turn? O.K.
Almost as if the circuitous route is fine.
Almost as if the bumpy path is the only real one available to humans.
Almost as if the crazy ride through the wilderness is the way to the elusive village.
Almost as if the strange turns we didn’t see coming aren’t actually wrong, in the end.
Almost as if Wrong Turns is just another way to say Turns.
So, friends — whatever turn you’re in at the moment, I want you to know I am, as always, waving in the dark.
P.S. Here’s one quick twinsie pic I took with my oldest kid. We do this periodically, just as a fun game for you, because we’re so hard to tell apart. In no particular order, here we are. One is Abby. One is me in Abby’s shirt. You decide who’s who, but don’t worry if you can’t tell or if you get it wrong. It’s a really hard game.
And here’s a side-by-side, in case you need extra time to study before making your guess.
P.P.S. We’re almost certainly doing another small international retreat next year, especially given how ridiculously fun this one already is. But we’re just now in the planning stages. If you have hopes and dreams of time of year and/or location/themes of international retreats you’d like to attend, do tell! We take suggestions seriously. And I’d LOVE to hang out with you.
P.P.P.S. Via the farm I co-own with my family, we’re also doing international youth trips. To see our current offering — to London with a Harry Potter themed trip at the end of October — head over to Cairns Farm.
P.P.P.P.S. AND we’re still doing our Oregon Coast retreats, as well. Only one left for 2019, in November, and it’s more than 2/3 full, so if you want a spot, we’d love to have you!
P.P.P.P.P.S. IMPORTANT — I need to make a gelato choice for this afternoon. Chocolate or lemon? Or head WAY out of the box and try a new flavor?? You already know, like I do, that the correct choice is All of the Above, EXCEPT that we have an enormous dinner planned in Florence at an amazing restaurant, and I’m afraid if I eat All the Gelato, I can’t also eat All the Dinner. CHOICES ARE HARD, friends. This is a cry for help.