The alarm sounds at 4am, so we can begin the two-day road trip to our annual beach vacation before sunrise.
Every year, I look forward to this sandy-footed, salty-aired, sunny-skied week of respite and restoration. Glorious sunrises over the Atlantic. Bike rides in the morning through dunes and forests. Buckets of beach fries for lunch, dripping with vinegar. Diving into cold, crashing waves with the kids. Lazy afternoons of book reading. Crab feasts at night. I love our annual beach vacation.
It is everything I want my life to be.
So, when the alarm goes off at 4am, and I notice a scratchy, perhaps Covid-like feeling in my throat, I panic. I try to ignore it while I stuff suitcases into the trunk and hitch bikes to the back of the car.
Illness is not what I want my vacation to be.
During the long car ride, the discomfort in my throat recedes, but its replaced by a different kind of disappointment the next morning. I wake up to discover Marcus Mumford has released a new single from his first solo project. Mumford & Sons has always released great beach music, so I eagerly tap on the track. The new song is the heart-wrenching story of Marcus’s sexual abuse as a child. I turn it off mid-song.
Pain and heartache is not what I want my week to be.
Our stopover is planned around my wife’s grandfather’s 95th birthday, so we pick him up from his long-term care facility and take him to my mother-in-law’s house, where we start discussing dinner plans. He wants veal meatballs from a local Italian restaurant, and almost everyone else wants to get take-out from there as well. However, I’ve had my heart set on a particular local gastropub since our last visit.
Italian is not what I want my meal to be.
So I hatch a plan—we’ll have dinner delivered for some from the gastropub, and I’ll pick up the food from the Italian restaurant for others. An hour later, all of the food is there and the Italian food looks amazing. The sandwich I’d been reimagining for a year looks like a cold, dried brick of something inedible.
Cold, dried brick is not what I want my night to be.
I can’t explain what happens next, except to say that grace rushes in and saves me from my mind. I’m sitting there, grinding away at my sandwich and my thoughts, when I look up and see my grandfather-in-law slowly savoring each and every bite of his veal. He lost his wife of 72 years last November. He is quick to tell you that almost everyone he’s known is gone and he’s almost entirely alone. And yet here he is, finding perfect joy in a morsel of meat and marinara sauce.
There’s a soundtrack to the scene, too. It’s my wife and daughter and mother-in-law laughing uproariously at perhaps the crudest joke any 95-year-old has ever told, cackling at their own inside jokes, and laughing about how much they’re laughing until they’re crying and almost peeing their pants. My mother-in-law has buried three husbands. Like her father, life has not gone the way she wants. And yet here they are, four generations of a family around a table, sounding like joy in spite of it all. I take out my phone and send a text message to myself which will anchor me for the rest of the vacation:
Don’t miss the sacredness of any moment by wishing it was some other way.
We have preferences for how we want our lives to be. We want them to bring us pleasure but not pain. We want them to turn out one way and not another. We have a whole list of outcomes and experiences and sensations and thoughts and feelings we call good, and another list of such things we call bad. When life gives us things from the first list, we open up to it. And when it gives us things from the second list, we close our hearts to it. A year and a half ago I decided I was going to open my heart to whatever life sent my way, and it powerfully transformed every moment of it. Recently, I stopped doing so, and the transformation was equally as powerful.
Powerful enough to ruin a treasured beach vacation, one unwanted moment at a time.
So, sitting there at the dinner table, I renew my resolve to watch the condition of my heart, and when it begins closing to an experience, I’ll put my hand over the tightening feeling in my chest and breathe deeply into that space, until I can feel it relax. Until I can feel my heart open. I do this over and over again throughout the next week, and nothing changes around me, but something changes inside me. It’s peace, welling up like a fountain.
I listen to Marcus Mumford’s new song on repeat, and weep for it, and there is room in me for both salty seawater and salty tears.
We want many things in life, but the truth is, we mostly just want them because we believe they will bring us peace and joy. However, in the wanting of them—in the insisting on them—we often push peace and joy even further away, or further down inside of us. Sometimes we have to give up what we think we want to get what we really want:
Joy and peace, like a wellspring within us.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.