5 Lessons of Vacation

The family and I spent the first week or so of August at the beach. We continued our vacation at home. All in, the last couple of weeks have been full of family time, rest, and preparation for the year to come. It is hard to believe it, but the new school year is only a week away.

There is a lot happening right now. That feels like a sentence I have typed every week for the last two years. The repetition does not make it any less true. There is so much happening for all of us all the time.

I feel called to bear witness. I want to lean into seeing the injustice of the world. The pain and suffering of so many. Whether it is the collapse in Afghanistan, the earthquakes in Haiti, the division and dysfunction of our own country, or the global catastrophe that is climate change. There is so much that is important. And so much that is personally devastating and difficult without ever looking outside of our home. Or ourselves.

In the context of (looks around) ... all this ... vacation feels at first blush like wasted time or energy. It's not. While I feel called to bear witness and help where I can make the most impact, I am also acutely aware that I can't fix everything. Our problems are too big, and most feel too far gone, to do anything about. I can call out what I see. I can share the burden. But I can't fix it.

And constant vigilance extracts an emotional toll. You end up losing parts of yourself to despair and anger. Sometimes, you put the very best parts of yourself at risk.

Vacation - and other self-care - is not a luxury in this emotional environment. It is a necessity. We must go on vacations (even if they are daydreams) to keep ourselves sane. Vacations, and the lessons we learn on them, are critical to our mental and physical health. Without the things we learn on our voyages, we have even less to support and guide us through the dark, enchanted forest of life in the 21st century... and all that comes with it.

This week, I am sharing 5 Lessons of Vacation. All the photos are from our week at Carolina Beach.

Lesson #1

Don't bring sand to the beach.

One of my favorite Onion articles of all time is about a mom that goes on vacation with her family and does all of the same things that she normally does, just closer to the ocean. Anyone who has gone to the beach with kids can relate. You are still responsible for all the stuff you normally are, only in an unfamiliar place with (in our case) shitty Wi-Fi.

But it's not just parents who feel this. Have you ever said, "I need a vacation from my vacation"? It happens to all of us.

That's because we go on vacation, or enter self-care, with the idea that it will be like our everyday experience. We have patterns and habits we like. Things that feel familiar. And it makes sense to incorporate some of that into vacation. I am not trying to spend a whole week with Justin and not have Peppa Pig. I'm just not.

And. Vacation is best when it is new, when it is different. Don't bring sand to the beach. There is plenty there already. Branch out, do something new, something different. Eat food you have never eaten. Try things you haven't tried. Part of the joy of vacations is feeling new feelings and having new experiences. Lean into that.

Lesson #2

Have a bikini? Got a body? Then you have a bikini body.

For most of my life, I was in great shape. Not good shape, great shape. One of my favorite commanders in the 82d Airborne Division used to tell us that as paratroopers, we were professional athletes. Our brains might win fights, he said. But it was our bodies that got us there and made it happen. I took fitness seriously and worked hard at it.

The day I left the military I was exhausted mentally and physically. I remember distinctly saying that I would never run again unless I was being chased. I wanted to have nothing to do with any reminder of my military life, especially exercise. So, I stopped. Completely. And the effect was profound. Slowly at first, then all at once.

I gained 50 pounds. My clothes no longer fit. I have a dad bod.

And honestly, it can be kind of embarrassing.

When I fold laundry, I marvel at the sheer amount of fabric it takes to make my underwear. I sometimes catch a sideways glance of myself in the mirror and immediately think "wow, holy shit, I have really let myself go." I don't think of the mental health challenges. I don't think of the time it takes to be a stay-at-home dad. I just think I look like hell.

But as I stood on the beach, I had a sudden realization. I may be big, but I am not unhealthy. All my lab numbers are as good as they have ever been. There is nothing unhealthy about my weight. There is just a lot of it.

I realized that I am more worried about how I look than anyone else is. They have their own shit to worry about. We all spend far more time thinking about ourselves than almost anyone else does. We consistently overestimate how much people think about us.

Wear the bikini. You are hot as hell.

Lesson #3

It can wait.

What's the longest you have ever stayed awake? In the military, 24 hour duty is a common thing. And it was not at all unusual for us to stay up 36, 48, or even longer on a mission. My personal record is about 65 hours. I can tell you from personal experience that after about 30 hours with no sleep, you aren't much good to anyone.

Why do we sleep? It is a mystery. There seems to be no real physical need to sleep, but the impacts of a lack of sleep are immediate and obvious. So why do we do it?

Researchers at Harvard Medical School suggest that sleep helps our brain process the inputs it receives during our waking hours. Sleep allows it to categorize and consolidate memories. We have to take a break from receiving input to properly organize the things that happen to us. This processing is critical.

News cycles continue during vacation. Work drama moves on. Extended family bullshit will be there. It will all be there. All of it. When you come back to the "real world" after a week at the beach, or even 20 minutes of meditation, all that stress and drama will still be there. Vacation doesn't magically make it go away.

What vacations CAN do is give our entire selves a chance to do what our brain does during sleep. Slowing down allows us to better process, organize and consolidate our many inputs. Part of the reason the pandemic has been so stressful and challenging is because it did not allow us the chance to take a break. To breathe. To process.

Whatever it is that is happening when you go on vacation will be there when you get back, but you might not have the chance to rest and reflect.

Lesson #4

Productivity < People

Late stage global capitalism has caused us to lose a lot of things. The environment. Our sense of place. Our connection to the things that sustain us.

The thing that has been among the most damaged is our way of relating to one another. We have come to see our fellow human beings in utilitarian, almost Machiavellian, terms. Can someone help us personally, politically, professionally? We will probably invest in that relationship. If they can't.... It's an open question how it will go.

It has also warped our sense of our personal value. We only feel like we are doing something "good" or virtuous if we are constantly busy, constantly challenging ourselves. In our culture, hustle is often seen as a proxy for worth.

This is, of course, patently ridiculous.

Vacation helps remind us that people are more important than productivity. What matters in the end is the quality and depth of the relationships we have with others, not our bank account, our win/loss record, or the size of our boat.

It has become a meme, but the most important thing really is the friends we have made along the way.

Lesson #5

It's good to go on vacation. And it is great to come back home.

On our trip to the beach, we wore masks everywhere we went indoors - store, restaurants, anywhere that wasn't outside. We tried to eat at places that had outdoor seating and only went two places where we had to be inside. In both cases, we wore masks except when eating or drinking.

Everyone on our trip that was eligible was fully vaccinated. The only one who isn't is Justin, a fact that literally keeps me up at night with school looming in just two weeks.

All in all, we followed scientific guidance to help reduce our chance of infection and (just as critically) the chance that we might infect someone else.

It felt like we were the only people in the entire eastern half of North Carolina (from Johnston County east) who did any of these things.

There were no masks, no attempt at distancing. Lots of vaping. Everyone was acting like it was just another summer. It was.... disconcerting.

One of the reasons we were excited to come home was to be back in a community that at least feels reality based. Because I gotta tell you, being outside the Chapel Hill bubble is an exercise in gaslighting.

I know I give this place a lot of shit (and will continue to) and Chapel Hill is crazy AF lots of times. And I criticize because I love it here. It is home. Full stop. And for all the wackiness that can happen here, my heart literally felt lighter when I saw the Chapel Hill town limits sign, and lighter still when Barb and I went to Wegmans, and everyone had a mask on.

It is good to go on vacation. It can be great to be home.

As you move forward into your week, I hope that each of you finds your own vacation place. Some small corner of peace during all that is happening.

Be well y'all.

Keep pounding the rock.