Like Jungle Flowers

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My academic breaks pretty much never line up with my husband’s entrepreneur life. So over the years, typical breaks like spring break became a time I would stay home with the babies and heal them from that cough they caught at school or relieve them from the pace of a long school day. As they got older, we continued with this pattern, adding productive tasks like cleaning out closets and preparing for the next week.  They are getting older and our break-life is changing, and so am I.

On Friday of last week, I felt this crazy dread of the laundry-list of chores; I foresaw images of my productive energy feeling misspent on preparing for the next week instead of following the hum of this one. We were supposed to attend a wedding in Chicago, and when we could no longer go, my disappointment and my acknowledgement of what I did not want the week to be, caused me to make a change.

I googled “beaches in Georgia” and a few clicks and a state later, I booked a trip to Amelia Island with the kids. I’ve never been there before and never taken a long road trip with the kids by myself. The trip has felt like a momventure to me; if we got badges as humans, I’d get one in the shape of a wave for this one, and I’d try to iron it on before the iron was even hot enough. Like I imagine other peoples’ lives and wonder about their innerworkings, I know, for me, this 3-day trip equates a growth and independence that is a tendency I’ve been nurtured away from, which is why every independent gesture feels so special.

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So two days later, I bought bathing suits from Target and filled up my car with gas. Kal checked the oil and helped pack up the car. I let the kids pack whatever they wanted; the back seat was filled with throw blankets, unicorns, bears, the Switch, crackers, and books. We stopped at Publix to get subs and chips. I downloaded an 80s and 90s playlist for the occasion, and off we drove. I didn’t plan it, but “Don’t Stop Believin” started the journey.

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The Inn I booked ended up being perfect in its simplicity. Breakfast was made by a young woman who wore a bandana like Rosie the Riveter, a sign I nodded to inside my heart. The kids had some trouble getting over the cold Atlantic and the gravel sand that skinned their knees. But what we got was the blessing of the unexpected: the first night there, a folk band with an alluring fiddle player performed original music at a restaurant nearby. Both kids were enthralled, nodding their head to the music. The band was probably 20 years older than me, and they sang with that much experience. Each night the kids wanted to go back to this spot so they could see more live acts “that gave me [them] this feeling, mommy.” By the third band on our last day, they asked me to download songs like “American Pie” and “Sweet Caroline” to listen to on the way home.

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Our little suite had a balcony that was small enough to hang some wet clothes on and enough to get that ocean wind fix in the room, but it wasn’t one I wanted to write or read on, something I vaguely hoped I could do. What ended up happening at night instead is that I read The One and Only Ivan, a book Layla has been recommending to me for a year.  I read her book each night  and finished it the day we came back. I didn’t write (or grade) while they slept, but something better happened: each morning Layla woke up and likely saw her book sitting on my side of the bed. The little book about lives changing other lives, partly about a young girl’s artistic inclination and its triumph, became the literary measure of the trip. Like Ivan given new paints to reveal a message he’s trying to figure out, my heart glowed “like jungle flowers” as we experienced this little break together.

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Books, in fact, became a highlight of the trip when the kids spent hours in a book store in the historic section of the island, which got Zade tucking a book under his arm on the way to each meal. He has turned into a little worm even more these days. I also witnessed his sheer desire to do anything he could to make people around him smile–from jumping in freezing water to encourage his sister to do the same or from making up silly handshakes with kids at the park–this kid is a little extrovert with a big heart. And I got to witness it all alone, a chosen state–nourished by a husband and a home back in Georgia–without gearing my attention to making all of us content. Instead, I was able to just blend into the moment as me and a mom rather than consistently doing a litmus test of the four of us, one a mom and wife knows well. I threw in detours like a visit to a lighthouse by just checking within.

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One thing I asked of the kids was to take an early-morning walk after breakfast on the beach, an unpopulated area where empty spaces let the mind wander.  The water was freezing, the wind was freezing, so I asked the kids to just walk with me and dip their toes in if they wanted until it warmed up and we could go upstairs to change later for some water play.

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They conceded for me, and they ended up finding the “best shells” and chasing “the best waves” on our walk. I hardly got a walk in, but I didn’t care because they looked surprised they were having a good time. What a beautiful gift, seeing kids surprised at their joy. I made a point to say yes to holding their shells in one hand, hanging on my arm their clothes that were peeling off every hundred feet.

I could see Zade searching my face every time he got closer to falling into a wave. Later, when I asked them about their top moments during our short adventure, they noted that morning walk; Layla said, “I looked at you, and you were smiling at us when we were getting all wet again like you told us not to, and I knew you were happy and that it was okay. You were having fun, too.”

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Our drive home was filled with a mental gratitude list. In traffic, I played a Calm Masterclass on gratitude and let the kids take from it what they heard. I wanted the kids to come home safely, and when we hit our main road, I exhaled a prayer so thankful that we did something for me, for us, for the week, and life returned back to usual as soon as I walked up the side-door steps. If you walked into our house an hour after our arrival, you’d smell a simmering stew and hear the faint knocking of zippers going round and round in the dryer.  Kids with damp hair and fresh pajamas were in bed just in time for me to turn the page on our trip.

The eccentric greek bar owner in the second Mamma Mia gets young Donna to grab the mic and sing. She says she can’t just sing just like that. He says, “Here on the island, everything is just like that. You think too much, you get unhappy. Thinking and all this, it’s pretty much a mistake.” I know I’m a teacher who encourages analysis, and we spend most of our lives up there in our heads, but hypocrisy to the ocean wind: that line is the truth right now.

This trip marks a spontaneous and independent bookmark on overthinking a little less and re-learning a little more.  Like Tamara Levitt’s masterclass, the best type of happy isn’t a feeling of excitement or productivity; those are great and separate. It’s one of surprise and gratitude. Had I let practicality or fear take over, two usual (but aging) suspects in my way, had I let myself stay comfortable in routine, or had I overthought the details of this trip, it’s likely I’d submit to previous outcomes and miss not only a chance at proving something to myself and my family but also re-learning simple gifts about life.

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