Last summer I spent a week in New Jersey with my mother, two of my teenagers, and two of their friends. It was not exactly a vacation. My jaw hurts just thinking about it. While I was there I went online and found a remote island in Maine, and a rustic little house on the water, and booked a vacation just for me. So - this is how I spent my real summer vacation - and how I came home.
“I will miss this place” I think to myself as I carefully wash my coffee mug and cereal bowl. I’ve spent the week on Vinalhaven, a small, undeveloped and beautiful island off the coast of Maine, alone, living simply and quietly in a small, rustic house on the edge of the Ocean. I’ll be going home today.
I left my car on the mainland, bringing only what I could carry on my bicycle. The small ferry from Rockland was filled with summer people with kayaks on top of their SUVs, local folk with cars filled with supplies that are hard to find on the island, and a huge cement truck. I found a spot on the top deck where I could stand and have an unobstructed view of the crossing. The trip over was an introduction to Maine coastal weather, sunny and bright one moment, completely fogged in the next, so my view was mostly limited to the bow of the boat and the thirty feet of water directly in front of us. The fog began to thin just as we entered the harbor. The ghostly shape of tall pine trees rose like silent guardians from the granite coastline, then the fog lifted completely and we entered a new world.
Days on the island flowed with ease as I allowed myself to learn how to meditate again. I sat and meditated, walked along the rocks and meditated, swam in the quarry and meditated. And then meditation and stillness led to something more, something new and unexpected. I found myself listening for God, asking questions and receiving answers. The pace of life was slower here. No cell phone. No internet. Few distractions other than the usual ones from within my own mind, and even that chatter slowed down and became quieter. For days, the only words I said out loud were spoken with reverence to the woman behind the counter at the Harbor Gawker restaurant when I ordered lunch: “I’d like a lobster roll and a diet coke please.”
On this last morning, as I wash my breakfast dishes, I find myself wishing I could stay. I realize I am clinging to this experience, therefore making it special, and different from my life at home. I wonder if I will ever be able to feel this kind of peace and clarity and focus in my own home, or if this is only attainable when I’m away.
Thich Nhat Han tells of how he brings mindfulness into everyday life, by performing simple acts with devotion, by washing his tea cup as though he were bathing the Baby Buddha. When I heard that story years ago, it resonated with me. Would it be possible to bring that kind of reverence and care into the mundane world of household chores? Could I attend to everyday tasks as though I was caring for a sacred child?
Twenty years ago I was bathing my first born, my own sacred child, my son Ben. As a new mother, I was more nervous than mindful, learning how to handle a wet, slippery newborn for the first time. Tension eventually gave way to delight as I became more skilled. Bathing Ben in his plastic yellow tub in the big kitchen sink was an act of devotion, pure and simple; filled with care, attention, and love. I recall the bliss of living in that moment, where my only purpose was to love my child. My hands ache now in memory, longing to hold that small, new body again, to feel the warmth of silky, smooth skin. Has it been twenty years already?
I know that when longing comes in, the present moment is lost. And so it seems as I prepare to leave the island and I find myself wishing I could stay, wanting to postpone the return to my ‘real’ life. I long for the mindfulness, simplicity, and clarity that I found here. Would I be able to carry those states of being home with me, back to the world of a single parent of three? Could I bath the baby Buddha while juggling my job, my family, household chores and relationships? I was leaving a world that felt spacious and unlimited, and returning to a world that felt crowded and overwhelming.
The ferry ride back to the mainland was not magical. The day was cold and damp, and the dense fog that surrounded us as we left the island stayed with us the entire way. I felt as though the fog was within me as well, clouding my perceptions and obscuring my view of the world.
Driving home along Route 1 I received my first phone call from home. Ali, my 17 year old daughter, wanted to know when I’d be home.
“I should be home by dinner time.” I said, and already I begin to think about what we’d have for dinner, making a mental note to stop at the grocery store.
“Oh,” she said, sounding disappointed. “I hoped you’d be home sooner. I wanted you to come shopping with me at the mall.”
I notice that my response to this is visceral. I feel my body draw inward at the thought of going to the mall, especially after a week of quiet solitude spent enjoying the expansiveness of the Maine coastline. And, I suspect it’s not really my company she seeks so much as access to my credit card.
“Sorry honey,” I say as pleasantly as I can. “You’ll have to go without me.”
“Fine” she answers, but she isn’t fine at all and I can practically hear her snapping her cell phone closed.
While I’ve been away, my oldest son, Ben, has been staying at the house, and Ali and Tom have been at their dad’s. Now, as I drive home I wonder what I’ll find. I wonder what’s been going on while I was gone. Unpleasant images come to mind and I decide it’s best not to go there. I remind myself to breathe, as tension begins to creep into my body. Did I have to remind myself to breathe last week?
I pull into my driveway and just sit there for a moment, trying to collect myself before entering the house. I remember Thich Nhat Han’s teaching and imagine the baby Buddha, my three baby Buddhas, now teenagers and a twenty year old. It’s not working. I’m feeling disjointed, separate from my peaceful, calm, serene self who seems to have stayed on the island, forcing the stressed out single mother to come home alone. Well, let’s just get this over with, I think to myself.
I enter the house, and notice that nothing looks amiss. The furniture is more or less in the same place. The living room has not been trashed in some wild party, although that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a party while I was away.
Then I walk into the kitchen.
Dishes, bowls, cups, utensils, cookware, even the blender are all piled in the sink and covering the counters. Everything is dirty. It appears that Ben, and whoever else was here this week, forgot there was a dishwasher, let alone a sink and a sponge. Not only are all my dishes dirty, there are even dishes I don’t recognize on the counter. It’s as though Ben ran out of plates and went next door to borrow more. I feel rage beginning to fill my being, from my toes to the top of my head, which might just explode and fly off my body. And on top of that - the TV is on but no one is home.
They do come home, all of my baby Buddhas, happy to see me, greeting me with hugs and kisses. They seem somehow older, more mature than I remembered them. They seem to have missed me; they seem to be glad I’m back. Although I’m seething inside I notice how beautiful they are.
“What’s for dinner?” Tom asks.
“I’ll let you know after you all clean the kitchen” I answer.
The familiar chorus of “Those aren’t mine” is sung by each of them, accusing the other of using every plate and cup in the house.
“It doesn’t matter” I say. “I’m not feeding anyone until the kitchen is clean. The three of you have to work it out”.
I know I have them. There’s no food in the house, and none of them has the money to buy even a slice of pizza. If they want to eat, they’ll have to work. And they’ll have to work it out between themselves, as if I wasn’t even here. I go into the backyard and sit in the shade. The sound of their voices reaches me, blaming one another for the mess, fighting over who will do what. But eventually even that quiets down and they get the work done. By the end they are laughing and joking with each other. I imagine them bathing a multitude of baby Buddhas, and I feel my heart open and relax.
I take us all out to dinner that night to the NinetyNine, our favorite local restaurant. It’s a rare evening of ease. We each tell stories about our week, then reach back further and tell the old family stories that always make us laugh. For some reason the talk turns to drug use and both Ben and Ali proudly inform me that they haven’t smoked weed in months. I take a deep breath and thank God that my children tell me so much, even though I know it’s not everything. It’s still, in many ways, more than I want to know.
I think about the baby Buddha, how I was bathing my own inner baby Buddha all week by taking her away somewhere quiet and peaceful. I was nurturing the divine within me. I can do that on a remote island. I can do that here in a life brimming with teenage energy and parental responsibility. Or at least, I hope I can.
The waitress stops at our table to take our drink order. The kids order sodas. I order a Cosmopolitan. I’m not enlightened just yet.