Filling Your Niche


When my mom suggested flying all 4 of us to Hawaii as her graduation present to Miss G, Dan & I were over the moon. I mean, hello, it’s Hawaii. Plus Dan’s folks moved to the Big Island like 6 years ago but we have not been over to see them even once. And, we thought this trip would be the perfect opportunity for a Last Family Vacation.

Miss L’s time with us last summer was all grouchy resentment: the visit was too long; she was bored; Dan was working so it wasn’t like she was even spending with him anyway; she didn’t feel like climbing/hiking/eating dinner with us/anything that wasn’t her being home with her friends. All while simultaneously complaining that she felt like a visitor, not family.

Miss G was somewhat more tolerant, but still exasperated by any mandatory family time expectations in the middle of summer when she was already balancing a job and trips to her dad’s with wanting to fill her own days with friend time instead.

I’m sure these are universal problems for anyone dealing with teenagers and long-distance custody at the same time.

“I hate this,” Dan said after finally caving and sending Miss L back to her mom’s early. “It’s the only time I really get to spend with her all year and she doesn’t want to be here. And I get it, but I don’t want to give up even more time with her.”

“Well,” I said. “Listen, we’ve talked for a long time about this Hawaii trip. What if we both take more time off and spend longer over there? We could do a week with my folks, then a couple weeks with yours. And that trip could count for Miss L’s entire summer visit, so she’s not away from friends for so long. Miss G will have to take off work so we’ll all have more time together than we did this summer. We’ll be doing vacation stuff the whole time, so that helps with the boredom part.”

“Yeah,” he said, not quite right away because Dan never decides anything right away. “Yeah, maybe. We could do that.”

“Plus this is really our last family vacation. Miss G graduates this year, Miss L the year after. Then they’ll have college and jobs and stuff. When will we ever all be together for this long again? We should do something big.”

“Wow, you’re right,” he said. And then, strongly: “I disagree with the kids growing up and moving out.”

“Yeah I know you do,” I said, hugging him.

So, “Hawaii” became “Hawaii!” Exclamation point!

I want to say Hawaii is indescribable, but that’d be a pretty short blog I guess. So I will say this: We packed every day of our nearly 3-week trip to the hilt, and still barely scratched the surface of Hawaii— keeping in mind we only visited one island.

Like standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon or seeing a Van Gogh in person, the reality eclipses all the overdone, tired imagery you’ve seen a million times over. And yet you can’t help but take those same pictures yourself of those same impossibly scenic views and waterfall-viewing adventures because you want to hold what you’re experiencing as close as possible and for as long as possible, and frenzied photo-taking seems like the only way to do that.

Everything about Hawaii that seems stupid and eye-roll-worthy outside of Hawaii makes total sense when you’re there. Like using the Hawaiian pronunciation for things: Hawai’i  with the little vocal stop at the apostrophe. Thanking folks with “mahalo” at the grocery store as you’re checking out. Greeting strangers with “aloha!” — which doesn’t mean ‘hello’ or ‘goodbye,’ even though Hawaiians use it for both. Aloha means love. Compassion. So literally Hawaiians are saying “Love! Compassion!” to everyone all day, every day. No wonder the island air is so thick and rich with both.

You know those places— where the usual clench around your soul loosens its grip just enough that you notice its absence, realize you’re living every day not quite at the optimum plane of existence as you could be? Where the impossible feels possible?

Celtic traditions call that a “thin place” (in Gaelic, caol áit). Places that feel more magical, more untouched. Or perhaps more touched… by otherness. By the divine. Poet Sharlande Sledge says a thin place is “Where the door between this world / And the next is cracked open for a moment / And the light is not all on the other side.”

Hawaii makes you feel whole without understanding why, nourished down to your most deeply damaged levels. It’s the kind of place where as soon as your feet hit the tarmac, you want to make a few calls, sell off all your shit, move your entire life over there and never leave. And many people do exactly that. (Gwyn suggested a similar idea as an alternative to college, but was vetoed.)

Now. Did all this amazingness manage to counteract teenage sulkiness? I’m sorry to say that it did not.

And, related to that, I’m embarrassed to admit that I spent the summer feeling very non-aloha about Hawaii after we got back. Because it turns out that even the strongest aloha isn’t enough to overcome teen angst or manifest a flawless family vacay.

Instead of coming away from Hawaii full of love and closure after a wonderful few weeks together, ready to move gracefully into our next stage of life as empty nesters, I wanted to throttle both kids (and occasionally Dan) by our return flight.

I found myself initially bemused, then baffled, then finally pretty pissed at both our girls as the trip progressed. Miss L, despite spending less than half her usual visitation time with us and nearly all of that in Hawaii, only acted fractionally less sulky compared to the previous summer. Miss G was a good sport as long as we did water activities and/or exactly the things that she wanted to do, but good luck getting her off Netflix otherwise.

As for me, the main hazard of working from home is that you never really leave the office, not even when you’re in Hawaii. Work stress caught up with me by the end of Week 2, and I spent the rest of the trip increasingly anxious to get back and manage the latest crisis. Turns out Hawaii and work anxiety do not mesh well together. Everything about laid-back island time starts hitting you all wrong.

So this Last Family Vacation, despite my all-out attempt to achieve perfection, ended up feeling sort of like a failure on multiple levels. I thought this would be an amazing trip for the kids, but they weren’t having nearly as much fun as I’d hoped/planned/expected they would. I felt like we failed at creating wonderful memories for them. And I felt like I failed at leaving work fully behind on the mainland.

And then I felt resentful. Because where was the connection and closeness and relaxation I’d envisioned for all of us? Where was the kids’ appreciation— for us, for my parents’ generosity, for the experience itself? Even a trip to HAWAII is overlaid by crappy attitudes? Could we mainline some perspective right into their veins or something?

Then I read my cousin Sonja’s blog post about her photo shoot with us.

Revisiting images so evocative I swear I smelled the sweet clash of the girls’ beauty products and practically heard waves crashing behind us right through the computer screen, I realized the person who really needed to gain perspective was me.

I expected perfection, which doesn’t exist. Had my heart so set on perfection that I almost let its lack ruin my own memories of our Last Family Vacation. Yet another metaphor for our entire existence together as a blended family, and reminder to stop imposing my utopian vision onto real life and then being disappointed when reality doesn’t live up to those impossible expectations.

Our lives together have never been easy, although we have some moments of ease. Our lives together have never not been complicated, although some days are more straightforward than others. So my mental image of a pure and sacrosanct Last Family Vacation was based on a premise that doesn’t even exist: that we are effortlessly happy together; that emotional baggage dissolves when we are all in the same place, the rest of our lives fall away and we all, full-time, enjoy and appreciate our increasingly rare time together.

I expected teenage girls to appreciate the preciousness of passing time, the bittersweet end of an era, to the same degree that Dan and I feel an empty nest looming. Dan and I watch helplessly as our hard-won foursome days together grow ever shorter; the kids just see X interminable moments before they can get the hell back to their real lives. And that should be expected, and it should be okay.

I’m not really sure how my subconscious falls back into these rose-colored hopes over and over again. I wish I could hang some kind of warning bell on my emotions, like those location-based reminders that go off when you’re driving past Target telling you to stop and buy dish soap. Every time I slide into absurd fantasy, a buzzer should go off reminding me to keep my expectations grounded.

Because it’s totally normal to feel sulky on a family vacation when you’re a teenager, regardless of where your lame parents drag you. Yes, even if they drag you to Hawaii. And for those grownups in the crowd, it’s normal to feel stressed about work while absent, irritated with kids, exhausted enough to hit the sack early, then guilty for sleeping instead of vacationing.

The only vacation-ruiner present was my the expectation of uncompromised, uncomplicated perfection— which doesn’t exist for anyone. Not even in island paradise.

Compromised and complicated is our normal. Ups and downs define everyday life— not the brief respites of smooth sailing.


We imperfectly vacationed the crap out of Hawaii.

Our Last Family Vacation trip included definitive forever-memories, like exploring the City of Arches coastline (unanimous agreement it was our best hike ever, which is saying something after a decade of many many many hikes together). Like poking lava with a stick, an experience for which there aren’t powerful enough words except to say it was completely worth the scorching, brutal trek to get there. Like singing in the car while driving, as loudly as we can, no matter how short the distance.

And mixed with that were some low points, sure. But that’s us. And that’s real life. So of course that’s our family vacation too.

On a day still early in our trip, I had a chunk of work I needed to wrap up. I popped headphones in and put on some white noise so I could concentrate. I didn’t want to feel like I was at work while in Hawaii, so instead of my usual coffee shop background, I picked the tropical-sounding combination of birds and waves.

Dan came out to talk about something and I removed my headphones. A few minutes into the conversation, I went to mute the volume on my computer because the birdsong and wave combo were distracting me. Then I realized that my headphones were still plugged in and discarded on the table; what I was hearing was Hawaii’s living hum, so absurdly idyllic that it sounds like manufactured atmosphere.

At Volcanoes National Park, I bought this little ring from the art gallery gift shop. It’s silver, with a tiny gold disc that looks like a sun and moon overlaid together: Miss L our changeable moon, and Miss G determinedly sunshiney. The band is criss-crossed with a tribal design.

“What do these triangles mean?” I asked the clerk.

“Oh, the artist uses traditional Polynesian and Hawaiian symbols in all her pieces.”

“Sure, I meant what does this particular pattern symbolize?”

“Umm I’m not quite sure,” she said and then moved on to help the next person in line.

“Shark teeth,” pronounced Miss G, poking her nose over my shoulder.

“How do you know that?” I asked, but she shrugged and wandered off. I slid the ring on my middle finger, where it nestled perfectly against my hummingbird ring.

Later, I looked it up. Triangles do symbolize shark’s teeth, which represent ferocious power but also guidance and coverage. Shelter and ferocity and adaptability, all at once.

“That’s kind of a weird combination,” I said to Dan.

“No. It’s you,” he said in one of those rare moments where he’s so dead-on insightful about something (that I missed so entirely) that I wonder if he’s secretly that observant all the time.

When I looked at the ring again in better light, I found a faint ALOHA inscribed inside the band.

Seeing a green turtle was on my list of really-wants for this trip, but I kept just missing them. The girls saw some while snorkeling— on a day I didn’t snorkel. Dan saw some at the beach— on a walk when I didn’t go along.

On our very last day, we stopped at a beach to let waves lap our toes one final time before heading to the airport, and Miss G and I saw them. Turtles. Just barely visible as a slight change in the normal waves, occasionally poking a head over the ocean’s surface.

And that is our family. I’ve spent years looking for my vision of a family, one that matched the image in my head.

I wanted a herd of turtles swimming over me while I’m underwater; I wanted them digging sand on the beach so close I could see the texture of their shells. Clear, unmistakable turtles.

That’s not what I got.

But you know, I still was just as excited about glimpsing just part of a head over the waves.

Feeling like a family comes most often when I least expect it and never in the way I anticipated. Someday maybe I’ll be able to remember that without this long road to acceptance each and every time.

In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the memories of our Hawaii trip— an imperfect vacation, but no less incredible and sacred and once-in-a-lifetime for that.

Maarit • 08/31/2016

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