Growing up, when we would visit my grandparents—my mother’s parents—we would always find a reason to sing, “Over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go…” The song was especially relevant for holidays and always a reminder that visiting our grandparents (even if they lived in the same town) was a treat, something special.
As Lena and I have aged and our three children have moved away from Sacramento, we became the “grandparents” and the aging parents who wanted to be visited. In the past, holidays always seemed a good time for visits from our children. But as their lives changed and they developed families and new relationships, holidays were not always the best time for us all to gather. So it was our shared decision about six years ago that we would commit to a yearly “family trip” together. Together we choose a place and our adult children with all their significant others (partners, spouses, children, etc.) gather with us for about four or five days of time together.
In the past we have found ourselves in places as varied as New Orleans (2014), Joshua Tree National Park (2015), Nashville (2016), Portland, Oregon (2017), Zion National Park (2018), and Vancouver, British Columbia (2019). (It is not lost on me what a privilege it is to have the money and the time to take these trips and be together.) Sadly, along with many others, we had to cancel our scheduled trip this year because of COVID-19. This year, by a vote of the whole family, we were to travel to Los Angeles and enjoy a few days at Disneyland.
While this commitment to a family trip emerged so that we would have a least one time a year when and where we were all together—it has other benefits as well. For me, the biggest benefit is that we are always on “neutral ground.” To this point, we have always gotten together in a place that was not “home” to any of us. The effect of this is to take us all away from the familiar, from our daily commitments and responsibilities. The theory is that we are more freed up to really be together. There is nothing to run off to. The common distractions of home life are removed. We can genuinely be present to each other.
For the most part, it seems to work. We play a few more games together, make a few more joint decisions, laugh a lot, and learn more about each others’ lives. Some of us (yours truly) are even able to set aside some of our need for control. We can share experiences that we rarely take time for. We make new memories—together. Financially, we try our best to all share the cost. In our short time together, we seek to set aside advice and judgement, reflect on some old memories, and enjoy the place we are visiting. We explore the world and our lives. For me, our trips are less about where we are going and more about the quality of our time together.
These trips are far from perfect. We struggle with group decisions. We probably get in each other’s business a little too much. We (parents) may ask too many questions. All of us at times overlook people’s needs to which we should pay attention and focus on things that are incidental. We sometimes worry too much about costs. We all have different daily patterns. We have a variety of expectations.
But in all that, I wouldn’t give up these times. Lena and I never really had this kind of experience with either of our parents. Our parents never really spent much time visiting us, though we would often travel with our children to see them at their homes.
In this very moment, I am really missing this family time together. How I treasure these times. I’ll take all the chaos, the confusion, the conflict, the laughter, the discovery, the tiredness, the love, the realness of it all. I’m ready for a family trip.
Spiritual Practice: Find Neutral Ground
Sometimes in communicating with people, we need to find a place where the power dynamic is shifted. If you visit me at my home, I get to control things. If I come to see you at your office, you are most likely in charge. Meet at a restaurant—who pays? Meet at a coffee shop—is it private enough? Is it a place where only one of us has been? A place where neither of us is sure what to expect? Not to overthink it, but how we connect with others is clearly related to the place we meet.
Deep conversations are not easy. Many things can influence these occasions. If we are seeking real mutuality, it can be even harder. Most of us like to be in control of our environment. It takes great trust to risk the personal openness I say that I long for.
One suggestion for this practice. Walk together. Almost everyone can walk. Somehow the movement itself coaxes new thoughts from us. Walking side by side seems to encourage mutuality. We are not “stuck” in a place together. We can shift in and out of seriousness if we need to. Even the natural environment can be a helpful distraction. The call of a bird or a beautiful sunset can add depth to our time together. Arriving at the end of our walk can give us the relief to the intensity of our conversation.
There is a Latin phrase often attributed to St. Augustine. Solvitur ambulando. “It is solved by walking.” I love that. Think how many of our problems would dissipate or be overcome if we just walked together. It’s worth a try.