Thursday, April 4, 2013

Vacations, or why going on a holiday is a really good idea!

This piece first appeared in the December issue of Equip.


Ah, vacations. Pack the car with kids and pillows and bathers and towels; shove in the cards, a box of dice, half a dozen pencils and a bundle of scrap paper; throw in a rounders bat and a few balls, a paintbox, a guitar. Pull on a faded old t-shirt and a pair of baggy shorts, and head to the beach. Or the mountains or the plains or a river somewhere... wherever takes your fancy, wherever you can put up a tent or park a caravan or hire a house. Somewhere simple, somewhere cheap. Leave the computers, the electronic games, the television at home. Forget about your emails, your nice clothes, the urgency in your tone. Get away. Put your feet up. Relax.

Why? Because God calls us to three things: worship, work and play. And while most of us give work a red hot go, filling even our leisure hours with a sense of pressing busy-ness, and while many of us make the time for worship, most of us rarely play. Worse, many of us have largely forgotten how; what so many of us do for recreation doesn’t even begin to restore us.

Most Australians watch three hours of television a day. Television, which bombards us with corporate conceptions of the good life which few can resist; which floods our homes with vacuity and violence; which fills the room so we don’t have to listen to our doubts and fears or the quiet voice: this is not play. The smartphone, so pretty with its bells and whistles, so indispensible, rendering the user so emotionally absent that they may as well not be in the room: this is not play.

Recreational shopping, a relic of Victorian times when the only socially legitimate public places for wealthy women to be were church or the shops; which fills our houses and stretches our budgets with unnecessary junk made from finite resources; which defines us not by who we are but by what we buy: this is not play.

So what is play? Play is not about consumption. It is never really competitive. It’s not another thing to excel at, or to get wrong. Instead, it’s all those pointless unproductive things which absorb you on vacation: gazing out the window; doodling in the dirt; going for a stroll; building a sandcastle; chewing on a grass stem; fooling around with totem tennis; tickling a three year old; reading fiction and children’s books. It’s playing parlour games: beetle, hangman, fan tan, 500. It’s learning to sing rounds, and getting it all hopelessly, hilariously, wrong. It’s preparing a fancy dinner just because you want to, or eating nothing but cheese and dips because nobody feels like cooking.

Play is all about re-creation and restoration. When you play, you are present in the moment; you can let go of your worries about tomorrow, and your ambitions, anxieties and fears. You can allow difficult crazy questions to bubble up and let them hang there, unanswered. Play puts things into perspective. It shows you what is really important – usually less than you think – and leaves enough room for God.

So take a break! Go away! Don’t bother with plane tickets or theme parks or exotic locations. Instead, find a quiet corner of the state with a forest, a creek, or a beach and re-learn how to play.

Teach your kids French cricket. You can’t be puffed up and important when you’re puffed out and you’ve just missed the ball and the kids are running rings around you, giggling. Leave the duties of home. You can’t feel so precious about cooking when the fanciest thing on the menu is sausages. Forget the dishwasher. Show the kids how much fun it is to splash bubbles in the sink as they wash dishes, and dry them, and put them all away. Leave them to it, and they will delight in your trust, and glow with the pride of being useful.

Don’t worry about the camera; you will remember what is important. Instead, just sit. Tuck yourself against a dune, sun your legs and watch the children paddle in the shallows. The sound of the waves, the shirring of the sand, the shiver of the grasses: listen, and in them you may hear the voice of silence.

Go for a walk with your eyes open. You’ll soon see a small thing: a cicada shell, a sun-bleached bone. Recognise the invitation and ponder the brevity of life. Watch the sky and realise how small you are. Give thanks for the time you have on earth. Wonder how you want to fill your remaining days; what would you like to look back on? It’s easy to fill a life with working, watching screens, looking for the right shoes, striving to impress. But is this enough?

Perhaps you’d rather look back on a life filled with gratitude. Do you yearn for pools of calm, those precious times when you were entirely in your own skin and deeply content? Would you like to remember long nights of stories and shared laughter? Quiet cuddles when nobody’s in a rush? Slow minutes observing birds, or trees silhouetted against the sky? Hours of silliness when everyone laughs until their sides ache?

What is worth putting energy into? What is worth remembering? What is worth paying attention to? And how then will you live? When you have pondered these questions, you are ready for home. Forget the souvenir t-shirts and key rings; you have enough stuff. Instead, bring back your new resolve. Unplug the tv, turn off the phone, give away the junk which clogs your house and weighs you down. Sit quietly for a few minutes each day, letting go of what you haven’t done and what you will fail to do; feel the oceans of time ahead of you, instead. After dinner, play a card game, or read, or knit. Write a letter to an old friend. Go to bed early. See what unfolds.

A vacation, taken slowly, can show you how destructive your choices can be: the big house and all the stuff in it; the drive to seek promotion or the next fancy gadget; the impulse to be busy busy busy and never rest. It can give you a healthy distance from the manipulating politics of the workplace, the media, the schoolyard, the extended family. It can liberate you as you realise you are not a demigod, appointed to fix everything; no Atlas, the world doesn’t rest on your shoulders.

More, a good vacation will remind you that you are not a barren person needing to be entertained; you are not a fragile person needing to prove how good you are; you are not an empty person needing to stuff yourself with the empty promises of consumerism. No, in the rest, in the silence, in the playfulness of a proper vacation, you will discover that you are a child of God. You are valued not for what you do, but for who you are; you have far more than enough; and you are deeply satisfied.

So pack your bags with no more than you need, and turn off your phone. Square your shoulders, take a deep breath... and go! Parlour Games for Modern Families Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul

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