Doing anything expecting happiness to result may be the insanity at the heart of all of our lives.
I’ve heard it said plenty of times insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. That notion could fairly characterize much of my life. It certainly applies to my holiday traditions. After my mom began aging, I inherited the hosting responsibilities. Then she died, and I’ve been saddled with them ever since. It is partly my fault: I needed Christmas to be as it’s always been, just like mom did it.
But this year I didn’t want to do the same thing. It had left me feeling tired, angry and used up. So my husband reluctantly agreed to do something we’ve never done: leave town during the holiday week. We booked a suite in a swanky hotel in the middle of a city we’d never visited. Two days before Christmas, my family set off to have a new holiday experience in Las Vegas.
Never mind that I detest crowds, that I’m not a gambler, that I’d rather have my nails pulled out rather than go shopping, that my tree to building ratio is greater than 30:1. This was supposed to be a step out of my comfort zone: a break away from the head-hitting-the wall-of-insanely-doing-the-same-things-over-and-over-expecting-something-different: happiness. Here I was, ready to shed the old and embrace the new, unaware that I had a lot to learn about insanity.
We probably should have flown. As we headed out later than planned, I thought, “Too late.” Traveling over eight hours in a car with four people, two of them siblings, isn’t smart. Nope. Though both of my kids are young adults, their age doesn’t change the basic fact that a sister and brother confined to a small space –a hotel room or a car–will find plenty of ways to irritate each other. To be clear, in a confined space and time, they irritate me, too. My daughter’s incessant snacking on crappy carbs and caffeinated drinks became all too clear and my son’s affair with computer screens and social withdrawal made me cringe. Let’s not even start on my husband’s penchant for trashy tourist souvenirs—including the edible ones.
But family vacations, beyond the annual camping trip –not unrelated since we’ve headed to the same location since the first kid was two months old–are rare, but I expected the usual travel conflicts, and by and large, we managed to find things to laugh about. During the interminable car ride, the snacks I packed, the earbuds and earplugs that all had, and a steady supply of podcasts and music to entertain us–both as a group and individually–helped smooth the “it’ll only take eight hours” to drive. Yeah right.
Exhausted, we finally hit the bright neon lights of the strip late that evening. I see now it as one of the few bright moments of the trip. As my family suspected, I hated Las Vegas. Why did I make a commitment to try new things? Over the next few days, we walked the noisy concrete strip, marveled as the Mirage volcano erupted, watched as the Bellagio fountains danced, and thoroughly enjoyed the spacious Venetian suite we had booked. Since we had a generous budget, we ate when we wanted and what we wanted. While the kids slept in, I made coffee with the hotpot purchased at a nearby Walgreens. (I get the mini fridge charges, but no mini coffee pot?) We ambled under the fake sky in the indoor canal, snarking about the over-the-top oxygen bar and the gondolas that swept by. We stuck our feet into one of the several hot tubs that graced the hotel courtyard. Isn’t it amazing how weeks later we can make a grueling trip sound so much better than when we are in the middle of it?
Speaking of the middle of this festive holiday, Christmas Eve found the four of us sitting around a table in the hotel room eating PF Changs. We exchanged modest gifts. Having escaped the annual care and clean up of my extended family who usually gathered at my house eating my homemade tamales and opening a stack of gifts, I nestled comfortably in my bed that night, looking forward to Christmas day. The following morning, I skipped out on the expectation of my cinnamon rolls, and we headed to the upscale restaurant at the Paris Hotel for Christmas brunch. When my daughter happily ordered a mimosa, I indulged in a tall glass of grapefruit juice with my breakfast, something I rarely allow myself. We all had omelets and French toast and I didn’t have to cook or clean. Despite the loud background music (no one seems to have any hearing in Vegas), I felt it was all going as planned. Something different actually felt somewhat satisfying after all.
Unfortunately, the newness of traveling had worn off its luster before Christmas afternoon. Escaping cooking and clean up wasn’t enough. I needed time out. By then, my daughter had collapsed in tears, having exhausted herself, no doubt, from calling up housekeeping to deliver the many towels and shampoo bottles she apparently needed to feel luxurious. She had noticed my withdrawal; I was spending a little too much time hiding in the hotel room. We had paid a pretty dollar for it, I rationalized. Besides I don’t get much time with my son and he had parked himself and his computer on the room’s sofa. But in her usual BPD way that makes too much about her–especially the self-blame–she felt it was her fault that the family vacation had gone so wrong. Las Vegas was chosen partly as something she would enjoy. I couldn’t argue with that, but I had hoped she would go out and enjoy it. With her dad. Or by herself. Despite my best efforts, I was exhausted by fending off of feelings of faking it– how wonderful could it be to watch people drink and smoke and shop and beg? What did I expect it be like–magical?
While the casino floor bustled with hustlers and gamblers enjoying their whiskey sours, I had been working on my own Christmas cocktail– a volatile mix of various young and old beggars on the sidewalk, solicitations to see GIRLS! GIRLS! GIRLS! and dingy Hello Kitty costumes vying for pictures with the kiddies. My head hurt. I could barely stop myself from running screaming away from the crowds and noise. The few dollars I handed to a woman for her handmade flowers and to the young couple playing a trumpet and flute left me feeling empty. If this all wasn’t enough to make me feel like Scrooge just having learned a truth about life, late Christmas afternoon my son told me he not only hated Vegas as much I did, he missed being with Family. In fact, family gatherings made Christmas special. I wandered through the hotel thinking about how I had wanted to escape family and their expectations. Finally, I dropped into an overstuffed chair in an elevator lobby. Fighting back tears, I called my sister. I felt stupid. What possessed me to believe that Las Vegas would be a merry way to spend Christmas? Was I Scrooge? My kids weren’t happy and neither was I. Again I stopped to wonder what result was I expecting to get from doing something different?
By the evening meal, a lack of planning tested my patience. Since we had allowed the day to unravel naturally, the meal by default was cheap, greasy Chinese food. My family greedily devoured their plates of broccoli beef and pork chow mein, but I’m allergic to soy sauce. So I ate white rice and beef jerky, the road snack I packed. My family didn’t buy my weak assurance that I was fine. I tried to remember that the ham, roasted potatoes and green beans weren’t the only thing my husband’s folks were serving up at home. Later we drove over to the Rio and as we queued up to see the quintessentially Vegas Penn and Teller, who disdain what they call the bullshit of magicians, I knew I had a decision to make. I left home to shun the magical happy Santa-baby Jesus insanity, but in my effort to avoid the craziness, I seemed to run right smack into it. Magic wasn’t the only illusion that needed debunking. Was it the change of scenery that I needed to change?
Right then and there, while sitting in the audience, waiting for two cynical comics, I decided to let everything go, let loose of all the holiday expectations, let loose of pleasing anyone, let loose of controlling a single thing.
In case you’re wondering, P&T rocked. I laughed all the way through the illusions, the breaking of illusions and the banter. I looked down the aisle at my family. They were smiling. Laughing about life’s little weirdness was exactly what we needed. We all felt the joy, even if it all felt positively anti-Christmas.
The day after Christmas, I rose before the others and ate a light breakfast by myself. It was what I needed, a moment to myself, and what I hoped to feel when we made it to our next stop, the Grand Canyon.
Later that afternoon, when I finally walked along the canyon’s rim with my kids and husband, I regained some sanity. Here in the silence of this grand place, I escaped the man made hard-edged world. I felt the peace on earth and good will to all men I had been searching for. The expanse of a canyon that stretched farther than the eye could see and larger than my mind could grasp felt oddly comforting. No matter how many problems I threw out to it, it had room for more. I was small and insignifcant and in charge of nothing. Nothing. Precisely.
It’d be nice if I could say that was it. I had learned what I needed to learn, so now the universe could step back, look at its creation and all-knowingly say, ‘it is good.” But no. Our trip wasn’t quite over. We piled back into the car for a long trip home. Did I say long? I mean loooooooooooong. I wanted to retain the calm, so I didn’t argue with my husband as he stuck to his plan to drive all the way home from Arizona to California in one fell swoop.
“You’re in charge, honey.”
“I think we can make it home by three in the morning.”
“Whatever you decide will be fine.”
“I don’t really want to spend the money on a hotel.”
“There’s still money in the budget , but I understand honey.” Letting go felt good.
By 9 that evening, I couldn’t imagine what lunacy possessed us. If I hadn’t found insanity at home in tired traditions, if I hadn’t found it in the throngs that filled Vegas, in their worship of phony Venice and Paris and Rome, in the shopping crazed crowds’ vain search for the heart of the holiday season in a fancy paper bag, it had found me now: insanity was four beyond-weary travelers trapped in a car for hours on a long dark highway, hoping it would only be a few more miles to get home.
About 2:00 a.m. when we were just about to tie ourselves to the roof for the sheer pleasure of stretching out fully, we pulled off for another gas stop. Into a nearby hotel, we collapsed, fully clothed, on the two double beds.
If I had posted my thoughts just after our trip, I’d have told you I’d never ever do it again. I’d embrace the old tradition, or at least fake my way through it, and accept the insanity of doing things over and over. Because sometimes crazy really is doing the same thing over and over. I know that still. But by the time we pulled into our driveway and stiffly stumbled out of the car, I knew doing something completely different can also be crazy.
Doing anything expecting happiness to result may be the insanity at the heart of all of our lives. Yet doing nothing can make us stale and resentful. I can say now that I’m glad I didn’t do the thing I had done for every Christmas of my entire life. I can look back on the year and know I tried something different. Will I return to the traditional Christmas next year? This year, I will; gods and family willing, I will host. But the heart wants what it wants. I’m thinking of New Mexico the year after that. I hear the luminaries are magical. Hm.. then again, either way I’ll sneak in a nap, disengage from the clutter with a quiet walk, and slowly let go of expectation.