In the wee hours of a cold, winter night well over a decade ago, in an encroached, wood-paneled living room in a Bayonne, New Jersey apartment, a wager was made.
After several bottles of wine, bits of laughter, the sparring of intellect, and a fiercely competitive round of Trivial Pursuit, two couples decided that the winning team would plan a trip where they all must travel to.
Following a fortunate guess about an American president, victory was ours. Tickets and lodging from New York to Shannon, Ireland were secured at dubiously low prices for the second week in February.
At the time, I was living alone in a humble apartment in Bayonne, New Jersey on the salary of a social worker employed by the county. Those modestly priced tickets nearly broke the bank. Somehow on a meager diet of Ramen noodles and tap water among a few other sacrifices, I made it happen.
For some curious reason, I recently have been thinking of that trip. Perhaps because they were some of the sweetest days.
I find myself returning to the same question: Why were they some of the best days?
While we planned our trip, the universe planned an epic snowstorm. We spent the first thirty-eight hours of our vacation sleeping atop of our luggage under the departure boards at John F. Kennedy International airport. After some pleading, conjuring, and self-determined ruckus at the counter combined with a miracle of sorts, we boarded the next plane over to Ireland.
We could have let the storm break our spirits but it didn’t. We were simply grateful to board the plane.
We landed in Dublin. Arriving in the city of our planned departure, our painstakingly planned itinerary was null. We decided to wing it. We secured two of the smallest rental cars in history. Long before international cellphones, we communicated via walkie-talkies as we drove on the wrong side of the road up and down the countryside stopping in villages and at Bed & Breakfasts.
It is true that many of the B&Bs had lumpy beds and showers with the water pressure of a leaky garden hose. It is also fair to say that what many of the pubs were lacking in cuisine, they made up for four-fold in live music, whiskey, beer, and authentic congeniality of a kind and strong people.
It is perhaps most essential to note that some of the most breathtaking hillsides, enchanted forests, ruins of castles, and herds of painted sheep were just there in the vast, open, blessed world waiting to be seen.
We stumbled upon remote shore villages, roadside farm stands and family-owned shops. We visited pubs full of genial, local gentlemen with a knack for the age-old art of storytelling, and stopped at centuries-old cemeteries that told different stories with their silence and peace.
But first, I’d like to return to the issue of the shower.
I imagine what it might be like now in my life if the water pressure was poor while on holiday. There would be phone calls downstairs to correct the problem, the scolding of staff, and discussions about “what we paid for” and “what was expected” not to mention what was “unacceptable”. There would be adamant requests to change rooms and then we would probably spend the next hour and a half at dinner discussing the poor water pressure and how it was adversely affecting our trip.
It is probably safe to say that I would have even missed those breathtaking hillsides and brilliant moments while complaining. Perhaps I wouldn’t enjoy the local fiddler at the pub because of my fixation on the bothersome shower trickle. He might just be background noise to a sob story of my own conception. I suspect those enchanted forests would have seemed a bit less extraordinary because of my dim perspective. I may have wholly missed the forest for the trees in my ranting.
In recent years, I have undoubtedly been on many more fanciful trips with five star accommodations and four diamond dining than my jaunt across the Emerald Isle. I’ve dined at establishments with fine, plush stools to place your purse atop of and ordered entrees with ingredients I couldn’t identify (and sometimes shamefully could not pronounce). There have been en-suite bathrooms I could have parked the entire contents of my Bayonne apartment in, with soaking tub jets that had the water pressure of a NYC fire hydrant.
My experience of Ireland had no fancy bathrooms, no purse stools, no tongue-twisting appetizers, and no attentive wait staff at my beck and call. Our concierge was often a widowed B&B keeper with the grit, wit and wisdom of a convivial, world-traveled sailor. Our accommodations were simply the authentic, unfettered results of a brave woman’s entrepreneurship in an uncertain global economy.
I realize why it was a great trip. It was a grand adventure simply because the water pressure did not matter. Life was not about what I expected and when I graciously accepted that, I was able to appreciate that life was even better.
Somewhere at some point since my Ireland trip, I lost sight of the most essential amenity of all: a liberating perspective.
It is peculiar how the modes of comfort we surround ourselves with – the amenities, the plans, and the fancy technology we possess, were intended to make life simpler yet often make it more complicated and bothersome. The more things we acquire to make our lives simpler and freer, the more they can begin to burden us. We build our own house of cards. The piles and piles of stuff we own starts to own us. The heaping bits of expectations that we build up begin to weigh us down.
The solution is simple yet so drastic it seems radical. I knew I needed to cut the ties of expectation and entitlement. Life doesn’t promise us fair weather, comfy accommodations, and steady water pressure. It is almost a guaranteed certainty that we all will have our share of trickles and amendments to the plan. It is a given.
Maybe life isn’t about the best laid plans but about letting go. I had to let go and let grace in.
I found that the moment I accepted the truth that I’m not owed anything by anyone in this life, things transformed. For me, this spiritual, swift kick in the ass, had had a sobering and instantly enlivening effect.
A return to a grateful and humble perspective transformed the world around me into a brighter place full of hope. Life certainly did not become perfect but who would really want it to be. It became wildly astonishing in the most humbling of ways.
In God’s unpretentious, dark sense of humor, we are repeatedly reminded that the spark of liveliness in spontaneity outshines our doleful, scheduled plans. In the universe’s thundering ironic undertone, we receive the same frequent lesson, that there are far better plans in store for us than those we could dream up. All we must do is resign ourselves to possibility.
A life resigned to possibility may look a bit scattered or messy from the outside but those inside that life know a secret: there is space and calm for the unscheduled and spontaneous to occur. There is room for mystery, magic, and evolving faith. The unplanned occurs whether we like it or not, friends get sick, new opportunities arise, loved ones pass on, and life constantly changes outside our control. The more we make peace with it, the more contentment we can find.
On that fateful trip overseas, my best friend and her boyfriend became engaged. Three days after the trip ended so did my relationship with the guy I had been dating. Not much of a loss, it was the worst type of relationship – those born out of convenience. Nonetheless, my best friend and I promised, no matter what or who may come and go, that this would be the first of many similar trips.
As tends to happen, something happened to our promise. A dozen years later, two husbands, five children, and three dogs between us, the trip never occurred. There have been many adventures yet no trip. Perhaps it was the demands of life, evolving careers, different social circles, raising children, or mere geography. Perhaps these are excuses on both our parts. Perhaps all of the above is true.
Although I am wise enough to know that these moments cannot be recreated, I know that so much of what we experience is within our control. We can tell a story of sub-par accommodations or we can tell a story of a stunning countryside with congenial, unforgettable people.
I also am certain that there are new moments waiting to be seen, heard, tasted, and felt. Life is springing with new, blessed possibilities all around us, underneath us, and beside us, if we are just willing to look past the water pressure.
And with all of this in mind, I plan to be more unplanned in 2015. May your New Year surpass your own expectations.
A sign in Dublin. flickr.com/photos/giuseppemilo/14270291262