Thanksgiving is right around the corner, and just as families are beginning to lay down their plans for a delicious dinner, searching for recipes, making grocery lists and hauling fall-themed decorations out of the closet, I'm doing the opposite.
I'm boarding an airplane and leaving the country. Alone.
For two weeks, I'm bidding adios to my husband and kids, ages 7 and 4, and traveling to Guatemala, where I'll be exploring Antigua solo, and then attending a writing and yoga retreat on the shores of Lake Atitlan.
I booked the trip a few months ago, when my literary agent sent me a link to the retreat flyer, saying, "This sounds like you." Speeding through the text while my daughter climbed up my leg, whining, "Mommy! Mommy!" I saw that the retreat is to be led by a great duo -- a popular writer, and a yoga teacher who uses words like "self-love" and "compassion" in her bio, making me think the whole shebang could do wonders for me all-around. And then I read the description, which said, "We're gonna disconnect from the cacophony of the Internet and our daily lives, get in touch with our bodies, and draw out our voices."
Um, if that isn't something to be thankful for, then I don't know what is. Sometimes, I feel "up to here" -- I'm pointing to the top of my head, and possibly banging it against the wall -- with Internet information overload, making it hard to remember my own voice, sometimes because my children's voices feel more urgent, or because I feel intimidated by the other voices out there, or because it seems like every conversation is already being had, in surround sound, and I can't wrap my mind around where my own contribution lies. The idea of quieting other voices so I can hear my own, just for little while, sounds straight-up luxurious.
I realize that in many ways, it's not ideal to leave my family at Thanksgiving. I love them, and I love hanging out with them, and it will only be this Thanksgiving once, and OK, I love turkey and garlic mashers, too. Yeah, for sure there's guilt, which festers in my belly every time I leave my kids for any reason, really, and I've sort of gotten used to second-guessing myself during my seven years as a mother. (I don't know any mother who feels 100 percent sure in all of her choices -- this appears to be part of the parenthood experience.) But my guilt about leaving intensifies, I admit, when I tell other people about the trip, because they mostly draw in their breath and turn a little bit pale, trying with their eyes to look supportive, but instead appearing stricken, until I practically feel the need to offer them a chair.
So, I will just say this out loud to the world: Yes, it's going to suck to say goodbye to my husband and kids, especially for two weeks, especially on a holiday. They'll cry. I'll cry. Yes, I will enter a melodramatic phase just before my departure, where I'll find myself doing over-the-top things, like kissing my kids 400 times a day and giving my husband the email address of my agent and editor, instructing him to contact them if I die in Guatemala to ensure my first book gets published next fall; a memoir that is, at it's core, a gift for my kids. (You can puke now.)
But on the other hand, Thanksgiving is also kind of an ideal time to leave. Logistically-speaking, which is a central part of the reality of parenting, my husband has a few paid days off work, which eases the scramble for extra childcare in my absence, and it offers him the opportunity to plan a Father-Kid adventure, which he tells me will involve a train ride. Plus, I'm less likely to have urgent freelance assignments sitting in my inbox, meaning I can click my vacation response to "On" and feel OK about it.
And, rationalizing aside, this trip is also a good opportunity for me as an individual. Dammit, that's enough! Solo travel is something I valued before I had kids -- starting with a three-month trip to Frankfurt, Germany when I was 26, an experience that didn't go as planned, but taught me a lot about trusting my intuition, and helped me feel confident, empowered and whole as a human. And I've come to see that despite the reality of the messy, emotional departure, my solo trips are good for my kids, too.
Case in point: A couple of years ago, I went to Rome alone for two weeks. The night before I left, I had an illuminating conversation with my son, who was 5 at the time. He'd just asked for the millionth time, "Mommy, why do you have to go?" and I was considering repeating the same vague answer. But instead, I took his hand and led him to the giant world map on his wall. We sat on the floor.
First, I traced the arc my plane would fly, from Colorado, to Philadelphia, to Italy, and he marveled at the size of the Atlantic Ocean. Then, we talked about passion, and what it means to support others. I told him I was born with something called wanderlust, and when I travel alone, I see things in a new way, talk to people I'd generally not notice and rely on my inner voice. This inspires me. It also makes me a better mom, because I return home feeling energized.
Then I asked him to tell me about something he loves. He blurted, "Motorcycles." Swallowing the image of Evil Knievel, I told him that someday he might like to save money and buy his own bike. He might want to race it, or travel off-road, or attend rallies. If it's something he's passionate about, I'll support him. He lit up. "Oh, I get it!" he exclaimed.
The conversation was basic, but pioneering. For the first time, my child understood in a tangible way the concept of identity. Even better, my solo trip to Rome prompted the discussion, putting theory into practice in a positive way.
At the end of the conversation, I pulled out my son's kindergarten calendar and circled the day I'd be back from Rome. It would be "Bat Day" in his classroom, for the proximity to Halloween. He thought this was fantastic. Rome was important to me, Bat Day was important to him, and in the end, we reunited with exciting stories to tell from our respective experiences.
And so this year, when I return home from my adventure in Guatemala, it will be Thanksgiving we'll be recapping. They can tell me about their dinner and train trip. I'll talk about my time away, bring them gifts and show pictures. And best of all, I'll be doing this all with a renewed sense of energy, equipped with power poses, my wanderlust sated after a fulfilling experience abroad. I hope that's something both me and my family will be thankful for.