I am writing today while traveling on a high-speed train between Paris and Barcelona. Outside my window, medieval villages, with their ancient churches, rustic houses, and palatial chateaus, dot the French countryside. There have been moments in the last week we’ve been traveling Europe where I’ve had to remind myself this is real, and not a dream. I never imagined I would see the canals of my grandparents’ Netherlands, climb the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral or stand in front of the Mona Lisa at The Louvre.

Vacations were rare in my family growing up, and most often were used to visit my grandparents’ farm in Iowa. In later years, we ventured further to the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and the badlands of South Dakota. Even on vacation, however, there was always a lingering sense of seriousness that permeated our family culture – road trips meant long days in the car, stopping only to sleep for a few hours at a roadside motel. “Fun” excursions were most often visits to museums, historical sites, and botanical gardens – none of which ranked high on the list of interesting things to see and do for us kids. There wasn’t even a break from the strict rules for Sunday observance – when traveling, we still had to dress up, find a local church (preferably of the same denomination) and avoid eating in restaurants so we wouldn’t contribute to the sin of the poor servers working on Sunday.

As an adult, I have had to rethink my definition of vacation. Several years ago, I learned a helpful question for self-examination was not “why” I do something, but “how” – in this case, “how do I do vacation?”  And really, how I do vacation is part of the larger question “how do I do life?” Who do I want as traveling companions? What do I most want to see and experience? What are helpful boundaries for how I will spend my time, my money?

What is the most life-giving balance of work, rest and play?

Early in our marriage, I vacationed on auto-pilot, not stopping to engage desire deeply, if at all. I did what I knew. Consequently, vacation felt a lot more like the work of my everyday life than rest or play – it just happened to be in a different location. In the last few years, I have begun to actually let myself dream, to imagine vacations that are about what I desire rather than about what is practical or reasonable. When I engage desire, I am choosing to turn away from my life script of always being on trial, having to justify myself and my actions, because I am always being judged. The judgmental voice from my childhood questions the extravagance of spending time and money on an experience, with nothing to show for it, rather than investing it in something ‘useful.’ How is it that it took me so many decades to question whether rest and play were just as valuable, useful even, as work?

Last week, while walking through the galleries of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam featuring artists from the Dutch Reformed tradition, I came face to face with the strict, judgmental beliefs of my ancestors. My eyes were drawn to a painting of a young girl on a beach – Girl Knitting in the Dunes. The scene is restful – the sea is calm, dotted with sailboats and the outlines of birds, the girl’s shoes are off, suggesting the pleasure of sinking toes into the sand. And she is knitting, an odd contrast to the rest of the scene. In one of the only descriptions about a piece of art that I read in its entirety, it was pointed out that the artist was making a statement about the Dutch Protestant ideal of work, specifically the belief that “idle hands are the devil’s tools.” It would be sinful for this girl to simply revel in the beauty of the sea and the sand; she had to be doing something useful.

As I continue to question what life is – full, extravagant, sensual, complex, delightful life – I plan on seeking out more opportunities to kick my shoes off and dig my toes in the sand. This week, the sand happens to be the vineyards of France and the Mediterranean coast of Spain. Two weeks ago, it was eating fried chicken in Indianapolis for my birthday. Neither experience is inherently useful or practical, but both are full of life.


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Janet Stark is a woman learning to bless her depth and sensitivity. She is grateful for the deep love she shares with her husband, Chris and their kids and grandkids. Janet loves curling up with a good book, trying new recipes on her friends and family, and enjoying long conversations with friends over a cup of really good coffee. She is a life-long lover of words and writes about her experiences here.