Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Working to live, not living to work

Over at Yahoo's Shine!, I've written an essay about how the holidays and my extended family remind me to work to live, not live to work:

I'm gearing up for another too-quick trip to my parents' and brother's houses, where we celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas just before or just after the big dates. There will be plenty to eat and, of course, cake, though all of the kids will mostly feast on icing and then work the resulting sugar high off by going ballistic in my brother's basement, while the grownups cast their diets to the wind and indulge. We'll also be indulging in something else, something that only people with far-flung families can truly understand: A chance to reconnect with the people closest to us.

Distance, I think, may be relative. The 300 or so miles between my home and my parents' isn't much to me, though I know plenty of people who can't imagine living less than a 15-minute drive from their mom and dad's places. My own parents left their homes as very young adults -- my dad came to the US from Haiti at the tender age of 17 to go to college, and my mom came here from India as a 22-year-old gunning for a second master's degree (The child prodigy gene skipped me and went to my brothers and my children, I'm quite certain) so my living a few states away isn't that big a deal.

Did I say the distance between my place and my parents' isn't much to me? What I meant to say is that it doesn't seem like a great distance -- I don't have to change flights in Europe and again in Mumbai in order for my kids to spend a little time with Grammie and Papa, like my mom did when I was a child. A five-hour drive doesn't seem far at all until, you know, I start trying to finagle time off from work and arrange a place for the dog and hold the mail and settle things with my kids' teachers and call their karate coach and pack all the bags and then load everyone in the car.
I guess what I'm saying is that I don't make that relatively short trip as often as I probably should.

On a recent trip, while visiting with my uncle (who is more like an older brother to me), getting reacquainted with my nieces, watching bad TV late at night with my mom, and talking politics with my Dad, I felt like I was missing out by having been away for so long. Or, more to the point, that my reluctance to juggle work and life even more in order to bridge that distance more often meant that, maybe, my kids were missing out on a closer relationship with their grandparents, their uncle and aunt, their cousins.

While I was loading up the car so we could head back home, my toddler stuffed his impossibly tiny hands into the sides of his overalls, trying to imitate my dad (who had his hands in his pockets), and gravely walked the perimeter of the property with his grandfather. From where I stood on the driveway, it looked like someone had cloned my dad. Another "life is short" moment.

The trip was full of moments like that: My youngest brother -- who, ironically, lives relatively near me but whom I end up seeing more often several states away when we're both at my parents' house -- delighting the kids by leaving each of them notes from "a secret admirer" on the front door, ringing the bell and then hiding; my 4-year-old daughter, who looks exactly as I did at that age, jumping on my mom's bed exactly the way I used to (and getting caught, exactly the way I used to); my brother feeding my daughter candy corn at breakfast while my father blocked my view of the kitchen table.

Forget all of the other truisms you've heard; this is what family is for: Reminding you of who you were before you became who you currently are. Reminding you about what's important in life. Reminding you that you need to work to live, not live to work.

And even though 300 miles can seem like several plane trips away when you're juggling work and life, suddenly, it's definitely worth the trip.

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