I recently finished a wonderful book called “The Shell Seekers” that captures the story of three generations of family members. Some I fell in love with and some made me cringe. Within the family there are a few characters who prioritize material possessions, money, and status. Other characters find happiness in things like spending time in a garden, at the beach, enjoying a piece of art, or time with people they love. The book got me thinking about how often we chase the wrong things in the name of happiness. A shiny new car, another new outfit, a big promotion, a checked-off to-do list. Usually, though, joy is simpler than that. It’s right there in front of us, waiting to be picked up. Kind of like shells in the sand. Funny how good I used to be at picking up shells with my bucket on the beach. Grownups sometimes forget.
One day recently with this book on my mind, I was on a run with my dog. It was a sunny day and he was just leaping around in front of me, exploring the trail and bushes, stopping to look back at me periodically with his tongue flopping out the side of his mouth. I swear he can smile. I was listening to an NPR podcast about research on joy. Scientists, the host explained, had discovered something interesting about joy in a recent study. They had asked hundreds of people what brought them joy. The results were surprising. Joy, they found, wasn’t anything grand or complicated. People reported finding joy in little moments when time just dissolved. Maybe it was watching a child play with bubbles, or seeing hot air balloons in the sky, or sipping a cup of hot chocolate, or meeting a friend for lunch. I slowed down and thought about that for a minute. How easy it might be to miss those moments.
For me, as a stay-at-home mom, I probably have hundreds of moments in a day where I could pick up a little joy. Yes, at any given time, I might have laundry to fold, dinner to cook, bills to pay, a carpool to drive, dishes to do, a doctor’s appointment to make, a leaking fridge to address, and a toilet to unclog. But when my little four year old son came up to me recently and said, “Mom, would you snuggle me?” and gave me that look with his big brown eyes, I had a choice to make. I could think about what I wouldn’t be getting done, or I could pick him up, and lay down with him in the sunny spot in our window alcove and just snuggle together. Which is what I did. I enjoyed. En-JOY-ed. I wonder how many of those moments I miss.
For today, and hopefully tomorrow, I am recommitting myself to joy. When I have a minute to sit and listen to Ellie tell me about school, or when Addie asks me to brush her hair or play Uno, or when Zach wants to show me the latest dog meme that made him laugh, or when Sam asks for just one more bedtime story, I am going to say yes. I am going to pick up that tiny shell in the sand and know that this is what life is all about anyway. The lengthy to-do list can wait a few more minutes.
A few months before Christmas we warned our children that we did not want presents to be the focus of the season. We were going to think about what we wanted to give. No lengthy lists of all the items they wanted for Christmas. This season was going to be about the Savior and what we could do to be more like him. Shocking us, one of our children actually said, “I think that will help us all be happier.” Wise little souls they can be.
What we didn’t tell them was that our family Christmas present was going to be a surprise trip to Mexico, leaving the day after Christmas. On Christmas morning, they unwrapped a few little gifts they had gotten for each other and opened their stockings with treats from Santa. Then they each got one gift bag from Mom and Dad. As they looked inside and found a swimming suit, flip flops, and snorkel set, they got a little suspicious and all looked our way, waiting. We sat there and just said “Merry Christmas!” They stared. We giggled and then said, “OK, we have one more thing.” Then we gave them each an envelope with a bow. Inside the envelope, each child found a copy of a plane ticket to Cancun and a few photographs of the white sand, turquoise beaches we’d be enjoying for the next week. They jumped and screamed and Ellie even said “I knew you were going to do something like that!!” She’s very perceptive. So we packed our bags that day and took off the next morning for the Yucatan.
We had lived in Mexico when our oldest was just a year and a half and spent a month enjoying one of the most beautiful, geologically diverse places I’d ever been. Underground rivers, cenotes, tropical forests, beautiful beaches, Mayan ruins…it’s an adventure paradise. So I couldn’t wait to bring the kids back to explore. We decided to do our lodging on the cheap through Air BNB, which worked out great. Nothing fancy (as in, our place was on the fourth floor and the elevator only worked about 1 out of every 5 trips and when it stormed one day we had water leaking through window onto the bedroom floor). Still, we had a great view of the ocean from our balcony window, an infinity pool pool to enjoy, and awesome boogie boarding waves just steps away. The kids were in heaven.
Because we felt great about the money we were saving on our accommodations, we decided to splurge a bit on a couple of day-long excursions. Our first big outing took us an hour and a half south to an eco-adventure park called Xel-ha. The first thing I loved after we walked in was knowing we could go to any restaurant and eat whatever we wanted–and not have to worry about dishes. (I’m a mom cooking and cleaning for 6 daily so you see the draw.) Now we were on vacation! Zach got the biggest kick out of the soda stations where he could just stop, get a drink of whatever he wanted, leave his cup, and carry on to whatever cool activity was next on the agenda.
The park is nestled on the edge of the ocean where a giant, clear lagoon works its way to the coast from a ways inland. We rode bikes to the top of the lagoon, then snorkeled down. We floated in tubes, we zip-lined, we cliff jumped, we rode a giant waterslide down from the top of a lighthouse, and we zip biked through a rainforest (basically riding a bike in the air attached to a cable above so you can soar over cenotes, through caves, beside waterfalls). The girls and Scott even got to do a dolphin interactive experience, which they loved. We kept all our stuff in lockers so we could just walk around in swimsuits, playing, swimming, and stopping in restaurants when we got hungry. The weather was lovely, and after a short afternoon shower we even looked up to find a rainbow arching over the place. Heavenly.
We left Xel-ha wet, happy, and full of delicious Mexican food then spent the next day relaxing back at our condo. Then we were ready for another adventure. We had heard about a tour company called Alma’s LDS Tours, which offered a specific Book of Mormon emphasis to some of the Mayan ruins. We decided that sounded just right for us. The tour bus picked us up at 7 a.m. and we headed back down south to explore the ruins of Tulum and Coba. Tulum was a gorgeous civilization built between the 13th and 15th centuries right on the Caribbean coast. Our wonderful tour guide Arnie shared the history of the area and then pointed out interesting LDS tidbits, like the many carvings of what has been dubbed the “descending God,” a figure that looks like it is coming down from heaven to live among the people. Book of Mormon scholars think that the Nephite civilization could have been just south of this area so the story of a God coming down from heaven sounds a lot like 3 Nephi, when Christ comes down to heal and teach the Nephites.
In the ruins of Coba, first settled around 100 A.D., we found more Book of Mormon similarities, such as a carving of a tree with two men that looked rather unhappy and turned away from the tree, and another two men walking toward it. Lehi’s Tree of Life perhaps? Our tour guide also asked Zach to read from the Book of Mormon where we learned about raised roads that paved the way between cities (see 3 Nephi 6:8).
We read this scripture standing in an area where there is evidence of an ancient road raised off the ground (or “cast up” as it reads in the Book of Mormon). How cool is that? The Book of Mormon is a record of an ancient civilization that would have been near the ancient people of the Yucatan. I loved thinking about these histories and the way the people lived and loved and worshiped many hundreds of years ago. Plus, it’s significant to remember that Joseph Smith hadn’t been on vacation recently to the Yucatan when he was translating the plates. He just wrote down what he saw. Coba wasn’t officially discovered in modern times until 1926, 82 years after Joseph Smith died.
Our last stop was at a beautiful cenote (or pool of water in a cave fed by the underground rivers that run through the Yucatan) where my kids completely peer pressured me into jumping off the highest platform I ever have into the water below. I think it was Eleanor Roosevelt who said “Do one thing every day that scares you.” Check. We drove home, first stopping to drop off another family at an all-inclusive place that we were told cost $800 per person per day. The kids asked if we could do that next time. We laughed. “Um, probably not.”
All in all, the trip was an incredible success. We got everything we were looking for: family time, warm weather, the beach, culture and history, and lots of adventure. It wasn’t easy getting on the plane and realizing that in four hours the temperature outside was going to go from 80 degrees to 20. Luckily, these sorts of experiences don’t completely get left behind with the weather. We keep them in our minds and hearts and remember them forever. I have a feeling that this December we might just give our children the same warning that we will not be honoring wish lists for toys and clothes. We want to give something more–something that last a lifetime.
Last night for our family home evening we decided to work on setting some goals for the new year. We usually do this every January. Typically, we all will write down a few things on a piece of paper, wish the kids luck, and some weeks later completely lose track of the papers and whatever was written on them. Well, thanks to a little inspiration from a book by the amazing Linda and Richard Eyre called The Entitlement Trap we felt inspired to step it up a notch. This year, I gave each person in our family a thick poster board that they could write on and keep in their room to actually notice and remember what it is we are working toward.
When we finally had wrangled all four kids into the family room, I turned on a video as an introduction to the night’s purpose (it’s amazing the magic of a quick video to get their attention). This two-minute video helped me step back a bit as I asked what we are hoping to achieve. We are hoping, little by little, to become more like the Savior.
I loved watching this video for the reminder it gave me about what I want to become–more selfless, more kind, more loving, more humble. We have been commanded to “be perfect” (3 Nephi 12:48), but not all at once. Heavenly Father wants us to do our best to progress in this life because he knows our potential. He knows we can become like Him, because we are his children. He has told us that “by him, and through him, and of him, the worlds are and were created, and the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters unto God” (D&C 76: 24). What a powerful reminder–I am his daughter and I can become like him!
We’ll make mistakes. In fact, shortly after this inspiring video about becoming more loving and selfless, two siblings began arguing over who should be using what markers that may or may not belong to someone specific. And cute Sam was coloring with a marker that not only covered the entire board but spread all over his hands, feet, and face as well. Sigh. Perfection? We’re not even close. But that doesn’t mean we can’t start with the end in mind.
We won’t get there today, but maybe, just maybe, if we remind ourselves regularly (perhaps with a giant board in our room) we’ll be a little better next year than we are today. Thankfully, we’re not on our journey alone. God didn’t say “be perfected all by yourselves. Good luck.” He said, “Come unto Christ, and be perfected in him” (Moroni 10: 32). What an invitation! For me, that means remembering that His grace is enough to have me covered, with all of my flaws and mistakes. All I have to do is my best to become like Him, and try again, and again, and again.