Lost and Found in Paradise

If you take out the religious overlay of the concept of paradise, it is defined as, “an ideal or idyllic place or state.”  So it is both a location, geography, and a feeling, or our internal geography, if you will.

Last December I had the privilege of joining three other families in the geographical paradise of Culebra, a small island off the larger island of Puerto Rico.  Dang, this little corner of the world is beautiful.  Warm sunshine, palm trees, aqua waters, fine sand beaches — a text book definition of paradise to so many.

See, it totally looks like a post card, but I snapped this photo off the porch of our vacation spot in Culebra.
See, it totally looks like a post card, but I snapped this photo off the porch of our vacation spot in Culebra.

Except it didn’t feel like paradise at the time.  I remember looking out from the porch, feeling as if I had been transported into a post card.  The beauty of this place we found ourselves in was astounding.  So there I was, surrounded by people I love, in this pristine, exotic locale, but as far away from paradise as I had felt in quite a while.

My person was there, on that porch, feeling a warm breeze on a December day, but my heart was at home in Chicago, fielding frantic phone calls from my sisters and worrying about my Dad in the midst of a medical crisis.  I was in Culebra, but I was not in paradise.

What I learned, quickly, was that if your internal geography does not match your external geography, well, all bets are off.  The paradise factor I was surrounded by didn’t matter much at all to me.

So when we ran out of milk for the baby and didn’t have a car to drive the four miles to the market that may or may not have any milk in stock, well, palm trees didn’t really help.  And when a friend kindly drove my son and I to the emergency room, such as it was on a small island off a larger island, the warm sun didn’t really make a dent in my worry for the wailing and moaning boy in my arms, writhing in pain from an ear infection.  And that elevated porch that afforded me tropical breezes and stunning views too often felt like a death trap for the 15 month old fearless child who would not be contained by the three screen doors leading to said porch.

Sigh.  Paradise was exhausting.

I was frustrated with myself for six solid days, there in the midst of paradise.  Why wasn’t I enjoying myself?  What was wrong with me?  How could I think of snorkeling or hiking or basking in the sun when who knew what was happening to one of the people I love most in the world in a hospital room in Chicago?

When our vacation was over, I was grateful.  Paradise was overrated.  And, of course, the trip ended with a nine hour delay in the San Juan Airport.  Having two young boys to entertain, one with an untreated ear infection and one a busy, busy bee, is not easy in a crowded airport in paradise the week after Christmas.

I know I sound like an ungrateful jerk, but stick with me, folks.

My point is this.  When I got home, I realized I had found paradise, right there on the kitchen floor.  It was a few weeks after our return from Culebra, and we were having a moment, my young boys and I.  Clad in pajamas on a weekend morning we all found ourselves on the kitchen floor, a pile of boys in my lap.  “Take a picture!” I asked of my husband, wanting to remember the moment I found paradise.

For me, right now, paradise is not a place I can get to on an airplane.  It doesn’t involve TSA agents or bad food or tiny bottles of liquor.  Paradise is that elusive “state” from the definition I referenced earlier.  A state of being and of feeling, that, for now, comes in drips and moments.  It is not a place I travel to, but instead, find myself in.  I can’t plan to be there, but must recognize it when it happens.

Paradise is that kiss my youngest just gave me, that I will accept despite his slight fever, because his kisses are gifts and still new enough to be novel.  Paradise is turning out the light and the screen to cuddle with my older son as he drifts off to sleep. Paradise is walking across the parking lot to get to the Noodle & Co. and realizing you just saw the first sprout of spring.  Paradise is the smell of Irish soda bread in the oven, knowing it will be eaten by your very favorite Irishman, your father.  Paradise is hugging your sister at the airport, so grateful for her kind and generous heart. Paradise is the laughter of your husband after 14 years of marriage.

I sometimes hate the realization that the tough things in life — the loss and the sorrow and the pain — are what lead you to see and recognize the most profound gifts of your life — the love and the simplicity and the abundance of ordinary days.  That is paradise, my friends, when you can fully appreciate the moments you find yourself in as masterpieces of wonder and joy and privilege and life and love.

My paradise is on the kitchen floor and in the front seat of our Ford with the kids chattering in the back and right now, reclined on the futon my husband owned before we even met, typing these words.  It’s not exotic and there is no warm breeze and I see the laundry pile in my periphery, but it’s clean laundry, dammit, and I appreciate it.

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