Live to Work, or Work to Live?

posted July 11, 2024

I’m with my husband, daughter and son—my family—for a ten-day trip to England and Wales. As I write these words, I feel a lump in my throat. Lila is 18, and in late August, she’s off to college. Johnny, almost 16, also has his own busy happy life. It’s very likely that the four of us will never again travel as a contained unit. Tom and I seem to have done what we were supposed to do in that department—raised independent kids who are engaged in their own interesting lives, form successful relationships, seek our advice, but don’t cling. More to the immediate point: they don’t need us the way they used to, and they don’t like being dragged around any more than you or I. 

I was the one who chose Great Britain, though so far, everyone seems happy to be in this sceptered isle. I’ve been obsessed with England since I was a child and discovered first the Beatles and then Shakespeare. I’ve been studying the history of the English Language for fun for the past two years. I think I finally understand what Stonehenge is. (At least I now know approximately WHERE Stonehenge is). I’ve been looking forward to this trip for months. I want to do all the things. I want to be present for my kids and husband. I don’t want to replicate the trip my family of origin took in 1985 when I was Lila’s age.

Then, my parents, who hadn’t been abroad since 1968, took us teenage girls to Ireland, Wales, the Lake District, Scotland and London in a period of two weeks. We landed in Shannon and drove in a U-shape around the Ring of Kerry to Dublin (week one). Then took a ferry to Anglesey or Llan-something, up the west side of England to Glasgow, over to Edinburgh and down to London (week 2). 

You may be wondering: Did we spend most of the time in a tiny British car, packed to the gills, three strapping teens squished in the back, with my mother holding my dad’s guitar between her legs in the front passenger seat while my dad attempted to navigate roundabouts while driving on the left side of the road on one-land roads meant for two cars? We did. Did it rain every. single. day? Why, yes, yes it did. Did we try to climb mountains in the rain? Yes, though on the day we were supposed to climb Snowden in northern Wales, even my parents said the deluge was too much. Did we ever once have a sunny day or temperatures above 70˙? I think the last two days in London? Maybe? 

The three of us. No, it was not Halloween. We always dressed like that.

Ah! But surely we visited Liverpool, given that we drove right through on our way from Wales to Glasgow! Surely my parents chose one event to delight their Beatles-obsessed daughters?

Well, actually—and famously to our regular Nieldsband audience—no, we did not. “It’s just a dirty industrial city,” they said. “It will probably depress you.” So we drove around it.

The author in London 1985

Of course I forgive my parents. Now, that I’m about fifteen years older than they were at that time, I also get it. Still. Am I trying to do that thing where the wounded child tries to right the wrongs of her parents by creating a better situation for her own children but then accidentally recreates the exact same situation and plunges into despair because now she sees that her parents were only doing what they truly thought would be fun for us? 

I don’t know. What I do know is that I intended to write a very short newsletter to you about how I’m in the middle of reading out loud my first novel and just received valuable feedback from my editor on my second novel, and now isn’t exactly the best time for me to let all that interior information float into the back of my consciousness. 

Last Sunday, we went to see the great Brandi Carlile at Tanglewood. In preparation, we read Broken Horses, her beautiful memoir. She writes about her own workaholic tendencies, how she embarked on a giant tour thirty days after her second child was born and almost OD’d on sleeping pills when she thought they were her steroids, which she was taking because, as usual, she’d gotten sick and was working right over her sore throat. 

It occurred to me, not for the first time, that putting one’s body through the rigors of life on the road as a traveling musician is an extremely harsh thing to do. It was doable for me until about the age of 37, at which point I began to dread going out on the road. That might have had something to do with falling in love with Tom and not wanting to leave him. But the consequences of traveling––the depletion of my immune system, the havoc it wrecked on my hormones, the chronic tension in my shoulders and neck from guitar-playing, to name a few––do seem to grow more serious as the years go by. I used to be wiped out for maybe a day after a tour. Now it’s more like a week and a half. I’ve long believed that the secret to success for endurance in the music business is equal parts talent, luck, a strong physical constitution, a strong nervous system, and money. It was sobering to learn that even Brandi Carlile, who is rich in talent and seems to be the mentally healthiest musician I’ve even known, had to struggle with her physical health. (And also to discover that even though she’s won multiple Grammys, she’s not exactly rich.)

Can I just be in England and not think about my novels? Can I be in Wales and not think about our shows in the end of July—in Bryn Mawr PA, in Goshen CT? Could I go to the UK and not think about our current political scene? Could I, in short, have a vacation? Could I let go all the “shoulds” and focus on my kids and husband? This remains to be seen. 

The Comments

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  1. Excellent post! Now, that none of those valuable matters you mind wanted to work on is preserved, you are open to being in the moment: Old Blighty Now! I’ve wanted to visit *The London Stone* for many a year now, and will be mad jealous if you get to that before your return flight.

    • Opps, I meant to write; Excellent post! Now, that those valuable matters your mind wanted to work on are preserved, you are open to being in the moment:
      Old Blighty Now!
      I’ve wanted to visit *The London Stone* for many a year now, and will be mad jealous if you get to that before your return flight.

  2. Trust me–Lila and Johnny are having an experience that will be precious to them, each in their own way, for their own reasons, for the rest of their full and complicated lives. Possibly even more so than it will be for you and for Tom. There’s nothing quite like the astonished and astonishing **** that goes through one’s mind, heart, and spirit in the years from 15 to 25. And a “last big trip for just the four of us” is the stuff of lucrative memoirs. . .for all four of you 🙂

  3. You will have a wonderful time and are laying the groundwork for great memories and future trips. We still have a family trip with our kids at 50 and 44, and their families. Erin and I will see you in October. We’re staying in the Blue Studio while she vends at Paradise City.

  4. There’s a particularly powerful feeling when memories are reenforced by adventures in the present. Thank you for this, Nerissa.

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