Trudging along the beautiful cobbled streets of Bruges on the last day of a fraught family holiday, I was lost for words when my temperamental pre-teen whispered: ‘This has been the best trip of my life, I will remember it for ever.’
Let us just say that is not how I was mentally summarising our holiday. Booked to mark my husband’s 40th birthday, we had chosen the beer capital of Europe as our destination because he is the co-founder of a brewery and had just finished a year-long break from drinking alcohol. With three children in tow, we had obviously not expected to drink the city dry, but enjoying everything Bruges has to offer adults while keeping our children happy had proved more challenging than we had anticipated.
We had argued ceaselessly about the appropriate use of spending money, spent a small fortune on chips and waffles, and amassed so many begged-for holiday souvenirs that we had to fork out for a new suitcase just to carry them all home. Factor in a flat tyre on the hire car on day one, and travelling via an airport patrolled by machine-gun-wielding military police because it had been the scene of a terrorist attack two months earlier, and you’ll understand why my son’s soulful words came as a surprise.
Lapping up adventure
To me, the trip was chaotic, stressful and not far from disappointing. But my son was too busy making memories and lapping up adventure to notice. He saw exotic trinkets to be treasured, not overpriced junk; time spent together being a family, not the constant juggle of conflicting interests; and soldiers keeping us safe, not impending danger.
His perspective was both a tonic and a challenge, because it made me realise that many of the moments I rush through – or even resent – end up yielding memories I later treasure. Looking back over various periods in my life that seemed difficult or felt like a struggle at the time – losing a job I had loved, becoming a mother for the first time, and even a painful period in my marriage – I can see that many of them have since mellowed into some of my richest and most meaningful memories.
Redundancy from an executive PR role I had worked my way up to over six years felt like abject failure at the time it happened, but it became the catalyst for me starting my own business, which I cannot imagine ever having had the courage to do otherwise.
When my firstborn lost weight, and the health visitor labelled him ‘failing to thrive’, I interpreted her dismay as an indictment on my capacity to be a good mother. But, as that headstrong judo champion now prepares to throw himself headlong into high school, I look back on those days of angst, and feel that they somehow anchored me to who I truly am: an imperfect mother, who loves her child as fiercely as though his life depends on it.
And the rough patch in my relationship, which I once thought would destroy me, actually helped me forge the deepest and most enduring friendships of my life.
In Bruges, I couldn’t see past the trip’s logistical challenges and stressful moments to appreciate the memorable parts that would stay with me always – but my son could. If only I could apply his outlook to adulthood’s many mundane
or even miserable moments, maybe I could capture the contentment that seems to come so naturally to a 10-year-old.
Living the highlights
A few days later, I shared this rumination with a friend. ‘Bruges was on the highlights reel,’ she said, nodding sagely.
It transpired that she had read an article about a strikingly similar moment of clarity in someone’s life. Dragging her irritable children from the beach back to their holiday rental in the middle of a heavy downpour, the writer overheard an elderly man commenting on the scene of domestic chaos that passed before him.
‘Those were the days,’ he said, smiling broadly and, in that moment, she realised what my son knew instinctively: that what will one day be the ‘highlights reel’ of our lives – the moments that we will replay with fondness; longing for those days that passed too fast – are the very moments we are in danger of missing or taking for granted, unless something, or someone, resets our perspective.
She is right. These are the days of our lives, and that realisation can move us through every moment with more grace and purpose. I suppose mindfulness is an effort to capture the essence of this thinking, but muttering ‘highlights reel’ to myself when I’m chasing my toddler back to bed for the sixth time in an evening is as effective in focusing my attention as any mindfulness technique I have tried.
If anyone knows how highlights-reel thinking can recalibrate your sense of what makes life more meaningful, it is my dear friend who was diagnosed with cancer three months after meeting the love of her life.
‘Now, I think of my “cancer year” as one of the best of my life,’ she says. ‘I look back fondly on the wonderful connection that I forged with my now-husband, while he coached me through painful chemotherapy; learning to grow my own vegetables when I could barely eat a thing; and the new respect I earned from my siblings by refusing to give in to the fear of dying.’
Perhaps our children are possessed of an acute sense of perspective that us grown-ups have to face death in order to acquire, but it is undeniable that highlights-reel thinking changes absolutely everything, if you will let it.
Now, I kiss my husband more attentively, hug my children more intensely, and celebrate even small successes at work far more unashamedly. I also take fewer things for granted: the small voice that whines for yet another story at bedtime is also the one that I might one day yearn to hear in a rare long-distance phone call. And the pressing professional deadlines that seem to deaden the joy of a sunny weekend are the mounting accomplishments that I hope
might one day inspire and amuse grandchildren yet to come.
If you are in any doubt over whether you are living the highlights reel, or need a sign that these truly are the days of our lives, let me leave you with the words of Van Morrison, whose track These Are The Days came on at this very moment in the pub – where I am seeking a period of solitude away from the chaotic highlights-reel moment that is bedtime on a Friday evening in our house:
‘These are the days of the endless summer; These are the days, the time is now; There is no past, there is only future; There’s only here, there’s only now.’