So you're coming to Block Island. You're going to stay with your good friends or with your extended family. You're going to be their guests. You've got a significant other and more than a few significant children, and you're looking forward to your visit. Of course, it will be a little complex. You've got to deal with distance, the ferry, the cars, sometimes plane tickets - many, many things. It can be a lot.
Bill and I have been on many sides of these issues. We rent out our house in the summer and we've met family after family as they've come. Some of our folks have been coming for many years, and we've been lucky enough to know them through many events and stages in their lives. We've also hosted large gatherings for our families and friends, here in our home on the island. And since our family has a tiny house in Nova Scotia, we've also been the guests, the people who slept like sardines on the living room floor with about eight other people - well past the age where we might have thought that was fun.
So here are our thoughts.
Know that you are welcomed. If your friends or relatives rented a place on the island, they did it specifically because they wanted to be with you. They want you to feel more than welcomed - cherished in fact. They wanted to find a place to gather all of you, so that you could have this time to be together. As our long-time tenants and now, our friends, have so succinctly and beautifully put it, they have always come to Block Island to make memories for their children and their grandchildren that would last the rest of their lives.
Know that you are welcomed, even when your hosts seem a little perplexed You know that feeling you had while you were rushing to come? Well, multiply that by all the other guests and all of the interactions between them. Consider the fact that your hosts might have been doing this for a couple of weeks now, and if they own the house, possibly all summer long. As our friends are fond of saying, there are a "lot of moving parts" to hosting people an island.
When most of us embark on anything like this, we start with a plan - a beautiful plan, a well-conceived, skillful plan. But islands, families, vacations, and vacations with families on islands, all have their special ways of making people realize that they aren't in control of their lives. As my brother would say from his experience in the military, "no plan survives first contact." That is in fact, the motto of all our family vacations. At some point, a vacation is all about improvisation. And what do they say about improv? (I learned this from Big Bang Theory). Improv is about saying "Yes."
That is where you come in. You're the one who knows these people. You're the one who can see it another way. When the three-year old says, "I 'fraid dat water, Mommy!", you're the one with the brilliant idea to gather all the children and take them to Andy's Way where they can pot around in the water without being hit by the waves. And you are the one with the energy to do it. You're the fresh legs that are needed at this point in the deployment.
You know how Napoleon said that an army travels on its stomach? Well, in this case, your army travels on sunblock, bottles of water, beach towels, beach chairs, bathing suits, cars and skateboards and bicycles, blood pressure medication, pacifiers, ferry schedules, little sun umbrellas, chips and salsa, cans of beer, sunglasses, cell phones, mud slides, formula, late night Scrabble, puzzles, Lord of the Rings marathons, charades, talent night, food for a constantly rotating group of people, some of whom are vegetarian, dairy free, gluten free, paleo, juicing, cleansing or some combination thereof.
Anything you can do to help with this, to make things go a little more smoothly, is likely to be met by your hosts with pride and appreciation. And you should feel good about it, very good, and then as soon as possible, go out and take a break. Take the time before you need it, take it even if you feel guilty, take it before you have the meltdown that goes down in family history. Any extended family can have a good time together as long as they have enough space. This can be a roomy house, a walk on the beach, or just some space in your minds. You may not need a lot of it, but when you need it you really need it. Don't be a hero. Say what you need, or better yet, hatch an escape plan and go.
Walk. Swim. Read. Lie on a blanket. Pretend you're asleep. Do what you need to do.
Sometimes people hang so many hopes on the perfect vacation for the family, that they create a level of stress that they don't really need. Just assume it could rain, that Mohegan Beach or some other favorite beach might be little rocky this year, that the washer might break, that someone might forget their iPad. That's how you'll know it's a real vacation, accomplished by real people, and it's imperfectly, perfectly fine.
Sometimes people come with well-established connections and habits of being together. Some hope that this time on the island will heal or form connections that aren't yet, actually there. I think it's a good to keep things simple, try to share the load, and then relax about everything else to the best of your ability. Think of little memories whose meaning will be different for everyone, but which will nonetheless, lock in. Things will grow a little this way and that way, in imperceptible ways.
You've worked so hard to get here. Let the island do the rest of the work for you. I really think it can. The ocean forms a natural boundary. It holds everyone in a place together and gives them a shared experience. It offers fresh air and fun and breezes and beauty. The children will remember every inch of the house and the yard and the beach and the ferry. Before you know it, they will own the whole place - they will start to talk about "our room" and how they have to get back to "The Block."
Two little girls came to visit me up at my studio, a couple of years ago. (They're teenagers now, I can't believe it.) Their grandparents are the folks who have gathered their clan together, year after year, and they're shown in the big group picture above. They said, "Grandma and Grandpa are the founders of our whole vacation on Block Island!" They certainly are, and more.
That's the best thing about the island - how we can be here, year after year; how we can build something that passes through generations - memories and love for the island and if we're lucky, for each other. We are so lucky, however we can be here, whenever we can be here.
So welcome to Block Island. I hope you can relax, stay safe, take care of yourselves and each other, and give each other some room. (Read the other sections of this blog if you want, especially the ones about staying safe on the island. The one about forgettable things will probably be helpful, too.) Enjoy the island. It's beautiful here. It takes care of people with its beauty. That will never stop. That's the easiest thing about being on Block Island.
PS. Joshua Braff writes eloquently about being a dad, a member of his extended family, and includes his experiences on Block Island. He's the fellow on the far left in the family picture up above. You can learn about him and his art and writing here.