Sometimes when I drive to a youth soccer game three hours away, I think, “Wait, why are we doing this? Why do we spend so much time and money on a game for kids? Also, in most of the world the local children play barefoot, with a half-deflated ball, on the beach or in the local vacant lot, and they still end up being better players than U.S. teenagers.” Our whole youth soccer club system is a broken mess, yet we…I mean…I, I have spent so much time and money on the system.
This is just one example. A microcosm. Maybe we Americans have it wrong. In soccer. In other things. It seems like we always find a way to spend a lot of money and drive long distances, for everything.
Or what about the pace of daily life? Driving, stressing, too much homework, complicated play-date schedules, expensive kids’ birthday parties. What are we doing? Why are we living this way?
My family is doing better than it was. We got rid of our second car a few years ago and try to bike or carpool most places. Recently we pulled our older daughter out of club soccer and put her in a cheap local kids’ league. We let our other daughter trade organized sports for “pretend time,” skateboarding, and jumping on the trampoline with friends. We’re encouraging our kids to explore in the local fields or small plot of woods near our house rather than play inside.
But we’ve also tried to drop out as a family a few times. We started small and built from there. Three times we’ve pulled our girls out of school in the middle of the year to go somewhere else, to experience something different. The first was a nine-day camping trip in the fall in Yosemite when the tourists were gone from the valley, the bears were out, and the nights were colder. And even though that trip was short, during the time that we were gone, the girls missed two soccer practices, two soccer games, two friends’ birthday parties, and at least twelve hours of overwhelming homework.
In Yosemite, we swam in the Merced River, saw nine different bears (including a mother bear and her two cubs who wandered past our tent in the high country), rock climbed, bouldered, went to the LeConte Museum, hiked, and saw a cougar eating a ground squirrel. But mostly we did nothing. We played card games and read for hours in our tent. We sat and watched birds. We put on snorkel gear and followed fish up through river eddies. The trade for six days of school and nine days of daily life was well worth it.
Then, last year, we went to Tucson for three and a half weeks in the winter. We stayed in a house in the Santa Catalina mountains and hiked, canyoneered, swam in creeks and the local pool, got sun on our skin, climbed a little, explored ruins, and hung out by the fireplace at night. Ruth got stung by a scorpion on her hand but she still loved the trip, and it was wonderful being away from everything we missed at home, more social engagements and school requirements than I can possibly list.
And now, we’ve taken another break from This American Life. We scheduled a trip this winter to Central America, planned it for February and March. I took a leave of absence from my day job to work on my fifth book (my third novel), and we pulled the girls out of school again. We’ve been in Congrejal, Costa Rica, for the past month, 1 kilometer outside of a tiny two-block by three-block town on the Pacific Coast.
We rented a small native house en el campo. There are fires in the ditches at night – burning palm fronds – large spiders and centipedes and black scorpions and beetles in our house, dirt roads, incredible stars with zero light pollution, and yellow beaches two miles long. The food is different, scary sometimes (we chance food poisoning each time we eat out – but that’s not often as we mostly eat rice and beans and local fruit at home). There is no rock climbing but I climb coconut trees on the beach, cut down three or four coconuts, cut them open and drink the milk with my nine-year-old Ruthie or Jennie.
My thirteen-year-old, Rain, is surfing and reading and journaling. Both girls are home-schooling, and we get their work completed each day in three or four hours. We’re reading world history together as a family. Learning the geography of Central America. Studying native plants and animals of our local area.
The nouns are different here. Back at home we see squirrels in the trees. Here we see Howler Monkeys. Estuaries in Western Oregon have carp and frogs. Here they have 16-foot crocodiles.
We have wild horses and coatis in our yard.
We surf each day.
I write 1000 new words on my novel.
We bike around because we have no car.
We stay outside until after dark, live outside everyday, and even though it averages 98-degrees, we’ve adapted now and the days no longer feel too hot.
Jennie pumps her fist in the air and yells, “I love that there are no rules here!” as we bike along a pot-hole filled road, wearing no helmets. There are no stoplights or stop-signs even in the town nearby where people lay on their horns and yell at each other, drive on the wrong side of the road or swerve all over the place in their cars. Motorcycles pass us going 60.
What would we be doing back home right now? I’d be working 60 hours a week. There would be dance practices and soccer practices and games and performances. We would have play dates, drive regularly, be late all of the time. We would have to work to be local. But when the location is small, like it is here, localism is natural, unforced, nothing difficult. We eat the limes and cashew fruit from the trees next to our house. And there are more green plantains than we can fry.
I know that we can’t live in a perpetual state of vacation, but maybe that’s not what this is. I’m working here. The girls are doing schoolwork. Jennie and the girls are making art together. Our lives and the development of our minds has not stopped.
So maybe this is just a richer life? Maybe there is no one named Jones to keep up with. Maybe we – as a family – must stop every year, stop to think and read and write and hang out, as a family, because these years will end soon, and the girls will go to college, and we will have missed our opportunity to take them out of their culture, out of the daily speed of U.S. city life.
In ten years, both girls will be out of the house and this will no longer be possible. They will be leading other lives. They won’t want to be dragged to Central America by their parents. They will have their own chosen obligations. They will lead their own lives of personal interests.
And our chances will be over.
So for now, a slow life, something different, something other than the daily pace of life in the United States. Here, for a moment, we avoid (as Tim Kreider of the New York Times says) The Busy Trap.
And the soccer here? We play every day on the beach, barefoot, with the local boys. We play on the sand, goals scored through two sticks stuck one meter apart. We call the barefoot game “Pelada,” which translates as the crazy naked woman.