20 July 2021 — Vacationing Coping Mechanisms

Almost a year ago, in a piece entitled “Upbeat Vacationing,” I reflected on the human ability “to deploy our amazing powers of selective recollection to focus on remembering the good while allowing thoughts of the more difficult moments to gradually fade, like healing scars. What remains are the mostly happy memories of nostalgia.”

On the weekend, while chatting with a friend about our respective holiday plans, hopes, conundrums and disappointments, the concept of coping mechanisms resurfaced. Not so coincidentally, I was just back from a nearly week-long vacation with my 11-year-old son Henry, a take away message of which is that it’s tough to recommend single parent camping — though if the trip ultimately results, as hoped, in some nice memories for Henry it will all (well, maybe mostly) be worth it.

In hopes of creating another year’s worth of nostalgic memories, Henry and I set off for three nights at Driftwood Provincial Park on the Ottawa River, followed by three more with Ottawa friends Tanya and Simon, at their cottage on a small island on Georgian Bay. While it was great — a relief, frankly — that the timing worked out to extend the road trip and spend time with friends, just leaving the city for Somewhere Else felt good — as I reflected on when the Jim Bryson song played, somewhere near Deep River (a place name which Henry found decidedly unimaginative). It was the wonderful version with Jim Cuddy singing co-lead, included on the 2005 alternative country compilation Start Your Own Country. The song is built around an eternal and possibly unanswerable dilemma — is it that “life can be cruel, but life can be sweet if I want it to be,” or that “life could be sweet, but life is so cruel ’cause I let it be?” Can I just go ahead and tick both boxes?

After a first night in the tent which was dominated by a halting but extended conversation about Henry’s fixations (in particular his parents’ separation and his long-standing unhappiness about his weight), I texted my ex to express my worry over his state of mind, which if anything seems to have worsened since his grade 6 graduation ceremony (Henry very much did not enjoy the event). He often describes himself in awful ways, like “garbage,” and claims that he is unhappy every day, and that he is actually unhappy when pretending to be happy; he has suggested that I would be better without him. It is all so sad and difficult.

My ex doesn’t fully share my views on the matter — she contends that he is so unsubtle that it would be extremely unlikely that he could truly hide his actual feelings for any length of time (very probably true), and points out that Henry has always struggled with changes to routine or transitions to new locations or situations. There is, without a doubt, substantial truth to her arguments.

But still, I can’t shake the sense that he really is struggling mightily overall. His periods of cheerfulness or just contentedness always seem so fleeting; every aspect of the time at Driftwood, for example, seemed harder than the time we spent camping together at Murphy’s Point last year (or maybe that’s just the nostalgic coping mechanism kicking in yet again — after all, I’ve had eleven months to forget the harder bits). Then again, it would be quite unexpected if Henry’s — or anyone’s — state of mind exhibited improvement after a 15-month-and-counting global pandemic which has resulted in extended school closures and constant upheaval, all of which followed, in Henry’s case, very soon after the separation of his mother and father.

Though it rained heavily on our final evening at the campground, our last day at Driftwood was our best; it included a short but sufficiently rugged hike that we both enjoyed and time spent lazily relaxing by the Ottawa River, reading, throwing the football and constructing sand dams. Heavy rain moved in right after supper, but we were able to overcome the challenging weather situation by continuing our board game competition by playing Carcassonne and cards inside the tent. (Citadels, Settlers of Catan, Tubyrinth and Unearth were also in rotation; we finished the trip with six wins apiece.)

The unfortunate timing of the storm meant packing up wet, which is always messy and unfortunate, but the change of scenery was perfectly timed: for the most part, Henry put in a stellar performance at our friends’ cottage for two and a half days, including an impressive — and somewhat alarmingly long, but it was done in one direction (oops — neglectful parenting) before I realised it was happening — swim out into Georgian Bay, to a barren rock which had long ago been christened Bird Island because of its only inhabitants.

My son’s anxieties never seem to be far below the surface, however, and they reappeared on our final morning there: while others swam, he sat alone on a bay-side rock, brooding. What I thought initially was only sulking over a difference in opinion over leaving times turned out to be a renewed fixation on his weight which left him in a full-on funk for virtually all of the long, six-hour-plus drive back to Ottawa. To my dismay, continued efforts, over the past months, to help him move past this preoccupation and be happier with himself have been, seemingly, entirely ineffectual.

We covered most of the hundreds of kilometres while barely talking, with only music to cut through the silence. As we approached the city, the CBC Saturday afternoon radio program In the Key of C was broadcasting, an episode dedicated to summer anthems which appropriately wrapped up with The Tragically Hip’s “Bobcaygeon” — soundtrack to innumerable campfires and barbecues. Coincidentally, I’d brought along the CD (Phantom Power) for the road trip. The wistfulness of the song made me lonely; I longed for a friend, an adult companion to share not just the drive but all the highs and lows of the vacation experience with.

I’m still very glad to have done the short holiday. But I could sure cope with seeing those constellations that Gord Downie sang about, especially if they were revealing a star shining brightly in my solitary galaxy.

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Music, single parenting, and pandemic-tinted views of the world from central Ottawa, Canada.

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Jason Thomson

Jason Thomson

Music, single parenting, and pandemic-tinted views of the world from central Ottawa, Canada.

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