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Balancing Act: A reminder of what matters

We boarded a plane on a date I’d never traveled (Dec. 26), bound for a place I’d never visited (Mexico).

I was trepidatious. I like staying in my jammies the day after Christmas. (I refuse to wear jammies to the airport.)

And I have a confession: I’m not all that adventurous. I don’t long to travel the world. I’m a little panicky around crowds, in general, and airport crowds, specifically. I love my own bed.

But my delightful in-laws invited my husband, our three kids and me to join them at their rental house near Playa del Carmen for a week, and the pull of family and sun overpowered my homebody tendencies. So off we went.

Let’s first talk about all the things I remembered to pack: Our passports. Sunscreen. My book. (“Fates and Furies,” by Lauren Groff. Highly recommend it.) Our swimsuits.

Things I forgot to pack: Pajamas for my son. A hairbrush. Any and all toiletries. (In my defense, I imagined the house would be stocked with shampoo, conditioner and the like. It was not.) A charger for the laptop on which my kids would watch DVDs at night. DVDs.

None of it mattered. A 6-year-old boy, mine anyway, is pretty happy to sleep in the clothes he wore all day, even if those clothes are a swimsuit. We grabbed cheap shampoo at the grocery store and let it double as face soap and shaving cream. We declined to brush our hair. We never even turned on my laptop.

Vacation is an aberration. It doesn’t need to mimic regular life. It shouldn’t, in fact, mimic regular life.

So living without the things you’re certain you need in your other, nonvacation, life is simple. It’s temporary, you tell yourself. No biggie.

Which frees you to soak in the more essential elements: people you love, foods that make you glad to be alive, places that remind you, truly, what a bold, beautiful world beckons if you just get out of your jammies.

Here’s the thing: Life, too, is temporary.

“We’re born dying,” one of the “Fates and Furies” characters says.

Mae West put it a bit more cheerfully: “You only live once,” she’s reported to have said. “But if you do it right, once is enough.”

I considered the ephemeral nature of it all one day as I rushed to brush my teeth and slip into my swimsuit, eager to get outside with my kids where sand and football and cartwheels awaited.

What is it about vacation, I wondered, that makes the important stuff (family) stand in high relief and allows the mundane (shampoo brands) to recede into the flat terrain? Why don’t I feel the same urgency to make the most of all my moments when we’re in our own city, our own house, on our own terrain?

I know, I know. Work and school dictate a certain amount of responsibility. Laptops must be turned on. Hair must be brushed. Pajamas really ought to be worn.

But what if we reminded ourselves, once a day or so, that it’s all temporary? That our kids will never again be these ages. That we’ll never get back the time we squander. That we are, in a very real sense, born dying.

On our last morning in Mexico, I went for a barefoot run on the beach. My calves burned from the sand’s extra resistance and I sliced my feet on the craggy rocks and the salt water burned as it splashed my cuts. Tomorrow you’ll be tottering around on an icy sidewalk, I told myself, shivering in a Chicago January. It’s temporary, I told myself. No biggie.

Vacations, I suppose, remind you what you can live with and what you can live without. What you can endure when you’re reminded of how much you have to enjoy. Laptop chargers seem pretty inconsequential next to cartwheeling kids. A few cuts on your feet are nothing when your family is behind you and the waves are crashing in front of you.

Vacations remind you that all of it – the wonderful and the wearying – is temporary. Work stressors and holiday bills and prickly personalities awaited me upon my return.

But the treasures – the family, the laughter, the stuff of life – accompanied me. And you don’t need a beach to be warmed by those.

email hstevens@tribune.com, or follow @heidistevens13 on Twitter.