The Pleasure Principle

Granting herself the license to chill (for a change), Melissa Errico takes flight to Mexico to feast from life’s banquets.
Photo by Chris Perino

All over the world, people take time off. Thousands of people right this minute are either upside down on mats on yoga retreats or upside down under tables in Napa Valley. I have a tendency to spot where pleasure can go, but not make room for it, to say “I love going to hear live jazz” and yet not be able to think of the last time I actually went. I want to take flamenco, mostly but not exclusively, for the skirt. I see an afternoon where I could downward dog myself, but manage to heed the call of a child asking for attention, or bump it to next week since I had 100 work phone calls today.

So when my husband suggested two weeks ago that we go on a vacation in June, right before the kids finished school and before the tennis tour swept him into the ESPN booth at Wimbledon, I thought, Okay…maybe…yes.

Well, to be honest, it was me who spoke first, who noticed a week where we might go away, and the familiar, and somehow satisfying, opportunity to complain that we never do. You see, I often tell my three daughters that my deepest love is for islands—white walls, and calming, sort of mythic, places. This is confirmed for them by my rule to always order a Greek salad if it’s on any menu at any simple diner or anywhere. I do this, consistently, in honor of my oft-delayed but important fantasy, proudly turning to the waiter while winking with a sudden romantic flair because, as you see, Mommy loves Greece, where water is so so blue and the houses are cool, almost cold, inside, like caves.

When I saw my husband was serious about grabbing time away, I managed to find a way to shrink a potential of 10 days to a mere six, adding a few work meetings that, in retrospect, probably didn’t need to go there. The Greek islands—being that it takes nearly a day to get to one—were suddenly too far.

My good and determined husband presented me with a travel agent’s three suggestions—all economical because it was officially off-season, all just a short plane ride away, and all inspired by an aesthetic of pure artisanal architecture. One particularly (in Mexico) and with a Mayan flair stood out to me. We could go for six days. I looked at the email, listing the three hotels (he wanted me to choose) and my eyes blurred until I saw etched in my brain the Gmail calendar screen of my iPhone. A few days’ vacation meant no one would get to ballet, there would be no tennis tournaments, all birthday parties would be too complicated to attend and Mom and Dad would miss the ultimate band recital.

Somehow, I managed to reposition most obstacles and the kids’ calendars became newly mapped, like an astronaut’s agenda for a galactic tour. But it happened, and I am writing now from that Yucatán spa in the Mayan  jungle in a white-stucco thatched casita, my feet on cool stone, sipping cinnamon tea at a wooden desk while Patrick naps.

Outside by the rumbling ocean is a sweat bath called a Temazcal and a man offering to make owl—or at least owlish—sounds with you in the breeze by blowing into his various shells and instruments. My days ahead involve enjoying fresh honey both in my breakfast and in my shampoo, and being handed a nightly pot of sacred healing mud to slather onto my skin for good health. I am stopping just long enough to ask—why was it so hard to accept a moment of pleasure? The logistics of parenting, for one, are sometimes enough of a reason to not even shower, or put on makeup, never mind travel and blow into seashells by the seashore.

While reading an old New Yorker magazine on the beach today, I came upon a Stephen Greenblatt piece about a 2,000-year-old ancient Roman poem by Lucretius called “On the Nature of Things.” Professor Greenblatt summed it up as such: “In Lucretius, [wonder] welled up out of a recognition that we are made of the same matter as the stars and the oceans and all things else. And this recognition was the basis for the way he thought we should live—not in fear of the gods but in pursuit of pleasure, in avoidance of pain.” It’s a thought I might share with those who like to contemplate solid advice from the first century B.C.—and one I considered today while I sat on ancient sand lit by the Mayan sun, listening to nearby owls.