Notes from a Small Island


My latest from the Stanford Alumni blog, “My Life as a Geek”…

We call it the “Zeigler Family Manifesto” and it’s written on a wrinkled piece of lobster-juice stained paper thumb tacked to the bulletin board in our office. And it has been, by far, the most effective, inspiring, useful piece of familial organization I’ve ever seen. Confused? Let me backtrack a bit… Every summer, we have the luxury of visiting my husband’s family’s house on an island off the coast of Maine. It is, by far, the most spectacular place on the face of the Earth and, as we tearfully float away by boat at the end of every summer, we faithfully begin the countdown until next year. It is the place where I feel most at home, most at peace with myself and my place in the world, and a place where time seems to have stood still…With no electricity (except for the few renegades who have installed solar power on their cottages) the gas lamps and gas stove and gas-powered refrigerator mean three things: 1) don’t light the broiler if the gas has been running for too long or you’ll burn your eyebrows and most of your hairline off, thereby bearing a striking resemblance to Queen Elizabeth I. 2) the little popping noise that gas lamps make is the perfect soundtrack to eating fresh lobster on the back porch and 3) with no electricity, you and your children will literally unplug and have more fun than you’ve ever thought possible. No television. No video games. Just ocean, sea glass, boat rides, reading books, drawing pictures of osprey, playing Parcheesi and allowing your inner clock to slow down just a bit and embrace life at a simpler and more enjoyable pace. As you can imagine, it is here that most resolutions begin. Like a midsummer New Year’s Eve, this particular island inspires new beginnings: pledging to fit into a smaller bathing suit by next summer being one of those that seems to roll over (no pun intended) into each year. Others include: spending more time playing card games as a family, watching less television when we return home, eating more shellfish (although we’ve committed to not eating lobster anywhere outside of the state of Maine unless, of course, it’s in some sort of bisque in which case all bets are off), exercising more, learning how to water-ski, diving off the high-high dive (infinitely more impressive than the lowly high-dive) and just generally taking things less seriously. This past summer, we decided, as a family, to sit down and actually go through these resolutions together. Right there, on the back porch overlooking the ocean and the occasional hum of the lobster boats. And what came out of this picturesque family meeting was (drum roll, please), The Zeigler Family Manifesto. We decided to come up with five “pillars” for our family. Five things that are most important to us as individuals and as a group and to commit to those five things for a year. Spurred by the overwhelming feelings that sometimes plague families: too many sports, too many classes, too many social obligations, too many commitments, too many lobster rolls (is that just me?)…we figured by articulating these five pillars, we might be able to say “no” more often to things that really aren’t all that important to us – and thereby focus our family a bit more as a collective. That said, the five pillars of our family are: 1) Family 2) Education 3) Responsibility 4) Art 5) Fun Or, FERAF for you acronym-obsessed folk. Once we had those established, we let the boys brainstorm what they thought should fall under each pillar – things they like to do, people who are important to us, goals we have for the future – and it was utterly amazing how excited they were about this process, how much they wanted to each come up with their own ideas, their individual “ownership” of each pillar. We wanted to make sure that they knew that one person’s idea of fun may not be another’s, and that’s alright – we may think differently about what falls under the “art” pillar and that’s just fine… Family was easy – spending time with those we love. Learning more about our family’s history and genealogy. Coming back to this island we love and seeing our cousins and second cousins and third cousins twice removed – all of whom we just call Aunt and Uncle for simplicity’s sake. Education included both mind and body – school, homework, reading, sports, karate, basketball, learning new things, cooking, going to the library, learning how to drive Uncle Niv’s boat…It was an amazing thing for the boys to see that education isn’t just school – it goes way beyond it and can encompass all the things we are passionate about. Responsibility included “do you best” (perfect for my older son who is a Cub Scout), knowing the rules and following them, doing the right thing, helping others, serving the community and, as my five year old said with great dignity, “picking up trash on the ground.” Art has always been something my husband and I have held dear – in its many iterations: theatre, dance, music, painting, etc. For this pillar we wanted to continue our love for the arts – visiting museums, taking the boys to different theatre productions, piano lessons, and for my older son, “watching “So You Think You Can Dance.” And then there’s Fun. Reading Books. Visiting open spaces. Taking walks. Riding bikes. Having friends over. Taking time to invest in our friendships – new and old. Taking a moment from the business of our lives to really laugh and giggle and make fools of ourselves. And as anal as all of this may seem to some, the effect it has had on our family is profound. We took the boys to see Bill Irwin in Scapin at ACT in San Francisco and on the way there, my 5 year old said, “This is awesome. This is the Art Pillar!” On other occasions, the boys like to see just how many pillars we are fulfilling at one time. “This is Responsibility and Family and Fun and Art!” (as they put their napkins in their laps while we eat together at a restaurant and draw silly pictures on the napkins.) That sunny afternoon on our little Maine island has brought focus to our otherwise manic lives and has allowed all of us, my husband and I included, to really prioritize what we hold most dear. The Zeigler Family Manifesto, as ominous as it stands, will continue on as a living document to be amended and edited and revisited as we, as a family, grow and change and develop. And the fact that this little piece of paper has brought us closer together is exactly what we hoped for. The fact that it’s stained with lobster juice is just an added bonus.

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