Documenting The Journey Of A Man On A Quest For Mindfulness, Peace, and Joy

Author: kevincarlow (Page 1 of 5)

On Sabbatical – Weeks 12 and 13: Tapping Into the Wisdom of Family, Elders, and Familiar Land on a Road Trip to Canada

We drove many miles. 

We connected with family.

We enjoyed poutine. 

There’s our 2,220 mile international road trip in a Canadian haiku nutshell, folks.

When the pandemic foiled our plans to visit Canada in 2021, it was a disappointment. Then again, the pandemic was the cause of many disappointments for many people. In the grand scheme, it wasn’t a huge loss. We just kicked the plans back a year. Which, like so many pandemic disappointments, had a big silver lining, because it meant that we got to make the trek while on sabbatical, which meant extra days of fun and not needing to thread the corporate needle of available PTO days! 

Being a Canada native, I still have many ties to the country, mostly in Ontario. I moved to Wisconsin when I was five years old, and I lived there through the end of high school. Nearly every summer, though, my parents would take my brother and I on the twelve-hour drive from Neenah, WI to Magnetawan, Ontario, where my mother’s best friend owned a tiny lakeside plot of land in a private campground called Lost Forest Park, or as we affectionately call it – LFP. For a handful of years, we would stay as visitors in our friend’s trailer, but the lot next to our friend became available for sale, and my parents were motivated and able, so they purchased the adjacent lot, and from that moment on, this place has been our family lakeside getaway. Why would we stake a claim to land that was a 12-hour-drive from home? In part, because of all the joyful memories built up there over the years with our friends and other neighbors, and in part because just three hours south of LFP is the greater Toronto area, where many of our extended family still reside. We would often couple the drive to LFP with a tour into the city, to see my grandparents, or cousins, or other friends, or some combination therein. Or, once we had our own trailer in the campground, sometimes those relatives would leave the city for a vacation to come visit us in “cottage country.” 

During my college years at the University of Minnesota, I still had the summers “off,” and I did make it back to Ontario a few times. After that, though, life started happening. I was an adult. I started a business. I was living in Minneapolis, which is a 17-hour haul from Magnetawan. As much as I missed that place, it was hard to make time to return. Still, once I met Kristyn, we did make it there once as a pre-child couple, and once again with our fresh, three-month-old firstborn in tow. That most recent visit was six years ago. It was time I made it back to where it all began for me. 

And so, we drove. Many miles we drove. Eventually, after the DVD’s borrowed from the Hennepin County Library wore thin from use in the minivan DVD player, we arrived. 

Keys to success for long car rides with kids:

  • Start early in the day. If you start before sunrise, they can be sold that it’s still nighttime and that we need to sleep for a while. 
  • Fill a laundry hamper with a variety of books and toys that don’t make noise and get mileage with the kids’ attention. Hand puppets, fidget poppers, sketch pad or LCD writing tablet. 
  • Save the big guns. Start out with the toy hamper. Once all options have been exhausted, proceed to playing verbal games like “I Spy” or “Find the colors of the rainbow.” Once the appetite for games has run dry, proceed to playing their favorite music. Once voices are tired, should you so choose, then and only then resort to a screen. If you start an 8-hour drive with a screen, you are likely doomed for the tail end of the journey. 
  • Plan for more time than Google Maps says. 
  • Before the road trip, train kids how to do an efficient and germ-free “bush wee.” (Thanks Bluey for the lingo.)
  • Bring extra hand sanitizer. 
  • Pack tons of snacks. Then pack a reserve bag of extra snacks. Pack your snacks somewhere you can actually reach them without stopping the vehicle. 
  • Don’t forget an in-vehicle garbage bag and wipes/napkins. 
  • If any issues on the road arise, when in doubt, throw some fruit snacks at it. This usually solves the issue. 

THE FIRST EIGHT DAYS BY THE LAKE

We spent the first eight days in Canada at my parents’ recently upgraded trailer at LFP. It’s still new to them, and thus very new to me and my family. As we entered the park grounds and made our way down the winding gravel road, trees hugging the shoulderless edges on each side, I could feel a buzzing inside of me. A buzzing of excitement, but also of… familiarity. Comfort. I’ve been here before. I know this place. This place knows me. 

Even though many of the structures and people in the park have changed, the land has not. The lake is still there. The beach still has sand. The chipmunks still startle you with their shrill chatter. The pine needles still stick to your foot when you opt to traipse around in bare feet. 

We packed a ton of fun activities into these eight days:

  • tubing
  • wakesurfing
  • fire pies and s’mores
  • late night card games
  • kayaking
  • sunset glow-in-the-dark frisbee toss
  • jumping, crawling, and floating on the giant “lily pad”
  • trampolining
  • hammock laying
  • late night bonfiring
  • made many trips to the dusty old “log” (lodge) to play ping pong, air hockey, foosball, build block towers, and have dance parties 
  • ate popsicles with our toes in the water
  • calmed down for the night by sitting on the end of the dock, watching the sun set with our toes dangling in the cool lake water

THE MAGIC OF RETURNING TO THE SAME PLACE OVER A LONG PERIOD OF TIME

Anyone who has ever traveled away from their home to see a new place they want to see knows – it’s fun and exciting to see new places. And there are those that live in the same place for years upon years of their lives, and those people know the value in staying put, owning your property, becoming familiar with the land, and having a place with years of memories built up. 

There’s another kind of magic that gets unlocked when you leave and return to the same place many times over the span of 35 years. I felt this sensation again and again while at LFP, and it is hard to describe. 

First, there was part of me that was expecting everything to be like the way it was when I was there as a teenager. I know I’m older now, that I have a family and a whole life in Minneapolis, but it was like I was expecting everyone else to have been frozen in time. What do you mean the neighbor kid that used to be five years old is now graduating high school? How can it be that some of my favorite neighbors no longer own a spot in the park, and haven’t been coming for years, or aren’t even alive anymore? 

It’s more than that, though. It’s like a mixture of equal parts comfort and surreality. Comfort of knowing the place, knowing the sights and the smells, but the surreality that it’s no longer the time that is so deeply engrained in my memory. You know how the music you listened to as a teenager stays with your forever? It’s not because the music back then was so much better than it is now; it’s more about how that’s the music you were listening to as you were in the years of building and shaping your true identity. The music gets attached to that. I think a similar imprinting has happened with me at this place. 

Part of what I enjoyed about training for a marathon and logging all of those miles on the trails near my house was that it gave me the opportunity to gradually observe the changing of the seasons, the passage of time. One of my favorite patches of trail was running from my house to Bryant Lake and back; the lake served as a sufficient “carrot” to motivate through a longer run, because the view of open water never ceases to revitalize my body and spirit. Depending on the time of year, the trail looks different: in spring I could see right through the bare trees and get a view of the lake 1/4 mile before reaching the beach, whereas in summer with full growth I’d have to make it all the way to the beach before seeing water, and in the fall I enjoyed the awesome reds, oranges, and yellows of the foliage along the way.

Returning to LFP over the years has a similar effect; it unlocks a different, larger way of viewing and processing the passage of time. It gives new meaning to what the concept of “five years” or “twenty years” means to me. It allows me to tap into younger versions of myself, to actually feel the feelings I had felt years ago. Memories, for me, are typically much more about what I did than what I felt. But when I return to this place, which I’ve been to so many times, I do remember the feelings. The feeling of freedom and adventure I would get, being allowed to walk the “roads” of the campground unsupervised (because it is a private and close-knit community). The feeling of anticipation as I’d look out at the lake to see if it was calm enough for an ideal waterski. And I’d especially feel the feels when looking at the sun setting over the western edge of the pine-topped horizon, a view that I’ve drunk in so many times in my 37 years, a view that never gets old. Watching the sun set over that lake now, and the sense of calm and closure of a day well lived that it brings, it’s like I not only get the sense of calm from today’s day, but a larger, deeper, aggregate satisfaction from all my previous sunset watchings combined.  Like there’s some extra frequency I could tap into, a parallel timescape that I could touch by standing in the exact same place I’d stood years before, and years before that. 

Never underestimate the power of returning to a place in nature from your childhood.

 

STOKING THE EMBERS OF RELATIONSHIPS

Much like the cool embers of a fire need stoking in order grow back into a warm fire, a relationship that has cooled off over time can also be rekindled. If too much time passes, those embers will be colder. The feelings fade over time, unless you make time for rekindling and reconnection. 

This is a notion that came up as I reconnected with old friends and neighbors at LFP – people I hadn’t seen or talked to in six years. It didn’t take long to jump back in to comfortable, friendly chatter, but I realized that, had a few more years gone by, there would’ve been so much to get caught up, it would’ve taken longer to warm back up to each other. 

It serves as a reminder that for any relationships I value, I need to make an effort to stoke those embers if I can feel them cooling off. 

Reconnecting with longtime friends

 

GETTING PULLED BEHIND A BOAT AT THE SAME TIME AS YOUR KID

Of all the types of rides one could do, I have to say that getting pulled behind a boat is up there with the best of ’em. Whether you are in an inner tube, on some sort of ski or board, or using your bare old feet, getting pulled behind a boat at speed is as close as most of us get to walking on water. Nothing quite instills the same quality of joy in me as skimming across the top of a calm lake, feeling the smoothness of the water as I slice through it, the wind whipping my air, and soaking in the same lake-top view the loons get to enjoy every day. 

So it stands to reason that when I got the chance to get pulled behind a boat, on a circular tube, with each of my kids taking turns to ride the same tube with me, I was an enthusiastic “yes!” The best part about that experience was my view of my kids’ faces. Holding on to the same tube, our faces were mere inches apart. Once they got comfortable going at a speedy clip, I demonstrated a few other ways to lie on the tube (as opposed to on the belly), such as bringing your knees in and crouching on all fours. After lying back down, my kid scooched up on all fours for the first time, and the view I got looking up to that ear-to-ear smile, with wind-strewn hair and nothing but sunny blue sky overhead, knowing that I once felt that same, first-time-tubing joy on this very lake, and getting to be there and share in it with a point blank view of it all… that is a hard moment to top. 

 

HIKE INTO PARRY SOUND WITH KRISTYN

One day my parents treated Kristyn and I to the gift of time; they offered to watch our kids so we could get away for some hours of togetherness between the two of us. Lucky for me, I’m married to someone who, like me, enjoys the simple things in life, so we used our gift of time to seek out the nearest hiking trail for some quality time outdoors, which led us to the North Shore Rugged Hiking Trail in Parry Sound, an inlet of Georgian Bay, which itself is a part of Lake Huron. 

We clocked a good number of miles ambling along this not-so-well-marked trail system. Hiking with Kristyn is one of my favorite activities. When you hike with someone else, because you are both moving, and you are both surrounded by nature, and you are not sitting face to face with each other but are moving alongside each other or in a line (i.e. not making direct eye contact), it opens up a new level of conversation and thinking. Movement sparks creativity and insights. The shared rhythm of moving together aligns that energy. It was such an enjoyable few hours of my life, and the only thing I needed was a trail, a water bottle, and my partner. 

Kristyn hiking happily

We ended up finding a glorious sit spot with many flat rocks, warm to the touch from soaking in the day’s sunshine. Our shoes and socks came off. The spot was pretty secluded. We stayed. We meditated. It felt like one of those spots you find in nature that you want to make your home and never leave. Eventually, though, the time did come for us to make our way back.

Taking in the view of Parry Sound, ON

The sparsely detailed map we had seen at the trailhead showed the trail went north along the shoreline and eventually hit an end point where you simply turn around and come back south, with a few various pathways all heading the same direction. We had made it to the end of the trail, and as we started to make our way back to the parking lot, we took a few turns we hadn’t taken on the way out. We did this on purpose to explore one of the other pathways we hadn’t seen on our northbound jaunt. We got to the point, though, where the trail started forking in odd ways, higher up into the hillside, with residences becoming visible through the brush. We were still on a system of trails, but it was starting to feel wrong. Some might have said we were lost. Kristyn, unworried about the situation, pointed out, in one of the many conversational sparks of insight one gets while hiking, that, “Getting ‘lost’ is really just having too much attachment to a place that’s not where you are right now.”

From that moment on, any time I feel lost, whether it be a physical, locational lost or a mental feeling of being lost, I will remember this wisdom and fill myself with mindfulness that wherever I am right now is where I need to be. 

 

CHANGE OF PLANS WITH A SILVER LINING

As we approached the end of our planned stay at LFP, an unpleasant surprise developed. We were supposed to go stay with my cousin for two days, and then my aunt and uncle for two days, but the latter group got COVID-19. Boo! They were vaccinated and had mild cases, but it still meant that we could not stay with them for two nights as originally planned. We opted to stay an extra night with my parents and tack on an additional night with my cousin in Stouffville. While it was a bummer to not see them, there was a definite silver lining in that we removed one transition from the itinerary. The first night with kids in any new sleeping arrangement tends to be a bit chaotic, at least for our family, so as things unfolded we were glad to have one fewer “first night in a new place.” 

So after one final rainy day at the trailer, we packed up and headed three hours south into the city to stay with my cousin, her husband, and their two boys aged 3 and 1. 

 

CONNECTING WITH COUSINS

I’ve always had a special place in my heart for my three cousins from Mississauga. For the first years of my life, they were my only first cousins, and my brother and I were their only first cousins. Among the five of us, I am the oldest. The next oldest is my cousin Allison, a year and a half younger than I. Because we were (and are) the two oldest, there was always something a little extra magical about our bond. Even though we never lived close to each other, grew up in different countries, and would only see each other on rare family get togethers, it still feels like she is the “sister I never had.” What a treat it was to get our newly formed families together and live under the same roof for a few days! 

It was a treat, and it was also mild pandemonium. Anyone who’s been in a house with four kids under the age of 6 knows what I’m talking about. 

But truthfully, it wasn’t really pandemonium at all. I was so impressed by these parents of two young boys. They are in the middle of making baba ganoush while also calmly attending to a needy one year old and also having an adult conversation with me. How? I don’t understand. I can’t even make mac and cheese without needing complete silence and eight feet of space around me on all sides.

While the daytime hours were fun, the good times really heated up after the kids got to bed. What I enjoyed most about these few late-night convos with my cousins was that we skipped over common small talk and got right into real talk. What are we striving for as parents? How does one get financially free? Just how different is a Canadian accent to a Minnesotan one? (Hint: if you need to find out the answer to the latter, just put a Canadian and a Minnesotan together and have them both pronounce the sentence, “I left my house to go to a boat conference.”)

I also immensely enjoyed their ritual of evening tea after the kids went down. Not the way I make tea, which is to microwave a mug of water and then toss in whatever tea bag was within closest reach out of the Lazy Susan. No, they made tea. With a kettle. And a teapot. A teapot we would all share. And we drank the tea out of a Turkish tea set (like this). And there were lemon wedges. This all probably took an extra four minutes to prepare compared to my bachelor-style method of tea-making, but the impact of the difference was immense. I could feel a greater sense of bonding, of community with the four us, simply by all sharing tea out of the same pot. We laughed, we cried, we laughed some more, all while sharing in our tea. When the pot emptied, we refilled it. (We did need something to wash down the salt of the ketchup chips.) This was a shared ingestion behavior that I was grateful to take part in and have modeled for me. I’m looking forward to integrating this ritual into my own home. I’m now in the market for a Turkish tea set.

 

UNLOCKING THE WISDOM OF GREAT GRANDPARENTS

With my cousin’s house as our home base, we ventured into the city of Toronto on two different days to visit each of my grandmothers. It had been years since I’d seen either of them, and I was excited and grateful for the opportunity to introduce my children to their great grandparents. 

I also knew that this would be a rare chance for me to have quality face time with my aging grandmas, and on our hour-long drive into the city I considered what I might want to ask them, what knowledge or story did I most desire to selfishly extract and internalize. It dawned on me that the only reason I’m even here is because of the choices they made, because of their successful parenting of their own children. So I decided that no matter where the conversations went, and no matter how distracting our kids were, at some point in each visit, I was going to ask each of them, “When you think back to when you were raising your kids, or even as you look back with hindsight, what kind of parenting philosophies or strategies did you use? What do you think to be the most important things in raising children? What should I do with my kids?”

Their answers astonished me. Not because of what they said, but because both my paternal grandmother and my maternal grandmother said virtually the exact same thing. 

The one answered my query with a more thorough response: “Let children be their individual selves, whatever that means. Resist the temptation to compare one child to the other. We are all different, with different strengths and skills, no matter how ‘equal’ or ‘fair’ the parents may try to raise them. One kid might need more affection, where another might need more movement and rough play. Give kids what they need even if it means one needs ‘more’ than the other. ‘Fair’ isn’t always fair.” 

The other grandma, upon hearing my question, answered without hesitation: “Let them be. Just let them be.”

When my second grandma uttered those words, it hit me like a ton of bricks. It sounded so similar to the first response. And, my grandmas are right. By the time kids get to be 4-5 years old, they really don’t need much help anymore. They want to do things for themselves. They don’t want to be taught – they want to do. They don’t need to be corrected – they will end up figuring it out on their own. It’s my job to keep them safe and then get out of their way. I am deeply grateful to have received this insight and reminder from the elders in my family.

If there’s something you really want to know – ask your elders!

 

GOING WHERE THE ENERGY FLOWS

We capped off our road trip with a one-night stay at a family friend’s house. They are long-time family friends, they have a great house with a backyard pool, they have two older kids (and our younger kids love playing with older kids), and they live in an area that was on our way home, but none of those are the reasons we made a point to visit them.

We slated one of our road trip days for this visit because of how, over the course of many years, the adults in that family made Kristyn and I feel along the way. We felt cared about. We felt seen. Noticed. Loved. They are the type of people that make sure to send you a note on your birthday, that ask about you when they speak to one of your relatives, that just genuinely seem like they give a rip. So many people today are so busy with their own lives, they don’t make time to look up and stay connected to those close to them (or those that were once close). These folks do. I felt a deep sense of knowing that we needed to make an effort to see these people. 

Turns out, I was right. We had a glorious day. The kids paired off nicely and entertained each other while the adults got to sip and chat (which is usually the goal, is it not?). 

Two of my favorite quotes from this 24-hour visit:

Adult, while playing a late-night card game, a tad frustrated after losing several hands in a row, and then losing the next one because of having taken too many tricks, but it was actually her low cards that had won the tricks and the high cards had not – “F*@!, that’s not how I thought I would be angry!”

6 year old to 11 year old, who have never met each other, while standing next to the diving board – “Should we hold hands and jump off that?” They did. <3

 

IN CONCLUSION

We then drove home by way of Chicago. It was a fairly uneventful two-day drive, which is exactly how I prefer my two-day drives to be. 

I am so glad I invested the time and energy into making this trip a reality. You know it’s the sign of a good time when you’re already thinking about when you’ll come back to a place before you leave it. Until next time, Canada!

 

On Sabbatical – Week 11: Parenting Wizardry At The Pediatric Dentist

MUTUAL ADMIRATION ON A MORNING RUN

I started out the week going for an early morning run with a friend. It was the first time we’d gone for a run together. When the pandemic first hit and I was getting into running as a new hobby, this friend was already a well-established runner with several marathons under his belt. From the comfort of my screen, I would observe his progress on social media and aspire to be able to run that far, that often. He was the source of my inspiration for creating a running mile-tracking spreadsheet. In the two years I was marathon training – 2020 and 2021 – I became obsessed with tracking my miles on this spreadsheet. The moment I would get back from a run, I’d look to see exactly how many miles I’d clocked using the Strava app and would immediately input that data into my spreadsheet, which tracks my miles by week, by month, and by year. What I loved about this process was the ability to track progress over time. One or two week’s worth of data was pretty meaningless, but by sticking to this process over the course of multiple years, I now have all kinds of fun ways to analyze how my spring months compare to summer months, or how my June 2021 compared to a June of a younger Kevin. They say “what gets measured gets done,” and thanks in part to the idea of this little tracking document from my friend, I was able to complete the Twin Cities Marathon in October 2021.

Running miles clocked in 2021

 

While I admire this friend for his running dedication and ability, on this morning run we went on, I felt his reciprocal admiration of me. He was genuinely interested, curious, and excited for me with the course of life that I’m on. He had specific questions about why and how we plan to move to Costa Rica. It feels very weird writing this, but it felt like in him I have a “fan.” Someone out there who is… not so much happy for me, or cheering me on, but… a fan of what I’m doing. It’s a good feeling, to feel like someone is into you, is picking up what you’re putting down. It gives me reassurance that I’m on the right track, that I’m making good choices, that going on sabbatical was the right move at the right time, and that I’m living out that sabbatical well. I’m not on sabbatical to seek any sort of external validation, but I can’t deny that it feels good to receive it. At one point he even drew a parallel from what my blog could become to the blog of Mr. Money Mustache, one of the most popular blogs on the internet about living with financial independence, retiring early, and customizing your lifestyle. This makes it the second time someone close to me has brought this up. How many people have to tell you something before it goes from trivial comment to substantial notion? 

IMPRESSING THE DENTIST

“We don’t see this. Ever.” That’s what I was told while taking my four year old to the dentist. “We don’t see this” is a phrase one typically does not want to hear while at the dentist, but in this case, it was a compliment.

As any parent knows, trips to the children’s dentist are usually lower on the list of ideal ways to spend time with a kid. Kids are scared of the dentist. And why wouldn’t they be? Ultra-bright lights, pokey instruments, masked-up strangers getting up in your grill – a child going to the dentist is basically the adult equivalent of entering a torture chamber. Because they are scared, they have a hard time following the instructions of the hygienist and the dentist. Even getting in a normal brush or floss, which is not a big problem at home, was proving difficult for the hygienist. She was asking my kid to open their mouth for a brushing, and my kid was saying “No, I don’t want to” and squirming the other way. This hygienist did what I’m sure she has done for twenty years in the profession, trying this and that tactic to get my kid on board: saying things like “it won’t hurt” or “it is just like brushing your teeth at home” and reminding her she’ll get to pick a prize when we’re all done. I was observing this from the bench 5 feet away and let it go for a few moments, but I felt like I knew what was needed and stepped in to intervene. 

Within ten seconds, my kid went from squirming refusal to calm, still, and mouth open. All I did was sit by their side, calmly held their hand, and said something to the effect of, “Kid, I know you are probably feeling a little nervous right now. That’s normal. All that’s going to happen is she is going to brush your teeth. This is a special toothbrush that makes a buzzing noise, but its gentle. It almost tickles on your teeth. Do you want to feel the tickle?” It was much less about my words, though, than it was about the presence I brought by shifting the energy in the space. The hygienist was able to proceed with the rest of her process, and I went back to sit on the bench. 

When she had a moment, the hygienist looked over at me and said, “This just doesn’t happen. How did you do that?” By which I thought she meant, “Most times when a kid this age is showing signs of fear and discomfort, there’s nothing we can do to get them calm enough to proceed. What type of wizardry have I just witnessed here, sir?”

The answer is practice. I practice controlling my own energy, my breath, my attitude, my nervous system. Sometimes I practice this when I am already in a state of relative calm, like when I wake up in the morning and meditate first thing. Other times I am practicing this control in the face of an external stimulus that is knocking me out of balance in some way. With practice, I am learning to tune in to my body’s signals, to recognize when my systems are getting out of whack, and to have the tools to realign and reset. In this instance at the pediatric dentist, as I watched this kind hygienist struggle with my defiant, scared child, I could feel my chest tighten and my body temperature rising (I usually feel the heat in my cheeks first). If I’m feeling that way just by watching, I could only imagine how my kid was feeling. So with one deep breath in through the nose and out through the mouth, I reset, moved slowly toward my kid, and made sure that my holding of her hand was as gentle and relaxed as possible. When I spoke, I spoke slowly. Warmly. It was the energy of this calm presence that I transferred to her. And it’s only through practice on myself that I can even begin to think about transferring positivity to others. 

It felt pretty darn good to receive that compliment from someone who’s spent their career working with kids! 

This type of somatic attunement I am learning from Kristyn With A Why who is in turn learning it from, among other sources, Carmen Spagnola. Gotta give credit where credit is due! 

KIDS SAY THE BEST THINGS

To cap off the week, one of my kids was, once again, asking questions. This particular time the line of questioning was about being famous. “Dad, what does it mean to be famous?” I did my best to explain that someone who is famous is someone that a lot of people know. It could be a singer, or an actor, or a writer, or someone in our government, but no matter what the person is really good at, they are famous because a lot of people know who they are. My kid listened, considered, and finally replied,

“I think you are the opposite of famous.”


Oh, and also I took my kids to nature camp this week, hence the featured image on this post. The rest of the week was filled up with prepping and planning for our longest, most epic trip as a family – a 16-day road trip to Canada – which is coming up next! 

On Sabbatical – Week 10: Into The Woods With A Child

In the wake of Bro Day, I have been feeling like I’m losing touch with the purpose-driven fervor with which I started this sabbatical. I had, and still have, many goals for this “mini-retirement,” and it feels like I’ve barely scratched the surface on a few, while others remain untouched. I think it may simply be the slower speed of summer settling in. I’m enjoying my life. I’m seeing friends. I’m being active. Yet there is still this nagging feeling like… I’m not doing it all. Like I’m “supposed” to be doing something different or better or more when I choose to simply relax, be in my body, breathe, and stare at the trees for twenty minutes, or when I choose to go be social with a friend. Letting go of the idea of how things are “supposed” to be is one of my sabbatical’s ongoing pursuits.

SUPER MUCH FUN HAS A PRICE, AND IT’S A PRICE I’M WILLING TO PAY

I’m learning to embrace the balance that having “super much” fun (as my four year old would say) requires. Not just ordinary, go-for-a-jog or play-a-game kind of fun, but coordinated events, travel to exciting destinations… super much fun. Namely, it requires planning. It usually also requires a period of cleanup and decompression afterward. When you are in planning or cleanup mode, it is harder to be present in the moment and enjoy the now. That’s the price of having an epic Bro Day or a first-time camping adventure with your kid. It’s a worthwhile price to pay – exchanging the time of planning and cleanup in order for next-level experiences to be had. I just have to remind myself that it’s OK to have humdrum days too, and there is peace and joy in them, if I’m willing to be mindful enough to see and feel it.

TENT CAMPING WITH A KID

For the first time ever, I took my oldest to a campground for the weekend. Just the two of us. This was on my “must-do list” at the very beginning of summer. Why? It’s one of those things I just had a gut feeling about. An intuition that this is the summer where the age is right and the time is now. I love the outdoors and getting by with fewer amenities than I have around me in everyday life, and I want to share in that love with my children. So my six year old child and I embarked on a two-night tenting adventure into Minnesota’s St. Croix State Park.

Here are my top takeaways from the experience:

  • There is a fine line in parenting between giving your kids agency over their own choices and giving them firm direction on how things must go. I believe in both approaches, depending on the situation. When it comes to camping and being outdoors, there are certain things one has to do. Make a shelter. Get water. Apply bug spray. I found that proposing how things will go was a useful frame for both of us. It set the kid’s expectations and put us on the same page for the next minutes of life. Comments such as, “We are going to do this, and then I’d like your help with…” or “Here’s the plan. I want to make sure this all sounds good to you. First we’re going to ___” were useful ways of me directing the flow of activity while keeping the kid engaged.
  • Kids love jobs. I couldn’t give them enough jobs. The key was really selling it that my situation was dire, that I desperately needed aid, and that I couldn’t figure out the exact solution on my own.
    • “I could really use your help with these dishes. I don’t have enough hands to use this drying towel to dry them after I’ve washed them. What can we do?”
    • “Can you do me a huge favor? This might be a really tricky job, but I need someone to go around and find little sticks for the fire. Do you know how to do that?”
  • If the situation was such that I did want to give the kid a chance to choose, I would propose a short list of equally acceptable choices, rather than an open-ended question which could have less than agreeable outcomes. So instead of, “What do you want to do next?” it was, “Up next we could go for a hike, go to the beach, or go on a scavenger hunt. What sounds good to you?” I was good with any of those options, so it was a guaranteed win-win.
  • Kids love cold and hate hot. I knew this before camping, but it was reinforced with their relentless, unending love for swimming in frigid lake water and with their sincere trepidation around a bright, hot campfire. It is quite clearly a survival instinct to fear being burned and to be completely at ease around cold (because water is naturally cold!), but it is odd how we grow into loving hot beverages and hot showers as we become adults. Kids have an instinct that these hot things aren’t as good for us as their colder counterparts, and they’re right. Hot beverages can burn your tongue. Hot showers do dry your skin. Part of my parenting journey is learning to be more like my kids, because they have innate wisdom I have somehow unlearned.
  • I was reminded that children of all ages are still developing verbal skills. They don’t have the communication acumen to actually say what they need or are thinking all the time. (Come to think of it, neither do I!) A disgruntled, “Ugghhhh, this is taking for-ev-er!!” while on a hike is really just their way of saying, “I don’t know where we’re headed and am afraid I’m going to get tired before we get there. I feel lost. And I’m bored with this. Can we make this fun somehow please Dad?” It’s easy to get triggered by kids’ complaints. I continue to ask myself, “What is my kid really saying here?” and it is an incredibly useful reframe that helps me co-regulate with them and move us both back into calm and joy more quickly.
  • Spontaneous hugs from your kid because they are just feeling pure happiness toward you might fill my heart up more than anything else in the world.
  • Queen-sized air mattresses. You’d think they’d offer plenty of space for one adult and one child. Heh. We would start the night with each of us on one half of the bed. As the sun comes up, I would wake to find the child’s half of the mattress completely empty and bare, the kid located in my spot, wrapped like a tight burrito in all of the blankets, and me balancing on the mostly-deflated mattress edge with the slightest scrap of sheet around my ankles. Next time, we’re getting cots.
  • Car camping with a six year old is almost all the same gear as camping solo. It really was not much more work at all. I packed one extra chair and pillow, a few extra clothes (which are small), and an extra box of spaghetti. And bubbles.
  • Kids don’t like “hikes,” but they do like “searching for raspberries.” They will hike 5x farther with a little rebranding.

The payoff of a keen eye on a morning hike

GOOD PROBLEM

On our final night in the woods, we made a campfire. Two weeks prior to this camping trip, we had our first encounter with sparkler sticks – the classic 4th of July variety. As sunset turned to dusk around our campfire, my kid got the idea that they wanted to create their own “sparkler” using a stick and igniting it in the fire. Up until this point, the responsibility of fire had been left solely to me, but this seemed like a golden opportunity to begin to have a deeper learning and experience with fire. They brought me a stick and asked if they could stick it in the fire, but I replied that this stick was too wet and wouldn’t burn properly. So they found another one and asked again, but I answered that this stick had green leaves on it, which meant it won’t burn properly because the wood is too new. Again, they searched the ground for the right “sparkler” stick, and this time, they were sure of the stick’s caliber. I could tell by the look on their face; this must be a good one. And while the stick was not wet, nor was it green, it was laughable in size – it was a piece of bark no longer than an adult thumb. I instructed, “This looks like a good type of wood, the only problem is, look how short it is. If you tried to hold it to the fire, in order to get close enough for it to light on fire, what would happen?” And they looked at the fire, and down at their thumb-sized piece of bark, and back at the fire, and finally gazed up at me and, with a nod of approval, replied, “Hm. Good problem.”

As they retreated to scour the campsite yet again in search of the perfect stick, I was struck with that phrase. Good problem. The kid meant it. They were happy to have been given a good problem. One worthy of their solving. One that presented a challenge yet was reasonably solvable. One that was not a “no,” but was an invitation to work toward a solution. With a child that is intrinsically motivated to find a solution, a reasonable problem is the ultimate brain food.

Ultimately, they did find the perfect stick, and we had ourselves a fire ritual. At the kid’s request, I lit the end of the stick in the fire and then handed the flaming stick to the kid. While it didn’t expel sparks, the flame died out and transformed into a glowing, smoldering ember, much like a stick of incense. Under a starlit sky, with the orange ember glowing, the thin stream of smoke drifting with the breeze, and the feeling of power that comes with wielding fire, 100% of the kid’s being was there, in that moment, completely absorbed by the now. So was mine. It was a special moment to share together. I cannot recall a time in my life where I’ve spent more minutes staring at a stick. Our first fireside ritual is a memory I will take with me always.

On Sabbatical – Week 9: Making The Effort To Connect With My Bros

Wind Down Time

The week at the cabin definitely threw off our sleep routine. It’s hard to get kids to go to bed before sunset, especially in a new place where most of your time is spent outdoors. There’s a connection to the natural cycle of the day that is hard to break, no matter how many blackout curtains you use.

After the first night back home, we quickly realized a change was needed. Bedtime did not go well; the kids were not ready for bed at the time that we were ready for them to be ready for bed. So, during dinner the next night, we came up with “Wind Down Time,” and began discussing how that might look. The idea was that we’d get ready for bed and then the kids could stay up late, so long as they kept to themselves and played quietly while the adults read, talked, or did some similarly boring activity. Dessert is the one time we can virtually guarantee the kids will be sitting still, and they were having ice cream, so we broached the topic then. To the one, we asked if they wanted to try Wind Down Time tonight, and they said, “Yes.” We looked to the other, asked the same thing, and they said, “I like to lick bowls.”

I guess during ice cream maybe isn’t the best time to capture a child’s undivided attention after all.

Beach Volleyball Brings Me Joy, No Matter My Age

I was lucky enough to get out in the sand for back to back beach volleyball days this week. And not just any sand, but the sand in the choicest volleyball courts in the Twin Cities – the courts at Bde Maka Ska. In my 20’s I had lived walking distance from these courts, and it was here that I transitioned from primarily playing indoor volleyball (which I’d done since age 15) to the beach. So, it was very rewarding to be back on my old stomping grounds.

Of course, these days my off-court setup does look a little different than it used to. The only way I could make the time to play one of these days is if I brought the kids with me. It took some extra preparation, but it was well worth it. Packing a cooler full of snacks and a wagon full of toys is a small price to pay to have your own personal cheering section with you wherever you go!

A little extra gear for an afternoon of volleyball

As more people showed up to play, I realized I was, for perhaps the first time in my life, the oldest guy at the courts. There were bunches of in-shape twenty-something’s playing on the courts next to us. When my friends and I finished our matches and were packing up our balls and lines, one particularly shredded dude came up to me and asked me how long I’d been playing volleyball. I surprised myself when I did the math and replied, “22 years.” The look on his face was priceless! He replied, “What, you started when you were 7 or sumthin’?” No, son. I’m old. “You don’t look old. You don’t play like you’re old.”

You hear that, world? This old man’s still got it, even with kids in tow!

CREATING SPACE FOR HONEST CONVERSATION ON A PONTOON FULL OF DUDES

One day this week, I joined my neighbor and his friends for an evening on a pontoon boat on Medicine Lake in Plymouth, MN. There’s one guy in this crew that I particularly enjoy, because he doesn’t shy away from conversations about real, important things in life and not just surface-level discussions about football or farts. And so I was talking to this guy about parenting, about what it’s like raising kids today, about goal-setting, and about dealing with all the challenges of trying to be a good dad, have a healthy relationship with your partner, and also trying to live your own life. He shared personal, sometimes painful details of his life, and I held space for the pain, and then would gently offer a follow up question to unpack it further. Toward the end of the discussion, he pulled a right turn and asked me, “Do you go to therapy? You’re using a lot of therapy speak.”

What’s most interesting to me about this comment is not that I do not go to therapy, but that I took his comment as a compliment. My initial reaction was a feeling of pride and gratitude for being secure enough with my own feelings that I was able to be a witness for someone else’s pain. It makes me wonder what I could do if I wasn’t a few pale ales deep on a pontoon full of dudes. I also realize that healing can happen anywhere, so long as I create the space for it.

BRO DAY

Maximum fun takes planning. Lucky for me, I’m a planner. For years I’ve dreamed of putting together a day of outdoor games with my closest bros. This week, I finally made it happen. The idea stems from my father’s long-standing tradition of a Decathlon in the woods with his friends; he and his friends from school have, for the most part, kept this effort going over the span of several decades. I got to partake in that tradition one year when I was in college, and have since wanted to make that happen with my own circle.

It was a special thing, getting eight adult men, many with wives and kids, in the same place with the entire day open. We made the most of our freedom.

Of all the things we could have done (paying greens fees to golf on a pesticide-ridden landscape, paying admission for high-speed, fossil-fuel-burning go karts…), I set up the day to be at a park. Just eight dudes, some yard games, a few coolers, a couple balls, a speaker, and the great outdoors. That’s all we needed to have an epic day and create some memories that’ll last a lifetime. That’s what I’m most proud of with organizing this Bro Day – it’s not all the planning and coordinating that went into it, it’s that what we chose to do with our time was low cost, had minimal environmental impact, and fostered maximum fun.

Special thanks to all the ladies in our lives for enabling this epic day of good times to happen. Shoutout to Bronson Broer for making the bro-iest of Bro Day trophies!

I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the winner. Congratulations to my good friend Brian Dexter on being the ultimate bro in 2022!

Bro Day 2022

Dex with the Bro Day trophy. Me half-pretending to be salty with a 2nd place finish.

On Sabbatical – Week 8: A Vacation That Was No Longer An Escape From Life, But An Invitation To Live

You know how getting ready for a trip with kids can have its stressful elements? How, between you and (hopefully) a co-parent, you have to not only pack for yourself, but for your kids, and how kids need way more stuff than just clothes and a toothbrush? And how both co-parents probably have their own packing lists with some bits of overlap but neither list catches all the things? And how, while you’re trying to find, organize, and pack all of these additional toys, stuffies, nightlights, and various other “essential” items, the kids you are so strenuously working for are literally climbing on your back throughout the process? Well, for our annual Moravetz clan cabin week on Mille Lacs Lake this year, the vacation prep was anything but stressful.

In fact, we had the most relaxed, laid back vacation prep ever. No stress. No partner squabbles. Children that allowed us to insert items into a duffel bag one and only one time, never once removing said items to “play with one last time.” When one adult was feeling the urge to tackle a list, the other naturally gravitated toward giving the children attention. When one adult needed a break, the other danced in step to change positions. Everything just flowed.

Of course, having the relief of removing “normal jobs” from the equation helped in this matter, with some extra hours available during the days prior to departure. I also attribute the ease of our cabin week prep to a few things. For one, our kids getting older, which for us is equating to less overall gear needed (no diapers nor bottles, woop!). Also, we’ve made this trek a few years running now, so there was a little less mystery of what contingencies we may or may not need to plan for. But the big thing that stood out to me was the communication between Kristyn and I. We have been practicing focusing on advocating for our own needs and having better control of our breath, tone, and nonverbal cues. We avoided any potential stress spirals by simply doing what felt right and being calmly receptive to any inputs from the other. Easier said that done, to be sure. But with practice… possible.

Our children maturing also plays a big factor, not just with packing for a week at a cabin, but throughout our lives. It feels a lot like magic when your kids start gaining more independence. The feeling of “turning a corner” or a “paradigm shift” brings relief to me, that these young humans now know enough of the world that they can make their own way in many situations. For example, we don’t have to worry about what a kid will do if left unattended in our house for a few minutes. Sure, they might quickly grab a rogue mandarin off the counter and surreptitiously scarf it down, but they’re not going to choke to death – they have teeth now, and they know how to use ’em. It’s also highly likely in this hypothetical scenario that the child will also dispose of their orange peel evidence in the compost, concealing any damning shred of proof of citrus consumption while simultaneously assisting in the natural decomposition of said rind. #winning

My big takeaway from the actual week at the cabin is – I noticed a difference in me compared to family cabin weeks from previous years. In the years where this trip was a break from work, where I was using hard-earned PTO days to “buy the time,” and choosing to spend my PTO time in this way, I brought an energy with me of – I have to make the most of this week. Note the words “have to.” No good vacation includes the words “have to.” It creates an arbitrary attachment to some set of expectations. This leads to potential disappointment. So, in years past, I “had to” do all the activities. I “had to” make sure I kayaked, and played yard games, and made campfires, and on and on. I “had to” find a way to have an afternoon away with Kristyn, because making time for date nights with kids and jobs is hard, and this was one of our rare chances to have other trusted adults staying under the same roof as us. I “had to” drink all the beer. I learned that I don’t actually enjoy six consecutive days of day-and-night drinking. After two days, I could feel my body saying, “What in the blazes are you doing drinking all this beer?” But my mind had this remnant muscle memory from previous years. I have to get my fill now while the getting’s good. I have to seize this opportunity to escape my normal life and really live a little! What rubbish I now realize that line of thinking was. This time around, I had no attachment to any particular activity, no “must have” for the week, and I wasn’t escaping anything from my normal life. It was just another pleasant week, with the added bonus of being around my lovely family. 

Looking ahead, my lesson from this is that I should aim to design my life in a way where I enjoy all of its components such that I don’t feel a desire to escape from any of it. Sabbatical may be coming to an end when I have confidence in a sustainable life design fitting that description. 

On Sabbatical – Weeks 6 and 7: Creating Space For Accidental Magic

At the time of this writing, I am currently a full month “behind schedule.” It is Week 11 of my sabbatical, and I’m finally publishing the takeaways from weeks 6 and 7. Of course, these deadlines are completely arbitrary and self-imposed; yet, the challenge of maintaining a steady rhythm of publishing is revealing. It reveals to me several things. First, I continue to grow a deeper appreciation for professional writers, for those who have made a career out of writing things for people to read. There are countless excuses one can make to avoid writing. I have been practicing many of them over the past month. Another thing this challenge is exposing is my perfectionism; this blog has no commercial purpose, no “master plan,” and despite that, I still hesitate to hit the little “Publish” button. Self-doubt and perfectionism creep in. Is this really the best I can do? Did I capture all that this week offered? Is this actually written in a way that anyone will be compelled to read past the first few sentences? I am reminded that part of the journey of writing this blog, perhaps the main part, is simply to work through the struggles of a writing regimen, to pave the way for my future self and whatever he might write about.

Onward to the happenings of Weeks 6 and 7!

SETTLING IN TO A SLOWER SPEED

In the wake of our trip to Costa Rica, I think I may be starting to arrive at the slowed down speed a sabbatical can provide. I’m realizing that I no longer get what I used to call the “Sunday Angst-ies.” You know, that feeling you get when it’s Sunday afternoon and you realize you still have umpteen things you were hoping to do before the weekend is over? That feeling of, “I know I need to get a good night’s sleep tonight, but I also didn’t have as much time as I wanted to read my book or watch my show or write in my journal or insert-hobby-here, so now I have to choose between sleep deprivation and my own little slice of me time.” The Sunday Angsties used to hit me hard, but not anymore. The weekends are now just another day that ends in “y,” and the great part about this is that I can equally enjoy every day of the week. There is no added pressure to do certain things on certain days. It’s liberating.

For example, it was 2pm on a weekday, 89 degrees outside, and I’m in the front yard sitting in a yard chair with my two naked kids in front of me. These two free birds are oscillating between gleeful sprinkler run-through’s and, once exhausted, hammock lounging. At one point, with the aid of Elton John’s “Your Song” crooning out of our portable speaker, the one kid was lulling the other into a lazy, gentle afternoon siesta by rocking the hammock straps ever so delicately. The kids weren’t just entertaining themselves, they were giving each other a nap! It’s moments like these that make me appreciate just how sweet it is to unplug from our capitalist system and simply live. Honestly, it can feel a bit like magic.

ACCIDENTAL MAGIC

It’s happening when we have no agenda, no set structure for the day – these magic moments when we let the children lead the way. Society should be learning more from children. They haven’t learned all of its harmful norms yet. They are free thinkers, free beings, unbound by the ways adults have learned they are “supposed” to live.

This week, my one kid said aloud, while we were playing outside, “This is the best day ever.” The next day, the other kid, while being pushed in a swing, listening to Katy Perry’s “Firework,” and nude as the day they were born, asked, “Daddy, can we do this every day?”

My kids are enjoying their days to the fullest, and the only thing I am doing is being with them. Sure, I set up the sprinkler, filled up the water table, and laid out a picnic blanket, but the rest was all them and nature. We didn’t go anywhere. We didn’t buy anything new. We’ve just been living. Together. With no time table. With an undistracted parent. And they are loving it.

This accidental magic is only happening because I am creating the physical, mental, and emotional space for it to occur. It is a worthwhile endeavor to practice the creation of openness and space. Free time, open space, lack of structure – this is where the magic happens.

LETTING KIDS CHOOSE THEIR OWN EDUCATIONAL ADVENTURE

People learn better when they are genuinely interested in something. I’ve been embracing the approach of waiting – waiting until one of my kids shows an interest in something and then diving in and following that interest as far as it will go.

For example, our local beach has a concession stand. We typically bring our own snacks to the beach, but let’s face it – it’s pretty tantalizing for a kid to see other kids devouring cold, creamy, icy treats on a hot summer day. Our kids have a little money in their piggy banks, but up until now, they’ve shown no interest in money. Fake money and real money have been the same to them – toys. In a world of online shopping and credit cards, no wonder it’s hard for kids to grasp the concept of money these days. But the concession stand is cash only, and all of a sudden – click! Now money is very interesting. This has then spurred numerous “lessons” where we sort and count coins, learn about the difference between cents and dollars, what money is used for, and so on. When we had counted up the one kid’s coins, it added up to two dollars. They considered the sum, frowned, and said, “Dad, I don’t think I have enough.” <PAUSE> Talk about a zinger! My entire journey leading me to sabbatical, trying to figure out when to quit my job, worrying about the uncertainty of what will come next… all of this has revolved around the question of “How much is enough?” After months of asking myself this question, let me tell you – this is not an easy question to answer! Somehow, I regained my composure and formulated a response. <RESUME> I replied, “How much do you think you would need to have to feel like you have enough?” After a beat, they commented, “I want to have enough so that I can buy ice cream at the beach.” Fair enough, kiddo. So I went to my jar of coins and doubled their “life savings” to four dollars. And yes, the next time we went to the beach, they blew about 3/4 of their life savings on ice cream. And it was the best money they’d ever spent.

On another occasion, I was out on our deck in the pre-breakfast morning with one of my kids, and they saw a tiny ant crawling on the bristles of one of our water toy paintbrushes. They were showing an interest, so I took an interest. We stared at and talked about this tiny ant for a good five or ten minutes. We talked about how it uses antennae to navigate its surroundings. We discussed that even though it’s small, its size doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a baby. Lessons that would have less likely sunk in had I been the one dictating when and what we’re going to learn about.

It’s also an all-around win to set up play “stations” and let the kids do as they please. Water is the absolute best toy on the planet. We paint with it. We dunk stuff in it. We funnel it. We watch water race down the slanted driveway. They wash my car for me. They wash their own bicycles and scooters. They learn what wet socks feel like. And with water, there’s no such thing as making a mess! We’re blessed to live in an area where water is abundant, and we do our best to limit our water waste (haven’t watered our grass in years) and teach the kids how water is a precious resource (e.g. once the buckets are empty, we’re not filling them back up). But if we are going to do some messy, unstructured, outdoor play, I’d much rather them spill a little water than be plowing through any other toy or material that needs to be made or purchased. Water for the win!

It was thoroughly fun to observe the urgency which with my kids made “Chocolate Stew” inside the water table. Yes, they’re choosing the less-than-ideal location of directly underneath the swings as their digging site for sourcing soil (one of Chocolate Stew’s two main ingredients). Sure, they’re wasting a bit of water that carelessly splashes over the side of the water table as they enthusiastically pour more solvent into their mixture. Yet, they are working together. They are creating and then solving many little problems in rapid succession. I am not involved in any way, and, for multiple consecutive minutes, I am able, within eyesight of them, to… wait for it… sit down. Miracle!

I am coming to realize that being a witness to and playmate of my kids is a big part of what the summer phase of this work hiatus is about.

CHOOSING NATURE OVER BREAKFAST SANDWICHES

One day this week I dropped off my kids for a three-hour gymnastics camp. What I chose to do with this time was to walk a total of five miles on the nearby trail system. I left the car in the parking lot of the gymnastics building (located in an industrial park) and walked until I was on the trail system, and I kept walking until I came upon the closest lake. Why? Why am I pulled in the direction of nature? Of movement? I love being with what I already have. Accepting that what I am and what I have is enough.

I know full well what Pre-Sabbatical Kevin would’ve done with this morning of freedom. He would have hopped in the car, driven to the nearest cafe, and dropped $20 on a breakfast sandwich and espresso that he didn’t need. He would’ve done so to “treat himself” for all of the “hard work” he was doing throughout the week, to “make the best of this precious ‘me time.’”

But instead, Sabbatical Kevin took in some fresh air, moved his body, worked up an actual appetite, and later enjoyed a healthy homemade lunch together with his kids.

While on the morning walk, I identified five plant and bird species using the Seek app. I continue to be mildly obsessed with this app that identifies any species you can take a picture of. Why am I so intrigued by this? For one, there is a lot to learn about the world around us, a lot that I don’t know! But I also sat with this question for a bit and came up with the following:

Things have names. Names have meaning. Meaning is information. Information is power. Power is control. Control is security. Security is comfort. Comfort is peace. So… By knowing something’s name, it brings me peace.

RECONNECTING AFTER ALMOST 20 YEARS

When I announced my sabbatical to my social media circle, I included a statement that spending more time with friends and family is at the top of my priority list, and that for whoever was reading this, it meant I wanted to be social with them. One person took me up on it. In this time of non-work, I was grateful to have a reason to set the alarm for 530am, feel the crisp morning air, and see the sunrise. We got a few miles of running in around the Mississippi River and got each other caught up on life after high school. Thanks for the quality time, Jenna Strain Lutz!

Man and woman athletes

KID QUOTES OF THE WEEK

  • “Can we have this day every day?”
  • “Can we do this tomorrow?”
  • (Six hours after gymnastics camp was over, out of nowhere) “My gymnastics was FUN.”
  • (Recanting a memory) “Yeah Dad, I heard you snoring last year. I heard it and I was like, ‘Excuse me, sir, what are you *doing* to that woman?’”
  • (Explaining to our family) “If you want someone to help, ask your superhero Dad to help!”

On Sabbatical – Week 5: A Week In Costa Rica, Seven Years In The Making

In order to properly write about this week of my life, I need to take us back. Back to the year 2015. But before that, I need to take us back five weeks, to the start of my sabbatical.

GOALS ARE MY WEAPON TO INFLUENCE THE FUTURE

When I left Corporate America in May 2022, one manager told me, in a farewell email, “your super power of breaking down goals and achieving them is beyond impressive.” It’s funny, the power it can have when someone tells you something about yourself. As I reflect on it now, I am someone that has set goals for myself throughout life, but I didn’t particularly consider myself a “goal-oriented person.” Yet, when I look at my track record, I have had the tendency to set up and knock out goals for a good 20 years. I really wanted to go to the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. Got in. When graduating, I had the goal of going into business for myself. Did it. One lofty business idea I had was creating a large-scale event, from scratch — a free university welcome event to kick off the school year, paid for by sponsors. We estimated 5,000 students would attend. 15,000 students showed up, and our profit margin on the event was about 65%. Later in life, I knew I had the personal life goal of starting a family. Made that happen. During the pandemic I set the goal of running a marathon. Completed it. Each year in my career in sales, I had corporate quotas and personal sales goals. Most years, I either met them or smashed them. I know what SMART Goals are and try to use that framework when writing down lists of goals in my journal. But until the note in that last email from my former manager, it hadn’t really clicked for me as a label, as a trait of mine.

I had never considered myself among the class of people I admire, the “true” goal-oriented legends you read books about, visionary businesspeople or world class athletes who set lofty goals and stop at nothing until those goals are achieved. I read about people who have had success in their pursuits: the ultra marathoner who ran a marathon in every country in the world, the musician who locked himself in his home studio and didn’t come out until the song was fully produced and mastered, the young businessman who turned his tiny magazine into a global media enterprise, the athlete who set their sights on Olympic gold and won it — and I think to myself, “Wow, those people are impressive. They know how to set goals and achieve them, and it’s taken them to incredible heights. I’m just a normal person. I’m not like them.” And while it’s true, I’m not destined for Olympic gold, I now believe I am like them, insofar as I have an ability to set a goal and complete it. This is one of my super powers. How can I be putting this skill to its best use? I guess we will all have to stay tuned as the magic unfolds!

And if that farewell email wasn’t enough, it became evident on our recent visit to Costa Rica that this goal-completing ability really is one of my super powers. And with that, we go back seven years, to the year 2015.

ALL GREATNESS STEMS FROM A VISION

Kristyn and I were discussing the topic of children: whether or not to have them, ideal time, ideal age gap between siblings, and so on. We agreed that one idea we both liked was, at some point down the road, to live, with kids, in a different country. It would help them gain a more global perspective on life, and it would be one heck of an adventure for us all. The details were foggy, but the overall mission was clear — at some point, live with our kids in a different country. Over the next year or two, we had our first child, and then, two years later, our second, and we continued the conversation of where and when we might want to live outside of the United States. A Spanish-speaking destination made the most sense, since Kristyn already spoke decent Spanish, so from the get-go we had our kids in Spanish immersion pre-school. Kristyn had visited Costa Rica with her family as a teenager, and she got her second visit to the country with my family on a Christmas vacation in 2015. We had a most excellent time. So, from our positive experiences in the past, we looked to Costa Rica first as a possible destination for our eventual journey abroad. As I clocked hours of online research about the country, I was not turned off by anything I read and, to the contrary, was only lured in more.

Two people
Together in Costa Rica – December 2015

So, in 2018, we took a reconnaissance trip to Costa Rica’s Guanacaste region, where we visited multiple locations, met with realtors, and toured schools. We rented an AirBnB in a developing area that, from what we could tell on the internet, seemed like it might be a good location for us. But this was our first recon trip. There was no expectation of making any sort of big decisions. The loose idea was that, in the following months, we’d return to Costa Rica, but in a different region, to compare and contrast it with Guanacaste. Or perhaps we would do this recon trip to Guanacaste, realize it wasn’t for us, and plan our next info-gathering excursion to Mexico, Honduras, Spain, or elsewhere.

It was our last day of Guanacaste recon, and some other-worldly intuition, some knowing came over Kristyn, like the ocean washing up on the shore. Inevitable. Confident certainty. Which is particularly odd, since she has been, and still is, the less decisive person in our partnership; when we come to life’s many little crossroads, like what meals we should make for the week or should we wear the blue or the green to our friend’s wedding, I am usually the one to speak up with a quicker decision. But this time, the decisiveness was all Kristyn. She felt a deep sense of clarity. Further recon was futile. This was the place. The time was now.

Guanacaste Recon Trip – December 2018

Over the next four years, two of which were COVID-19 pandemic years, we worked toward the details of where exactly we would live. A plan was coming together, but due to pandemic travel restrictions, we could not return to the country, and even once restrictions were lifted, with vaccines not being approved for children under five (which just changed last week), we weren’t able to go actually see the location where we hope to live in 2023.

And then, in Week 5 of my sabbatical, we saw it. It was everything.

FORESIGHT 20/20

It hit me on the initial walkthrough of the house, not as much on the interior, but outside, on a covered deck, gazing out at a tiny distant sliver of visible Pacific Ocean, with a lush jungly hillside to my right and a rushing river flowing through the tropical forest behind. I felt an onrush of emotion.

Being a man that’s grown up in a patriarchal society, I have a deficiency in emotional intelligence. Feelings are hard. Society did not equip me with the tools, behaviors, and skills to talk about and express my feelings freely. It’s one of the areas of life I have the biggest room to grow. And so, even feeling and being aware of and being able to name “an onrush of emotion” is a starting point. But I’ve practiced some, and in that moment I was able to sit with the emotion, not panic but sit in it enough to allow space. Space for actual tears to form and roll down my cheeks, and space to be able to search the true feeling and name it. And the feeling was… relief. Relief that now the uncertain future is a little more certain. I had less fear of the unknown. This is where we will be living. This is where I will be drinking my daily mug of delicious, Costa Rica-grown coffee. This is the mountainside we’ll wake to every day. This is how the neighborhood howler monkeys sound. Up until then, the steps we had been taking to get closer to moving to Costa Rica all felt a bit like an upside-down, pandemic-infused dream, but in that moment, it all transformed from dream into reality.

So it was this feeling of relief from the ambiguity and fear of an unknown future, and also, after that, a feeling for which I didn’t have a word. So I sat with that, too. And it dawned on me – I was feeling happy, proud of my past self, proud of my past decisions, satisfied with the judgments and vision of the younger me. And it made me think of this phrase – Foresight 20/20.

You know how they say, “Hindsight is 20/20,” meaning that it’s easier to have complete knowledge and understanding about an event after it’s happened? Well, this feeling felt like our Foresight was 20/20, like the younger version of me was smack in the middle of the bullseye of knowing what future me would want. It was an extraordinarily rewarding sensation to have. I want to cultivate more 20/20 foresight.

Along the way, we’ve had moments of doubts. Many. “This is crazy.” “Are we really doing this?” “Are we robbing our children of some ‘better’ education or opportunities?” “How will we know if we still want this 4-5 years from now?” Countless questions more. Doubt. Uncertainty. Fear. Wicked cousins of emotion. I believe the ideal way to handle these feelings is not to avoid them but to go toward them. Stare them in the face. Learn from them what you will. And have the courage to push through them and press onward.

And through faith in those around us, a hint of that courage, more than our fair share of privilege, and a bit of luck, we got to see the result of the vision we’d had seven years ago, in living color. It was an affirmation that the old versions of ourselves could see our future. Something deep within us felt right about this spot, this plan, despite all the reasons why it might not work out. It’s validating and relieving that our old vision has not only come to fruition, but also feels so perfectly in alignment with the four-year-older version of me. To be happy with your past self is one of life’s best feelings, and I now aspire to impress my future self when making decisions. When at a decision crossroad, I ask myself, “Will this make my future self proud? Happy? Satisfied?” My intuition can take it from there.

Together Again in Costa Rica – June 2022

THOUGHTS FROM A WEEK IN COSTA RICA

A FRESH TAKE ON EDUCATION

We took a tour of the kids’ future school. We had already toured this school once on our 2018 recon trip, but now we could take the tour with our school-aged kids so they could see it and understand it for themselves. The school is one of our biggest draws to the area. It’s a bilingual school with half of the students being local Tico’s and the other half being international students from 30 different countries. Classroom sizes are capped at 20-22. They use project-based learning. The school year operates on trimesters with three different breaks throughout the year, rather than one big long break which can cause a mental “summer slide” in the developing mind of a child.

They put on a weekly “Feria” (market) every Wednesday for local merchants and students to sell their goods. We enjoyed being there to experience the Feria; we even had a First Grader give us his sales pitch for the homemade jewelry he had crafted.

Many nearby parents teach at the school. If you are a parent and aren’t a full-time teacher at the school, you are still required to contribute a minimum of 18 hours to the school’s activities throughout the year — a requirement I’m happy to abide.

Oh, and the school has gardens. And chickens. Many chickens! The curriculum includes an annual anchor project, which varies by grade. These anchor projects tend to model sustainability and self-sufficiency, and many anchor projects revolve around the chickens. Fifth Graders learn about and manage the compost at the school as their anchor project. The compost is used in the gardens, which is the Seventh Grade anchor project. The Sixth Graders are in charge of maintaining the chicken coops and feeding the chickens, while the First Graders are in charge of egg collection. Other grades work on recycling, water, and so on.

Everything about this school promotes a more communal integration with the community and with the school’s natural surroundings. This is what school should be. Everywhere.

WHEN DID SOCIETY AGREE EXTRA CLOTHING WAS A GOOD THING?

When we were in Costa Rica, and we were at a private house, with thick trees all around, not another human in sight, with tropical temps — we were naked. A lot. The kids mostly, but us grown-ups too. We saw how happy the little ones were to be free of their soggy bottoms. We wanted that same happiness. And why not? Because it’s not the norm? What’s not natural is putting clothes on when it’s 90 degrees and you have your own pool. It’s sad all the “rules” we think we have to live by. When was the last time the sun kissed your bare bottom? Answer: too long ago.

EMBARRASSING TRAVEL HICCUPS CAN HAVE SILVER LININGS

In our family, I am the planner, especially when it comes to travel. Even though it takes a lot of hours, I enjoy it. I enjoy the tradeoff of doing the work so I can arrange for the travel that I most want. This was a complicated trip, since we not only had international travel with children, but we also had life planning to attend. Meetings to set up. Tours to take. And while 99% of my planning was executed flawlessly, I had one small hiccup. When we finally arrived to the rental car lot (roughly 12 hours and two flights after waking up at 2:30am), I realized I had left my driver’s license at home. My license, which always stays in my wallet, had been removed from my wallet. By me. The day before we left. So that I could bring it to the nearby community beach as ID for our annual summer membership. I knew exactly where it was, sitting in a board short pocket in my bedroom hamper. That information was not especially useful at the current juncture. Kristyn was going to have to be our driver.

I dreaded breaking this news to her. I don’t think it’s most people’s idea of a good time to figure out driving in a foreign country. I felt bad to be burdening her with this responsibility. But it turned out to have the best silver lining ever, because there was actually something more stressful than driving around potholes and helmet-less cyclists biking on shoulder-less roads — handling the simultaneous navigation of those roads with spotty 2G cellular data and the management of two tired, hungry, hot, and curious children. Now that was some sweaty work!

Kristyn has already called “dibs” on driving next time.

WRITING REQUIRES PERIODS OF LIVING LIFE

I thought I would be writing nonstop while we were in Costa Rica this week. Writing down notes about the location and school. Journaling until my hand cramped up from all the inspiration I was feeling. Freewriting incessantly from my creative synapses firing. Instead, I barely wrote anything. I lived. I swam. I cooked. I laughed. If you don’t spend part of your life just living it, you have nothing to write about.

My Sabbatical – Week 4 – Prioritizing Pursuits And Accepting The Truth Of My Actions

A sabbatical is glorious in many ways, and it also has its challenges. With the stripping away of a more rigid daily and weekly structure, with a reduction of commitments and obligations, which grants me additional free time to allocate as I choose, comes a challenge. A challenge of variety, of options, of opportunities, of… open-endedness. There are many endeavors I wish to pursue, and all of them require minutes of the day (although some, such as living more mindfully, can be practiced throughout the day). How to prioritize? I have many goals I want to tackle all at once. I want everything to happen now. I want to be fluent in Spanish. I want to have five songs written and produced. I want five boxes to fill themselves of the stuff we don’t need and donate themselves to places and people that will use them. I want this blog to write itself. There are ten different website updates I want to make to this very site, not to mention the three other websites I want to be building, but each little change takes me ages since everything is a first, and firsts have a steep learning curve. And I know this kind of sounds impossible and “woe is me,” but even though I don’t have a day job right now, even with all those extra hours in the week, it’s still hard to make time for all of these things. Or even half of them! What things make the cut and which get left for later? This is the mental battle of my early sabbatical. 

I’ve noticed, though, that I am making time for certain things. I am preparing (and happily eating) home-cooked food daily. I’ve set up an exercise space in the basement and am getting out on the sand volleyball courts regularly. I am saying “yes” to my kids almost whenever they ask to play with me. Perhaps it turns out that the actions I’m making time for are my top priorities. We are what we do. 

Impromptu scooter ride midday on a weekday, because on sabbatical, Dad says, “Yes!”

One of the goals or tasks I keep writing down on my various lists is the project of purging. I’ve been wanting to purge, purge, purge. Strip things down. Declutter our house. Declutter my mind. But with planning for international travel coming up next week and trying to live slowly and not be too “busy,” I haven’t been making room for big purge projects. However, one thing I have been doing is playing with my kids and being present with them. Maybe that’s a fair trade-off? Maybe that’s what this week of sabbatical is supposed to be about. If I had been on a decluttering spree and grinding away at my laundry list of hobbies, I would have missed the following interaction with my kid.

With a delightfully tactful and simply-stating-an-observation tone, I had commented, loud enough for my kid to hear, on how hard it is to see any portion of the actual wood floor in our playroom. Any parent can relate. The kid stopped, eyed the playroom up and down, and turned their head to me and replied, “Daddy, I think we have too many toys.” Oh, I agree, young one. I agree. And so, without any further prodding or encouragement needed, we purged. Now, it was not the poetic, total toyroom overhaul that it could have been, but together, we picked up stuff and agreed whether it should be shelved or binned. 

And so, by letting go of the perceived need to be self-improving and making progress doing my long list of goals, and simply being a present father with my child, I not only got some decluttering done, but I also had a positive, bonding moment with my child. 

Letting go is getting me where I want to go. 

 

TANGENTIAL PARENTING HACK: If your 4-7 year old kid doesn’t enjoy “picking up” the play room or bedroom, suggest “neating” instead. Our kids all out sprint the other way when we mention picking up a room, but if we neat it, carefully replacing items to their homes ever so delicately and neatly like a member of the royal family might, oh, neating is so much fun! 

 

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF SILENCE

Sunday, June 12, 2022

I messed up earlier today. I intervened when I should have done nothing. Or rather, I spoke instead of silence. Silence is tragically underrated. Silence is where magic happens. A silent lake at night divulges a loon’s call from miles away. Silent, tantric stares with your partner can unlock an unknown depth of intimacy. Silence is where you learn. 

My co-parent and our kids were having a calm, strategic bedtime negotiation around the remaining screen time of the night, and since it was a “Mommy Night” (we trade bedtime nights), I was doing my job, which at that point was to stare out the window and do nothing. Be a fly on the wall. Let what happens, happen. And then, all of a sudden, I wasn’t doing my job. During a pause in the mildly tense but perfectly under control negotiation, I commented that, “this conversation is sure taking a long time,” attempting and failing to imply the logic of, “think of all the minutes of screen time we could have gotten by now had we simply agreed on something and started watching.” I just couldn’t help myself from intervening and trying to help the situation. The thing is, the intent of offering assistance doesn’t make all actions right. And the discomfort I felt in that moment is a me problem. 

Upon conversation with my partner and further reflection, many of my missteps in life stem from an underlying tendency toward perfectionism. A sense of editing and revision to live every moment with maximum efficiency, maximum rightness. Why is that instinct there, to always be improving, always be optimizing, maximizing, even if it doesn’t matter? I have a few ideas, and I’m also jotting it down as a future journal prompt for further unpacking. 

Ultimately, I need to trust my partner to live their own parenting journey. And I need to trust my children to have their own journey. From every stumble, at least I can always learn. 

 

REFLECTION FROM A HAMMOCK: BEING OUTDOORS IS BLISS

Sunday, June 12, 2022 continued…

I had been on such a high to come out in the gazebo tonight and write. I got what felt like a huge breakthrough earlier tonight by taking “one teaspoon more” as I embarked on nighttime cleanup duty, which started out with picking up the front yard while it was still light out. 

When it’s a Mommy Night for bedtime, it’s a Daddy Night for cleanup. I ventured out to pick up the day’s toys, chairs, and miscellanea. I left the camping hammock suspended between our two Eastern White Pines for last. It was a gorgeous Minnesota summer night, and the sun was just about to set over the neighbor’s house to the west. But I had cleanup chores to do and a long list of personal hobbies to pursue after that, so I briskly unclipped the hammock from its straps and had it half packed into its stuff-sack when I froze. I looked up and the pink and orange setting sun and thought to myself, “What the heck are you doing right now? You love sunsets and this weather is lush.” And so rather than charge ahead on my task list, I slowed down, reattached the hammock, and sank in to a reflective meditation by sunset. And laying there, ever so gently rocking back and forth, gazing up at the canopy overhead and the drifting clouds above, I had the following epiphany. 

You can sum up one of my truest pleasures in life in two words: being outdoors.

These are phrases transcribed from the 4:22 Voice Memo I captured on my phone while in that hammock meditation: 

  • “I find myself realizing that being outdoors does bring me joy. It’s as simple as those two words. Being outdoors. … Every time. Every time I’m connecting with nature, it brings this overwhelming sense of peace, where I feel like I can actually… touch my soul, feel my soul.”
  • “It feels… indulgent. Like I’m somehow not deserving of just sitting outside and enjoying the sunset, like I should be doing other, more productive, things. For my family. For myself. But… this is nourishing myself. Just, chillin’ horizontally, on a hammock, with my weight suspended, with a gorgeous sunset, underneath a forest canopy, is… one of the best things there is in life! And I just need to remember that in my day to day. When I’m outdoors, my bucket is getting full.”
  •  (Tangential commentary on the benefits of hammocks): “There’s something about the way a hammock works on your body… because you’re horizontal, because your hips are relieved of any pressure, the opposite of when you’re sitting… because you have this anti-gravity posture, it feels like you’re… cheating, like you’ve found the loophole of physics to allow your body to relax. It’s like the same tranquility of floating in water, but without all the work of paddling and holding your breath, not to mention the needing-to-find-a-spot-to-swim bit.”

I can’t get over how cool it is to be experiencing the recurring theme that slowing down and doing less results in more clarity, more joy, and, paradoxically, more progress

 

MUSIC IS MY MUSE

Sunday, June 12, 2022 concluded…

Eventually, the sun did set, and duty called. It was time to put away the dishes away, so I headed inside and popped in my AirPods. I’m washing, listening to this “Wondewall” remix on SoundCloud, and I’m dancing, quite well I might say, and it’s hitting me, that dancing may be a “tier two” passion of mine. If I’m being honest, I’m no Michael Jackson, but I do have rhythm. I started playing piano at 6 and played until middle/high school, where I transitioned to saxophone. I also played drums in the church youth band. I played a few small-town gigs in a jazz combo. I went on to play in Jazz Band at the University of Minnesota. I’m constantly tapping out percussive beats and improvising goofy song lyrics with my kids. And yeah, when it’s dishes time, I drop in the AirPods and get my dance on. Is there any better way to get the dishes done than to dance with them?

It’s good to acknowledge your strengths. I believe there is huge benefit to leaning into one’s strengths. And as vulnerable as I feel writing this, that I will come across as arrogant, I believe that it’s OK to be proud of my skills and that there is power in naming things, and so I will name that I have a skill of shared rhythm with my kids. Shared rhythm is one of the many concepts I’ve learned from Kristyn, and I believe that it’s an area that I often excel in, and I’m connecting just now that it may be in part because I’m a naturally rhythmic person. Shared rhythm is not necessarily percussive, of course; having a back and forth conversation or going for a walk together are also shared rhythm. But in the literal sense, I can feel things click with the young ones. For example, when my kids ask me to do “Run-Unders” with them, they are referring to me dribbling an extra large yoga ball, in our basement, as high as I can without ricocheting back off the ceiling, in a consistent, steady beat, so they can time out a sprint underneath without getting tagged by the ball. It’s wicked fun, and in the game we share the rhythm of the bouncing ball. (Of course, the huge yoga ball does eventually crash into them, but only when they choose the rhythm of silliness and stopping mid-sprint to let it crash into them, at which point I let go of the old game and pivot to align with the rhythm of silliness.) 

Then it was time to do the dishes for real, not just dance to a remix of Oasis’ crowd-pleasing masterpiece from the 90’s, and I switched over to Spotify. Spotify is one of the few apps I happily pay for every month. It’s a rare subscription bill I look at and am 100% at peace with paying. I absolutely love having the world’s music at my fingertips. Of its many delightful features, Spotify’s algorithm customizes a set of six “Daily Mix” playlists tailored to your listening habits and grouped by an overall “feel,” with “Daily Mix 1” typically being more of your frequently played, go-to songs, with Daily Mix 6 being the collection of the 10 random songs of that one obscure genre you secretly like and rarely, but every so often, listen to. I hadn’t used this feature in a while, and today, Spotify curated the most serendipitously customized “Daily Mix 1” to not only my specific, eclectic taste in music, but did so in a series of 8 or 9 songs in a row that perfectly fit the mold of the mood I wanted to be in. First with a couple blood pumping, foot-stomping jams like “LIGHT” by Parcels and Jungle’s “Smile,” then into a more relaxed, but still toe-tappin bass line of Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up – Pt. 1”, and then slower still with a brand new release from Jacob Collier featuring Lizzy McAlpine and John Mayer, “Never Gonna Be Alone”… and as I’m writing this about music, it is really hitting me that music, rhythm, dance… these also are things that make my soul shine through.

Being outdoors, music, good food, family… what more does a man need?

And yet, even as I’m dancing away, synchronizing my dish scrubs and rinses with the beat of some of my favorite tunes by my favorite artists, allowing the rhythms and melodies to take over my body, in my own house… I’m noticing that it’s hard to truly, truly let go, to truly be the wacky, shirtless dish dancer that my soul wants to be. I think up more outrageous dance moves than I actually allow my body to do, even when no one is watching. It’s like there is this deeply rooted fear of judgment of others, fear of doing things someone might judge me for doing, fear of doing something other than what society expects me to do. 

Above all else, I need to allow me to be myself.

 

FINAL THOUGHT 

Writing is hard. I’ve had different pieces of this post written for a while. Procrastination gets the best of me. Steven Pressfield’s “Resistance” is real. It’s easy to find excuses to do anything but simply opening up a blank page and starting to write. Self-judgment. Perfectionism. Resistance takes many forms, and they all get in the way of doing the work. I suppose I am grateful to have made the first step, which is acknowledging their presence and typing this paragraph anyway.

OK, enough yammering, onward to Week 5 – a week in Costa Rica!

 

My Sabbatical – Weeks 2 and 3: Alone in the Woods, Mini Retirement Happy Hour, and Conversations With Partners

It’s astonishing how difficult it is to slow the speed of life down. Just as a train in motion cannot stop at a moment’s notice, a “normal busy American suburban life” has a lot of inertia behind it. Not only are there tangible, logistical things that “need” doing, like taking the kids where they need to go, mowing the lawn, and managing bills, but there is also the internal learned behavior of busyness, that being in a state of doing is good, productive, what one is supposed to do. And it took my venturing deep into the woods along the North Shore of Minnesota to realize just how deep that learned behavior runs within me. 

A FEW NIGHTS ALONE IN THE WOODS: REFLECTIONS ON FUEL, COMFORT, AND THE INERTIA OF LIFE

On Friday, May 27, 2022, I drove four hours north to George H. Crosby Manitou State Park for a three-night solo camping trip. It was my first-ever attempt at using a hike-in campsite, where my vehicle would be parked over a mile away my camp.

Overflowing backpack

I may have overpacked…

George H. Crosby Manitou State Park Entrance

Hiking on the Superior Hiking Trail at the entrance of George Crosby Manitou State Park

It wasn’t until I was a few hundred feet above the forest canopy, at a gorgeous scenic lookout point I did not even know I was hiking to, that I finally allowed myself to stop. I had been go-go-go, wanting to see all the coolest parts of the trails and check off as many boxes as I could, and when I reached this beautiful, peaceful lookout, a little voiced whispered in my head the phrase, “One teaspoon more.”

This is a notion I learned from Kristyn during our couple’s retreat this past winter; it’s the concept of allowing yourself the time and mustering the mindfulness to enjoy one more morsel of whatever you are experiencing that is bringing you joy. Perhaps you’re at the park with your kids and it’s time to go, but your kid is loving being pushed on the swings, or maybe you are giving a loved one a hug and it feels really good but it’s already been a few seconds and you’re approaching the time where it feels like you’re “supposed to” disengage, or perhaps you are quite literally cooking a delicious meal that calls for a tasty ingredient – whatever the case may be, you mindfully acknowledge that what you want is One Teaspoon More, believe that you deserve One Teaspoon More, and so you take the action and enjoy One Teaspoon More.

As I sat above the trees, on a perfect perch with a flat rock as a seat and another perfectly positioned boulder behind as a backrest, overlooking the forest with no one around but the birds circling in front of me, resting in the most beautiful spot I had seen in over three days in the woods, I found myself compelled not to take pictures, not to meditate, not to sit and soak it in, but to leave! I had been sitting for maybe two whole minutes and then stood up to walk away. Why? My brain was telling me, “OK, this was cool, onto the next thing. There’s probably other great stuff out there that you’re missing by just sitting here. Stop wasting time you lazy fool!” I had stood up and taken two steps away from the perch when Kristyn’s voice whispered in my head, “One Teaspoon More,” which was exactly what I needed to hear. I sat back down and breathed in nature’s beauty for another 10-15 minutes. I did nothing. It was glorious. And it served as a smack-in-the-face lesson for me that slowing down and taking One Teaspoon More is not easy. It takes practice. It takes mindfulness. And it is so worth it.  

Enjoying one teaspoon more of this tranquil view above Tettegouche State Park

 

Two other big themes emerged from my time in natural solitude: Fuel and Comfort.

Fuel. We need fuel to survive. Fuel is a critical component of any survival situation, and we ought to be more mindful of the fuel we use to propel and nourish our lives. The notion struck me while I was gathering firewood on night one of my outing; the skies were clear and many downed branches lay in and around my site. I did not bring a saw or hatchet with me, so I was relegated to using whatever fire fuel I could scrounge up with my bare hands. After a period of gathering, I looked at my stick pile and thought, “OK, this is the amount of fuel I have for the fire, and it will have to be enough.” Once I had gathered the firewood, I washed up and started boiling water over a very small backpacking stove. This stove uses a fuel canister to burn. The act of needing to gather my own firewood and noticing that I had to pack a fuel canister with me in order to cook made me more conscious of just how important fuel is to living things. 

One obvious form of fuel is food; as mammals, we need to fuel our bodies with calories, vitamins, and other nutrition to give our bodies energy. How one obtains, prepares, preserves, and consumes fuel has an enormous impact on one’s health and well-being. Am I in right relationship with the sources of my food fuel? How much fuel do I waste on a weekly basis? What steps could I take to plan ahead and prepare batches of fuel in advance, minimizing wasted time and fuel? 

But we also fuel ourselves in other ways. Consider mental fuel. Educating ourselves is fuel for our minds. As children, our brains are hungry to learn, hungry for mental fuel.  We can’t get enough of it. As we get older, do we get complacent? Am I giving my brain the fuel it needs to stay sharp and to learn new things every day? If I watch television or play a video game, what am I fueling my mind with? 

How about emotional and spiritual fuel? What activities, people, conversations, and meditations fill me with the emotions I enjoy and the spiritual sustenance I need? What practices can I put into place to mindfully keep my emotional and spiritual fuel tanks full? 

 

Comfort. When you’re out in the woods with only a backpack, your resources are limited. Resources is another word for comfort. If you have the resource of a couch, you have more comfort. If you are rich with food resources, you have the comfort of not needing to obtain food. Even more comfort if the food is prepared for you. If you have financial resources, then you have the comfort of not needing to put every penny to its absolute most critical use. Climate-controlled houses, grab-and-go food, smart refrigerators that tell you when you’re out of eggs – many of us live with way, way more comfort than we need to live a happy and healthy life. 

“How much comfort do I need?” “How does that compare to how much comfort I have?” Exploring these questions may provide some keen personal insights. But there’s an even more interesting question, which is, “How much comfort do I actually want?” For example, do I actually want to pay someone to maintain my yard, which on the surface provides me the comfort of not needing to do that task, but also puts me out of connection with the land I live on? Do I really want to buy a cheeseburger from the drive-thru, which will satisfy my immediate hunger, but will also unnecessarily contribute to global warming by eating beef (which generates more greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of food produced, by far, than any other type of food) and generate extra trash for a landfill, when I could just drive the extra five minutes to get home and eat some trail mix and a salad made from the planter boxes in my backyard? 

 

AN ANTI-CLIMACTIC CORPORATE SEND-OFF… WITH A SURPRISE TWIST!

On May 19, 2022, I quit my job in advertising sales. In a hybrid work environment with many varied team members working remotely on any given day, a last day at a job can be a little underwhelming. Over two thirds of my coworkers were working from home on my final afternoon on the job. I had worked on this team for the majority of my 30’s, put in hundreds of hard-working weeks, consistently surpassed sales quotas, collaborated on scores of commercial video productions, and closed some of the biggest deals the TV station had ever seen, and the final fanfare on the day of departure amounted to a pair of fist bumps from the managers who were the in-office managers that day. This would not do. 

So I concocted a plan, and on Thursday, June 2, I had a going away happy hour at a restaurant patio near the station, to which I invited over 50 current and former coworkers. People I had worked with closely over the years: fellow sellers, support staff, and managers. I received some enthusiastic affirmatives, as well as some declines, which is to be expected for any event. These people had other obligations, their kid was sick, they had another event they were going to, and so on. No sweat former work compadre, live your life! There were a good number of people, though, that either said they were going to come and, for one reason or another, did not, or they did not reply to the invitation. These are people that I considered some of my closest professional relationships, people whose company I genuinely enjoyed and wanted more of. And we’re talking about more than a handful of people here. This brought to light for me two things.

One is that it made me sad. Sad for our system, our society. People are overworked and are stretching themselves too thin, and it’s not entirely their fault. Yes, we make choices on how full we fill our plates, and many of us could stand to rethink how full of activity our lives are, but we don’t always get to choose everything. With the huge ripple effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in the workforce, as so many people are making career changes, more is being asked of loyal employees. If someone leaves a company, the people remaining have to pick up the slack until a new hire is found, which can take weeks or months. Bandwidth is a real issue affecting organizations everywhere. 

I do believe that there are a group of my former coworkers that truly did want to come join in the gathering, but their lives are just so busy that they prioritized or were obligated to something else above saying farewell to me. Now, I freely acknowledge I’ve said no to or avoided many social activities when I was working, with an excuse about having little kids and this or that other obligation or that I’m just so busy I don’t have time for this. But I realize now, when you are the person that is hosting the get together, when you are going to be a center of attention, when you are the one hoping to see someone, and those someones don’t show, it doesn’t feel great. It means a lot to someone to show up to their thing. And so in the future, if I care about someone and I’m invited to their thing, I’m showing up. 

The second thing it makes me realize is just how fickle a professional relationship can be. Perhaps other people are better at transforming a professional relationship into a true, real life friendship friendship than I. I thought I considered many of my former coworkers my friends. And I expected them to show up like a group of my friends from college would show up to a backyard barbecue, but that’s not what happened. Perhaps I could have done more when we worked together, giving more emotionally to those relationships while I was working to make those bonds more concrete after leaving work. That’s a lesson I’m going to take with me in whatever future work I do, in whatever future organizations I am a part of – that if there are coworkers I really enjoy as people, beyond the bounds of the work, I will put extra energy into making sure those relationships are strong enough to survive either one of our organizational exits.

As with many things in life, though, there was a silver lining. One of my former coworkers who did show up, Andrew, was heading straight from our restaurant to downtown Minneapolis for the Purple Block Party – a Prince tribute event celebrating the completion of a 100-foot Prince mural near the iconic music venue First Avenue. I seized the opportunity and joined him for an impromptu night of music and fun. Live music always brings joy to my soul. So while it wasn’t the night I was expecting, I think I actually enjoyed myself more than had things gone according to plan. Plans are overrated! 

Prince Mural Block Party

Coworker Holly gifted me the hat for future travels!

 

CRUCIAL CONVERSATIONS WITH YOUR PARTNER

Before the happy hour get together, I took the kids to school and then went for a walk to the lake with Kristyn, which turned into an impromptu conversation about our relationship, last two entire impromptu hours!

We were going to make breakfast, we had just made a pot of coffee, and we were starting to sip our coffee when Kristyn asked me if I wanted to watch some more of an online lesson video about this philosophy called Quantum Energetics. I had watched the first 20 minutes of this hour-long video with her the day before, and it was interesting but also not life-changing to me, so I replied by telling her I didn’t want to watch any more of it and that she could just watch it herself. This spurred a long conversation about how our dynamic will work in this new normal, the new normal of our mutual unemployment/self-employment. A mode where both of us are exploring new territories, learning new things and wanting to share those learnings and insights with the other person, but that other person has their own interests and learnings to be absorbing, and even without a day job, there’s only so much mental bandwidth one has and only so many hours in the day. How do we make space for it all?

It was one of the many conversations we’ve had over the last few months that I don’t think we would’ve had even just a year or two ago, at least not in as healthy a way that we did. It was an uncomfortable conversation. We both had opinions and feelings and, for me, those kinds of conversations can be hard to navigate. You know, ones with feelings involved. That’s scary stuff for many of us men! It can be hard to do the balancing act of expressing your own thoughts and feelings accurately, truly hearing what the other person is saying, letting what they say sink in, and work toward some mutual resolution/conclusion/next steps.

I explained how I love it when Kristyn teaches me things, but I only have so much bandwidth to learn about her favorite topics in addition to pursuing my own areas of interest, so we ended up coming up with the idea of having a weekly “Kristyn Class,” where over the course of the week I will have one assigned reading or lesson to watch and then we’ll make some time to discuss and debrief. It should be a great way to help Kristyn prioritize the things she wants to share with me most, which will also be a motivator for me to dive right in and know that it’s a manageable amount of content. 

I’m very grateful that we are at a point in our relationship where we can have these conversations and grow together from it. Looking forward to studying up in future sessions of Kristyn Class! 

Next up is preparing for a family trek to Costa Rica. More on that in the next sabbatical post! 

 

My Sabbatical – Week 1

While on a walk just moments ago, I had the following thought.

My goal is to take a two-year sabbatical, and it would be nice to give myself some sort of structure or discipline to document this journey. Two years = 104 weeks. What if I committed to writing a weekly blog post about my experiences over the past week? I can add to it over the course of the week and publish once per week. That would be a great way to not only document all the great moments, but also act as a fun way to review and assess my personal evolution over this time. 

So here we are. Week 1. 

I quit my job on a Thursday afternoon. Once I got the kids dropped off to school on Friday morning, I came home, made some coffee, grabbed my journal, and sat. I sat and stared out my window for two and a half hours. When a thought came, I would write it down, but otherwise, I simply sat and stared out at nature. Thoughts would come and go, thoughts of what I would do with my day. I practiced meditation and breathing techniques learned from the Headspace app, to let those thoughts go and to always bring my attention back to the breath. After taking this extended break to sit and simply be, I felt called to do something. My body wanted to move. The weather was nicer than it had been. And so, that afternoon, of all the things I could’ve done on the first day of being unemployed, I pulled weeds. I went out to my front yard and spent two hours clearing my land of last year’s dead leaves and this Spring’s new invasive growth. This is not a project I’d had at the forefront of my mind in the days leading up to my departure from the workforce, but in that moment, something inside told me it would feel good, feel right. So I put on some gloves, got down in a low squat (thank you Tony Riddle for teaching me this restorative position), and I got dirty. I used my body to connect with the Earth. I got low. I purged my land of what was old to make space for new growth. And now, with my physical environment cleansed, I feel more ready for the inner cleansing that lies ahead. 

Over the next couple of days, I was feeling compelled to start making lists, to “figure out” the optimal routine of my new normal. I’ve given myself the gift of time, now how I can ensure I don’t waste any of my precious, newly “purchased” minutes? I started writing down a list of all the things I could do with my time each day and week: practicing Spanish, running, meditating, practicing guitar, practicing piano, writing blog posts, various household projects… and then I wrote down the word “unlearning.” That’s when the pen took a break from the page. I realized that the drive to fill up my time, to optimize, to be busy with activities, is a learned behavior. Yes, I want to make sure I’m putting this precious time to good use, but what really is “good use” anyway? How can I know the answer to that unless I have taken the time to listen to my inner voice, and focused on unlearning and detaching from 15 years of Corporate America inertia?

Yet, at the same time, I do believe in the benefits of compounding and consistency; small activities done consistently over a long period of time yield big results. If you take 100 hours of your life and dedicate it to learning a new skill, say playing guitar, you will be a much better guitar player if you practice thirty minutes per day for 200 days than if you practice five hours per day for 20 days. I want to start laying these foundational building blocks for new skills, behaviors, and knowledge that align with my values. Balancing the effort of developing consistent practices with the effort of unlearning old constructs and shutting out external influences will be one of my biggest challenges! 

I am already noticing an enhanced presence with my children. I had always been pretty diligent about leaving my phone upstairs in the “family time” hours of 5-7pm, but now that I am completely unattached from an employer and devoid of the mental pull of the Outlook inbox, I am able to be more present with all the cool stuff my kids are doing. And when bedtime rolls around, I feel less compelled to rush them through the routine so that I can hopefully eke out an extra 12 minutes of quiet time for myself before I have to get to bed so that I can bring my “A game” at work the next day. I can let the bedtime story we’re making up together run on, and on, with no end in sight. Yes, let’s draw one extra picture on your sketch pad. Sure, I can tuck you in three times. If that’s what you need, kiddo, I’m here for you. 

We celebrated my youngest’s fourth birthday over the weekend, and I absolutely love how it went. The plan was as follows:

  • Go pick up donuts at the nearby bakery
  • Choose whatever breakfast food you want to eat
  • Pack your backpack full of whatever snacks you want to bring
  • Go to a park
  • Once tired of that park, go to another park
  • Continue through exhaustion until bedtime

It was such a low-cost, hassle-free birthday, and we all loved every minute of it. We celebrated on a Sunday, and as the afternoon went on and “dinnertime” approached (what even is dinnertime? who’s to say when we’re supposed to eat?), Old Kevin would have started to feel a mild anxiety, an antsyness to wrap up the birthday, get home, and get everyone settled in a good time to minimize stress and to be well-rested for the next day. Thankfully, Old Kevin wasn’t in attendance at this birthday party. New Kevin discarded the impulse to force an early departure from the park and kept right on playing. When the moment came for us to take a break and drink some water by a bench, all we had to do was ask the kids, “What do you think, is it time to go?” They put on their packs and started walking to the parking lot. No squabbles. No friction. And so by the act of relaxing and being in the moment, we actually reduced more stress than had we tried to strongarm them out of the park before they were ready just to try to speed things up to give ourselves more time. 

Monday.

Frisbee golf with a friend I haven’t seen since he had his second child eight months ago. Nice evening conversation with Kristyn by candlelight and incense. We discussed how it feels good when we choose each other and that we want to have that aspect of our relationship in balance. 

Tuesday.

Our youngest’s birthday! Our anniversary! We always have an amazing May 24 in our house! 

After our household birthday tradition of waking the birthday kid up by singing “Happy Birthday” and then measure the kid’s height on the hallway wall ruler, we bring them to school and then start our day. Kristyn and I start the day with what I hope becomes a new morning ritual of togetherness; upon one adult returning from school drop-off, we head outside with the dog for a walk to see the nearby lake. Sheesh, that sounds just lovely typing it out – why haven’t we been doing this all along?! 

Volleyball with friends at noon on a sunny, partially cloudy 65 degree day with the all four courts to ourselves. In a vulnerable moment during a post-game conversation with one friend, I asked what they think I need to work on most with my game, truly open to the feedback, and they said, “lifting weights.” And the thing is, he’s right. My technique, endurance, decision-making, communication… it’s all there. But in order to be a more dynamic volleyball player, I need to put on some muscle and weight train to gain vertical elevation and quickness. Old Kevin would have heard that feedback and felt constriction, felt ashamed. But New Kevin heard the truth in the statement; I’ve always been a skinnier guy, and lifting weights has always been a weak spot in my personal exercise routines. I want this to change. Weight training has now just shot up toward the top of the priority list. But first, I need to get ready for this backpacking trip to Minnesota’s North Shore. Only three more sleeps! 

Met up with the fam at Culver’s around 445pm to cash in our kids’ free frozen custard from their kids meals two days prior (yes, we held on to the paper bags that act as the “ice cream token”). And yes, that meant our kids got to have ice cream before dinner today. Life is too short to not celebrate things. 

Wednesday and Thursday. 

Gearing up for a solo camping trip at George H. Crosby Manitou State Park. 

Friday – 7:45am. 

I was so caught up in preparing for my first-ever hike-in camping experience, this is all the time I have for the week’s reflections. I am so eager to get out into the woods; whenever I spend time in the wild, it brings into focus just how convenient and comfortable our lives are. My goal with this 3-night camp is to get by with minimal provisions, meditate and write a lot, and return with a better understanding of myself, of what things and activities I want to “add back” into my life after stripping them all away for a few days. 

Into the woods we go! 

 

 

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