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

Category: Sabbatical Week in Review (Page 1 of 2)

On Sabbatical – Week 23: The Fox and the Owl

When the kids and I camped at Itasca State Park a few weeks back, we had met and made friends with a family named The Coldwater’s. This is the family I mentioned on the Week 16 post, who built their own homestead and live off the grid. I knew they lived up around Minnesota’s North Shore somewhere, so when the plan came together for my friends and I to head that way for a camping trip (Week 22), I reached out and asked if they would be willing for my traveling party to make a brief visit on our way back to the Twin Cities, so we (I, really) could see their place and perhaps even offer some assistance as they prepare for winter. To my great pleasure, they said, “Yes!”

To my chagrin, however, when the time came on Sunday, my traveling companions were not interested in the detour. I could hardly blame them. They had lives and families to get back to. We had hiked about 12 miles the day before; energy stores were not full. They didn’t know these people. So, we sped by the turnoff to their homestead and made our way back to the city.

But as this Week 23 began, I couldn’t shake the feeling like I had just missed out on a golden opportunity. Ever since I discovered the television show Alone, I have had a growing fascination with people who are able to live off the land. Of course, that television show is a contest and doesn’t reflect actual reality, but many of the participants on that show do, in their everyday lives, live on self-made homesteads in which they’ve built and constructed various parts of their shelter and living situation (garages, sheds, workshops, gardens, wells…). I’ve watched many of their homemade videos on YouTube teaching various skills and giving tours of their lifestyles (Woniya Thibeault’s channel Buckskin Revolution is one of my favorites). I don’t envision myself living completely off the grid in my future, but I do have a great admiration for the connection homesteaders have with nature, with food, and with the resources in their immediate vicinities.

And so, when I had finally met some people who live this way, and I was going to be very near their home, and they had agreed to allow me to visit and see firsthand what it’s really like to live without power or running water year-round, it did feel like a golden opportunity for me to learn, to have a much richer learning experience than watching a screen or reading a book. I sensed that a first-hand experience like this would help shape my future thinking and planning, to help bring into focus what my ideal lifestyle design really is. How much comfort do I really want to live with? How much am I willing to trade convenience for connection to nature? Do I really want to work my butt off every day so that I can live off grid and subsist off the land as much as possible? I can theorize about this stuff all day long, but getting out there and actually visiting some homesteads and community-oriented neighborhoods will help bring that thinking into focus.

When I arrived home from the camping trip with the boys, and I found myself wishing I had more fervently insisted we take the detour, I asked myself, “What can I control in this situation?” After sitting with this question for a few days, on Wednesday I checked the weather forecast, and the forecast for the upcoming weekend, the Saturday and Sunday of this Week 23, still looked amazingly nice. I all of a sudden got a jolt of excitement, and I lobbed out a prayer and asked the Coldwater’s if they would be open to my entire family coming their way in the upcoming weekend (leaving the duration of the visit completely up to them). 

The next 36 hours was a total roller coaster of sporadic text conversations back and forth: when would we arrive, what would we need to pack, how does your family approach food, it’s a busy season for them to prepare for winter so perhaps it won’t work, but actually having some kids around for their kid to play with might be nice, and so on. There weren’t any firm commitments made one way or the other.

It was Thursday evening, the night before we’d theoretically be leaving for a 4-hour drive north to visit a place we’d never seen, and we still didn’t know for sure if we’d be going or not. We definitely hadn’t packed a thing. It was a little nerve-wracking, the not knowing our plans for the next day, but I was thankful that both Kristyn and I were just taking it moment by moment, confident that the chips would fall just as they should.

(Ironically, we were actually watching Alone: Frozen Episode 7 as this conversation was transpiring. SPOILER ALERT – in that episode, Woniya successfully traps a fox, which was really cool to witness. She was always one our favorite participants, and to see her succeed in that way, by trapping one of the more cunning animals in the wild, was my personal highlight of that entire season.)

The fox Woniya caught on “Alone: Frozen”
Photo Credit: History Channel

Just as we finished watching, we finally reached a decision about the weekend – we would not be making the trip the next day. Their child was not feeling so well, and we agreed it wouldn’t be best to mix questionable germs. So, while it was a little disappointing to go through this flurry of excitement at the prospect of having a fun, spontaneous family adventure into the wilderness, all to be squashed within a matter of 36 hours or so, it was nice to go to bed that night with a definitive knowing of what our plans would be for the weekend. 

Here’s the kicker. The next morning, Friday, I drove the kids to school, like usual. On the drive home, I entered our cul de sac around 7:50am, and as I rounded the turn bringing our house into view, walking across the street directly in front of me was a red fox. It trotted across the street and straight into my front yard, and then it carried on into the woods beyond. I was stunned into stillness. I had already put my car in park and turned it off right there in the middle of the road. Then I just sat. What a moment! Not 12 hours earlier I had watched my favorite Alone participant trap a fox, and now one was traipsing through my yard at the precise moment I happened to be outside in the right location to witness it. Plus, at any point in the last few years, if you had asked me what my spirit animal is, I would have replied, “the red fox.” It’s the animal I think I would be if a wizard turned me into my animal form.

This was most definitely a sign. But, a sign of what? Instantly it came to me; this was a sign that I have plenty of awesome stuff right here, right where I am. I don’t need to go anywhere. Everything I need is right here. It’s a truth I know to be true, but I often need reminders of things I already “know.” 

Immediately after this, I got a strong intuitive hit that I needed to go for a hike (hence the featured imagine on this week’s post). It felt right to spend more time outside, right now. No AirPods, no Apple Watch, no Strava mile-tracking. Just go be outside and walk.

Within two minutes of starting out on that unplanned hike, I encountered a huge barred owl. I love wildlife encounters, and this one felt extra special. Owls aren’t something I see every day, and they’ve always seemed to be one of the more interesting birds. And there it was, staring me down as I gazed up at it from the hiking trail. This experience was another huge affirmation that I was in the right place, exactly where I was supposed to be, with nowhere else to go and nothing else to do but to be right here, right now. 

I hope I carry this moment forward and remember it the next time I’m feeling like I want to be somewhere other than here. 

Barred owl having a staring contest with me

On Sabbatical – Week 22: Camping With The Boys & Voluntary Suffering

Five weeks ago, the idea of an October camping trip to Minnesota’s North Shore was born in a driveway during a kid’s birthday party. This week, the idea became reality. 

Our destination: Cascade River State Park, near Lutsen, MN, a mere hour-long drive from the Canadian border. I reserved a hike-in campsite for myself and three friends at this state park, and after calling the park to inquire about the available sites, I chose “BP2” (Backpack 2), which is situated on top of Moose Mountain. 

Our home for the weekend

There are advantages and disadvantages to any campsite. Some have better access to water, better views, more privacy, proximity to trails and amenities, and so on. We opted for the site that had privacy and a great view, but the trade-offs were… we had to climb and we had to pack in our water. It was just over one mile from the car to the campsite, but that mile was a pretty steady 45 degree incline the entire way. 

Now, for a true backpacking expedition, this wouldn’t be too much of a problem; in fact, for many backpackers along the big American trails like the A.T. or the P.C.T., inclines like this would be the norm. In those cases, however, the backpackers are typically equipped with proper gear like form-fitted rucksacks, trekking poles, and freeze-dried or dehydrated food like rice or oats. Essentialism is key – bring only what you need. In all of my planning and discussions with my crew before our departure, it seemed I either did not properly communicate this tenet of backpacking, or I did and they just ignored the advice, because we packed in a LOT of stuff! Even though our bodies were at their freshest point of the weekend, that first mile hike from the car to the site was the most grueling mile of them all, with the weight of full-size camping chairs, full water jugs, and enough junk food to send an army into diabetic shock weighing us down. With enough trudging and plodding along, we did eventually make it to camp, and the view and the privacy made it all worth it. 

Cascade River State Park Campsite BP2, overlooking Lake Superior

As we unpacked, and I saw just how much food my friends brought for this two-night jaunt in the woods, I felt a sense of disappointment rise within me. I didn’t make a big deal of it at the time, I just went with the flow and embraced the notion that we each packed what we needed to pack. I had put a lot of thought into the planning of what we’d bring (on a shared Google Doc), so we could coordinate items, prevent overpacking, and do things a little more communally and a little less individually. So at first, I thought my shock at all these surprise items was due to a feeling of our plan being undermined or not followed, a disappointment that, despite my best efforts, the idea of communicating and packing our gear communally was too much for my friends, too outside their comfort zone, too far away from their conditioned tendencies to want to be in control and do things as an individual instead of as a group.

It wasn’t until later the next day, though, that I realized the bigger source of my feeling; a big part of what I enjoy about camping, hiking, backpacking, and being out in the woods is the suffering. I like the suffering. I crave it. It’s part of the allure of the outdoors for me, the opportunity to taste how challenging life in the wild really is. Life in the modern world is so incomprehensibly comfortable. I like my time on camping/backpacking trips to be in as direct contrast to that as possible. I like to wake up and get out on the trails early, eat a bit of trail mix through the day whenever my body signals it needs some fuel, and then have one warm meal with some tea in the evening as the sun is going down and I’ve made camp for the night. I like stripping things down to the essentials. I even like being a bit dehydrated. Not so dehydrated that I’m having headaches or muscle cramps, but really conserving my resources and waiting to consume anything until my body is really asking for it. When I take this minimalist approach to my time in the outdoors, I’m able to feel my body and hear my thoughts more acutely. Typical daily patterns and habits are broken; there is only this moment. This approach also makes the re-entry into modern life so much more eye-opening. I experience a deeper gratitude for the simplest of things. I come home and am extremely thankful for my faucet with running water. When was the last time you were thankful for your faucet? That’s the power that a few days away from modern conveniences can have. 

It was actually very useful for me to crystallize this personal insight, and I don’t know if I would’ve arrived at that insight had my one friend decided to leave his can of Easy Cheese at home (or better yet, left it unpurchased on the store shelf). I realized just because it’s there, it doesn’t mean have to eat it; I can make my own choices. So it turns out I’m thankful for the lesson provided by the excess junk food. (Plus, I wasn’t the one that had to carry it.)

We had a truly epic weekend. The weather was unseasonably awesome for mid-October in northern Minnesota, and we made the most of it. We hiked many miles, shared many laughs, and even shed a few tears (mostly from laughing so hard). Thank you to the women in our lives for taking care of our children and homesteads to enable this weekend of joy for us boys! 

Here is a list of the memories I jotted down the day after we got back. Most of them will not make sense to you, the reader, but hey, this blog is for me just as much as it is for any of you, so these are for me! 

Memories:

  • On Saturday we hiked north on the trail up the eastern side of the Cascade River. There is also a trail on the western side of the river, but the state park map gets cut off before it shows where the crossing is from east to west. We assumed it would be obvious. It was not. We found a dirt road and a parking lot, but no obvious spot of where to cross and pick the trail up on the other side. We walked along the road and river for a ways, looking for a spot to cross, and at one point there was some “fencing” made of black fabric attached to some posts, like you might find blocking off a construction site. My friend saw this fence, walked over to it, jumped over it, walked into the wild woods beyond, turned around and yelled back, “I think I found it.” Because, you know, typically hiking trailheads are found on the other side of a fence one has to jump. 
  • As we walked off trail, trying to find the trail, we enjoyed variations of the phrase, “I think this must be the path. This part of the woods looks pretty path-y over here.”
  • Moss feels better when you take your shoes off. 
  • We all know the feeling of déjà vu, but have you ever experienced déjà new? How about déjà now? I can’t explain exactly what these mean, but I know that if you go off into the woods with your friends, you’ll find it. 
  • Despite our meandering about at the river crossing, we ended Saturday with utterly perfect pacing of the day, with the sun setting over the horizon just as we arrived back to camp. 
  • As we returned to camp from our long day hike on Saturday, one friend hauled a massive dead log on his shoulders up to our campsite. Another friend made it his mission to burn this log to bits, no matter how long it took.

THE LOG

  • While we returned home with all of our appendages still connected, one of my friends did manage to slice his thumb with our log splitter. I learned that my backpacking first aid kit could use a little sprucing up. 
  • Bring tortillas on future camping trips to go with hot meals!
  • I do love how the guys that came on this trip surprise me. I’ve always loved surprises, ever since I was a kid. In their own way, each one of my friends did stuff that I did not expect, and it’s fun to surround myself with people that keep me on my toes and make life interesting. 

And finally, when you get right down to it, all we really need in this life are woods, friends, and snacks. 

 

Oh, and I almost forgot, at the beginning of the week I did some warmup hikes with my trusty hiking companion. 

Hiking companion I can’t bring on wooded trails (burrs) and I can’t take farther than 3 miles (he’s 11).

On Sabbatical – Week 21: Resisting the Allure of Old Patterns and Easy Money

A few weeks ago, I decided to accept the invitation from my friend to do some consulting work for a potential advertising campaign for a medical clinic in New York. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been working away at this project here and there, and I was genuinely excited at the idea of this being a sort of pilot project, a trial run, a first building block into what might become my future “job” – owning my own business working as an advertising consultant. On paper, there are a lot of advantages to this future path for me: it’s a job I could do remotely from Costa Rica, it directly applies my career expertise, and, this specific case, I’d also get to work alongside a dear friend. What’s not to like? 

As I was getting ready for my upcoming meeting with the client, though, I could sense something was off. I was just not feeling as motivated and as enthusiastic about the work as I had been when I was employed, selling ad space for a local TV news station. When I was an employee, I was very self-directed. I knew how to do the job and I set my own pace: a relentless, fervent pace. Now, though, I was dragging my feet, procrastinating simple tasks to move the proposal forward, tasks I know how to do so well I could almost do them in my sleep.

I pondered this quandary on a hike on a trail around my neighborhood, and it came to me: now that I have temporarily removed the desire for money from the equation (sabbatical) and am able to just look at the work for what it is, it no longer suits me. It does not align with what I value. I do not want to be a contributor to more advertising noise. Deep down, I believe advertising is something the world needs less of.

It’s hard to walk away from work like this, because, all things considered, it’s relatively easy for me. I have years of experience in it. I don’t have to struggle through any learning curves. I can just apply my expertise, get stuff done, and get paid. In other words, it would be “easy money.”

But the more I do that, the more I spend my time falling back on my old patterns for the ease and convenience of it, the farther away I get from doing things I actually care about and value. The longer it will take to make direct contact with my inner wisdom and put its insights into practice. It’s painful to shirk 15 years of experience and expertise, but my values and listening to my true nature outweigh that sunk cost. The buck stops here. 

I suppose that’s what pilot projects are for; they are a way to test things out. So in a way, this test has been a success, because I have reached a conclusion. I’m going to see this project through to its completion, but I know this isn’t a direction I want to continue to pursue. I still have no idea where I am headed, but at least now I know one road I don’t need to walk down any further. 

On Sabbatical – Week 20: Free People, Friendships, and Fullness

I was hoping to start my week with a flurry of productivity. I had made my Sunday night list of all the projects I was going to tackle throughout the week. I got a good night’s sleep and was feeling energized to attack the week with a passionate energy for getting stuff done. Then, my kid wakes up with a sore throat and can’t go to school. And Kristyn’s going to spend the night at her mom’s to help her out. Welp, there goes that day! I’m practicing letting go of my own wants, learning to adapt to my conditions and to the needs of those around me. I made the best of it by casting my to-do list aside to be with my kids. In doing so, an incredible moment surfaced.

Learn, Then Practice

With my child sick and at home instead of at school, I sat emitting the energy of calm and contentment, positioned next to the window in our family room and reading Raising Free People by Akilah Richards (thanks to Kristyn With a Why for the recommendation). It’s a book that, among other things, argues for unschooling and rethinking the way our educational systems are designed, and it explains the benefits of self-directed learning. So there I was, reading about ways to rethink how children can get educated, to unlearn what I know about how children learn, how even at young ages they know what interests them and what they’re curious about, and my sick child was sitting eight feet away from me and, with no prompting of any kind from me, was choosing to create and solve math problems in her notebook. Talk about a jolt! The exact thing I was reading about was happening right in front of me.

I set my book down, asked if I could join her in her work, and when she happily agreed and was eager to show me the math she was working on, we took the opportunity to lean into her curiosity of this moment, to follow her impulse, and we leveled up her math skills one notch by introducing the concept of doing addition problems vertically, where you line up numbers with the one’s place, the ten’s place, and so on. She almost immediately grasped the concept and was eager to come up with new vertically-oriented addition problems on her own. The only way she would have been receptive to this nugget of math knowledge was for it to come from a place of self-direction. I was simultaneously very glad I had gained a deeper understanding of the unschooling concept by reading Raising Free People and also very glad that I had the presence of mind to put the book down and practice an idea from the book. 

Friendships Evolve Over Time, Especially If I Let Them

This week was the week my recreational summer volleyball team won our league at Maple Tavern in Maple Grove, MN. Although it was a nice feeling to emerge from the season as champions, what really felt like a win was not the volleyball at all, but the conversation I had afterward.  A dear friend of mine and I hung around “the tav” after our games were done, and I have to say, it was just one of those conversations that left me feeling energized, buzzing with the fizziness of a friendship deepening in its closeness. We took turns not just listening to each other, but really being present with and witnessing each other about some of our deepest passions. For him, it was writing his second novel, and for me, it was sustainability and my wanting to put into action some of the lessons I learned from the book Active Hope. I gassed him up with praise and admiration about his being an involved, caring dad, and that one day I’m going to invite him to talk about it on the podcast that I haven’t created yet. We both teared up at various points.

It’s a new feeling, getting older and realizing that, as I change, the people I gravitate toward change. The friends of my past aren’t necessarily in alignment with my present, with my current direction. My inner circle is evolving. It’s important to me to let go of old relationships if they are no longer serving me and to lean into the ones that breathe life and energy my way. 

Kind of a big deal

Appreciating the Fullness of My Life

Toward the end of the week, we had an unfriendly illness that swept through our family, as can happen in a household with small children. It meant, unfortunately, that Kristyn and I would have to miss going to a concert we were very much looking forward to – Daði Freyr had come all the way from Iceland to perform at First Avenue. Daði Freyr is a talented and hilariously creative musician. I fell in love with his music and style as instantly as Kristyn introduced me to him. I listened to his music, I learned his dance moves from his YouTube videos, and I even played his video game. In 2021 I and my family listened to his songs on Spotify so much that, as seen from this photo I posted on Instagram, I was in his top 0.05% of Spotify listeners that year. This wasn’t going to be just any concert. I’m a Daði Freyr superfan. 

Not only that, but we were planning to make a double date out of it, as my friend and her spouse had also bought tickets to the show. And at the eleventh hour, we had to be honest with ourselves about how crummy we were feeling, and we chose not to go. 

After I’d let my friend know we weren’t going to make it, and after I’d sold my tickets online to recoup most of the cost, I took a moment to sit and assess how I was feeling about it. I realized that we’d had so many awesome experiences this past summer, I wasn’t really too devastated by having one fewer awesome experience. I have been living what feels like a full life. I don’t need this. Plus, going to the show would’ve compromised the health of others. Even if I wouldn’t have been putting anyone else’s health at risk, staying up late and dancing my butt off (which would have been inevitable) would probably have set me back a few days from healing my body and getting back to feeling normal. It was the right decision. So instead, I just watched (and danced along with) this music video a few times from my living room. I enjoyed myself. The drinks were cheaper, too. 

 

Growing up in the Great Lakes region of the United States, I’ve developed an appreciation for the seasons. Early autumn is my absolute favorite time of year, every year, no matter what. The temperatures are comfortable, the mosquitos and flies are mostly gone, the harvest is in full swing, and the leaves start to change. My neighbor has the best tree on the block, the maple tree shown below. I’m thinking it might be the inspiration for my first tattoo, so I wanted to make sure to get a nice picture of it. 

The best tree on the block



On Sabbatical – Week 19: Finding Gratitude in the Face of Stress

This was the week I realized that this sabbatical is not just about me. It’s not just about examining my life, asking myself hard questions, transforming into a “better” me. While it did take some courage to overcome my fears and doubts to quit my job, it was also easier for me to do so than many because I am extremely privileged and lucky. This week it became evident that the gift of time I have been granted is not just for my benefit. I can give some of that time and energy to others. And it was a true blessing to have that spaciousness this week, because those around us were in need of support. 

To start things off, my mother in law was struck by a car while walking her dog on a Sunday afternoon. She thankfully and miraculously survived the incident with a broken leg as the most severe injury. Just two hours prior, I had picked up our kids from her house – they had slept over the night before.

We very quickly went into “emergency mode” and packed up Kristyn so she could go be with her mom for a few days, or however long was needed. The kids and I stayed home, and an immediate reshuffling of the week’s priorities was underway. Namely, we removed/cancelled any appointments and hunkered down. I like to call this way of being our “do the least” mode. No around the house projects are getting done. No making music. No writing. No volleyball. Survival. Fundamentals. I made food. We went outside for walks (far away from the road). I napped. And I did what I needed to do to make sure my energy and compassion tanks were full to be present with the kids.

Despite the sadness and stress of the events, I found myself thinking about how much worse things could have been. For one, my mother in law could be in worse shape than a broken leg. For another, what might have happened had our kids been helping to walk the dog? What would this week look like if we were both working 9-5 jobs? How much more poorly would we be coping with this situation if we hadn’t already been taking a more active role in our own mental and emotional healing? Yes, it was a tough stretch for a few days, and yes, others in the family had it worse than I did, and yes, it was a jolt of stress, unease, discomfort, and worry that I hadn’t felt for some time, and yet… in the midst of all that, I felt a sense of gratitude surface, gratitude for life and the life of my loved ones, that we are all still here, greeting a new day. 

Then, more bad news. Kristyn and I were having one of our many late evening chats and realized we had both been thinking about the same friend of ours, that we had this person on our mind and wanted to set up a time where we could all get together. Right then, we decided spontaneously to call up this friend and see if we could find an available time to hang on each other’s calendars. So we call our friend, excitedly explain our great ideas for a get together, and after we’re done… our friend replies that while that all sounds great, they are in the middle of a major personal medical issue that is so dire they will have to travel out of state to see a specialist for a not-so-simple surgery. Whammo. Did not see that coming. Immediately my heart went out to my friend and their family, and, after that phone call, Kristyn and I started brainstorming how we could help their family out. It was then that it really hit me that part of our time “off” must be so that we can more easily support, help, and be there for loved ones that need us, that need someone, that could use a little help. To give and to be able to give is a gift. 

On a lighter note, part of my “do the least” mode this week involved watching television on my nights alone after the children were in bed. I started watching binge-watched Life Below Zero: First Alaskans on National Geographic. I cannot recommend this program highly enough. The show documents real Native, indigenous people living subsistence lifestyles in some of the harshest conditions in North America. Watching how these people live with the land and use thousands-years-old practices to survive is inspiring. It inspires me to evaluate the way I live my own life; for example, the way I complain when the fall temps start dipping to around freezing. The children in one of the families in the show are ice fishing in -60 degrees Fahrenheit, and they’re enjoying it! Meanwhile, I start feeling anxious that we’re running out of food to eat when one of the shelves in my fridge is almost empty (while the other shelves, my entire pantry, and both freezers are still full). These families need to catch a reindeer, walrus, or grouse today or go hungry until tomorrow. I admire and crave their deeper connection to the land and to their ancestors, and I believe the world would be a better place if we all took some lessons from the people featured in this docu-series. And it starts with me. How can I deepen my connection to the land I occupy? How can I incorporate practices that honor my ancestors? What can I do today? What can I build toward? These inquiries will guide me in the weeks ahead. 

Despite the draining start to the week, we wrapped it up on a surprisingly high note. On Sunday, Kristyn had an online workshop to attend, one she had been looking forward to and was excited about. So while she was in her element at home, I took one of my kids to a friend’s house for her first official play date – a time where I dropped her off and left her to play with a friend from school. Of course, her day was amazing. So while she was in her element with her friend, I took my other kid to an apple orchard, just on the outskirts of the Twin Cities – Nelson’s Apple Farm in Webster, MN. The weather was unseasonably warm that day, and we both thoroughly enjoyed pulling our wagon through the rows of apple trees, picking and sampling as we went. As I look back at all the photos I took of my child climbing the lower limbs of the Honeycrisp and Haralson trees, I’m hit with layers of joy. On one level, it brings me such joy to witness my child having such fun and experiencing glee from something so simple and natural and elemental as climbing around in a fruit tree. No toys, no screens, no electricity required; sometimes a tree is all you need. The feeling of joy deepens as I see myself in my child, and I can sense my father in me. It was one of those moments where I had a deep knowing that we were exactly where we were supposed to be.

Thank you to everyone at Nelson’s Apple Farm for your labor of caretaking that land so we could enjoy the fruits of it! 

On Sabbatical – Week 18: Climbing Aboard the Creative Process Struggle Bus

I’m growing an awareness of how much I covet the morning hours of the day, the time immediately after either a) I’ve dropped the kids off at school, or b) I’ve successfully gotten them out the door for my partner to take them. That first hour of spaciousness in the day feels especially juicy, important, critical. I know it’s when I’m at my freshest, my energy tank at its fullest, that special time of day where I can crank out maximum productivity, creativity, or whatever is calling that day. It is a gift to gain clarity about my body and mind, how it works, its natural rhythm and tendencies. The first hour of space in the day is, usually, when my brain operates at maximum capacity. I’m beginning the practice of planning out my highest priority “thinking tasks” for this time each day, and I cherish the opportunity that I have to delight in this spaciousness. 

One would think that with the freedom of time that comes with removing oneself from the workforce, there would be ample time to pursue several hobbies, tackle all those pesky around-the-house projects, even learn a new language, but as embarrassed as I am about admitting it… it doesn’t feel that way. I don’t feel free. I feel conflicted. Being on a quest of self rediscovery is not a simple, straightforward path. Over the last few months, I have been removing my old behaviors and thought patterns, and giving myself space, space enough to see what surfaces from within. The problem is not that I can’t think of what I want to do; the problem is I have an abundance of ideas. In theory, I have an extra six hours of “free time” without kids every day, but I’ve also essentially stopped buying restaurant food, which means more meal planning, more cooking, and more dishes, which all take time. Plus we have an international move to plan. And there is a decent-sized list of creative projects I’d like to tackle. There is not enough time to master all of these things overnight. Part of the challenge is there is no roadmap I am following; I am a voyager sailing the seas of my inner self with only my concentrated listening to guide me. When you have a job, your weekly structure is more or less dictated for you. While it can feel constricting to not be in absolute control of your time, it is also a challenge to navigate the nebulous abyss of free time. It’s easy to feel like I’m wasting time or that I’m not making the best use of a particular hour because I’m stumbling my way through learning how to use Plug-ins in Garageband, or staring at a blinking cursor in WordPress for ten minutes because I’m hitting a writer’s block. Self doubt creeps in. “Why are you even bothering to write now? Where is this going to get you anyway? Is this really the absolute best thing you could be doing right now to get closer to your vision? What even is your vision?” I’m getting the sense that it will be helpful if I create some sort of weekly structure to prioritize my actions and to align them with my values and vision. And probably figure out that whole vision thing…

As I attempt to learn how to be a creator, I find it particularly challenging to have little structure. No “right way” to go about it. How much structure is a creative person supposed to have? Do I make appointments with myself so that I stay on track with practicing all the things I want to practice? Or do I let it flow and just follow the energy of whatever excites me in that moment? Is there value in “pushing through” a writer’s block (or a songwriter’s block), or do you acknowledge you’ve hit a creative dead end for the time being, get up, and do something else? I think I’d like to have some conversations with my creative friends about this and read more about the creative process (as I go and add Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way to my library queue). 

In other news this week, I did create what some might call my first “song” with my new home studio setup. It’s barely a song, but it has sound, rhythm, and a tiny bit of shape, and you can listen to it on the internet, so I think that clears for my definition of song. You can listen to it here: https://soundcloud.com/kevin-carlow/carlows-first-midi-loop. It was a real treat playing it for my kids. As I loaded it up on our speaker in the family room on an early weekday morning, I watched with delight as my children and partner reacted with genuine, positive interest by shaking their hips and bobbing their heads. The kids wanted to hear it again in the car on the way to school. When the climax of the song hit, when all of the tracks in the early part of the song are layered together and converge (all three of them), my child, with a keen ear for instrumentation and harmony, exclaimed, “Wow Dad, you must’ve been playing some of those instruments with your feet!” How long can I get away with my kids believing I can play drums, bass, and keyboard at the same time before showing them how the sausage gets made? 

On Sabbatical – Week 17: A New Season Begins

Fall is here, and it feels like a big deal for a few reasons, all of which revolve around the school year. Having my children back at school has never felt like a more important landmark for me. After quitting my job, I decided early in summer that summer was going to be the season of play, of being a kid, of abandoning as many responsibilities as possible and doing my best to see life through my children’s eyes. Now, though, that time is over. There is a concrete change to the structure of our week – from 8am-2pm every day, the kids are away. As fun as this summer was, I am ready for this change. I am looking forward to having this block of six hours every day to move into this next season of sabbatical. I’m feeling very clear and comfortable with this change; I’m not sitting here wishing we had just a few more weeks of summer (like I have in many other years). We did a lot. We lived a full season. If summer was the season of “being a 4 and 6 year old kid,” then my intention for fall is that it will be the season of, say, high school. That age where you start to get a sense of what in the world is interesting to you and what things bore you. The time where you pick a sport or an instrument and you practice it, lots, mostly because you just really enjoy it. That’s the energy I want to tap into this season. I want to allow myself to pick a few activities or hobbies that I enjoy, regardless of their practicality and regardless of my skill level, dedicate myself to the practice of them, and see where it leads. That is the energy I hope to carry through the fall. 

FIRSTS ARE POTENT

After I dropped my kids off for the first day of school, I came home, changed my clothes, and immediately went for a run. The night prior, when I wrote down a list of things I wanted to do with my week, “going for a run” was the very first thing I wrote down. I have found in life that firsts are extremely important and telling. Whenever a question is asked, whether I’m asking myself the question, someone is asking me a question, or I am asking a question of someone else, the very first thing that is said is almost always the most potent, the most important takeaway, regardless of whatever comes after that first thought.

For example, I might ask my foodie friend for a recommendation of a new restaurant I could try out. They might reply, “I really love Bar La Grassa, and also Martina. Ooh, and Spoon and Stable is quite nice.” There’s a reason they said Bar La Grassa first. I don’t care exactly what the reason is (although it’s probably because of their Charred Red Onion with Goat Cheese Bruschetta), I just know there is a reason that one was top of mind, and that’s good enough for me to know that recommendation is the most potent, most juicy, and everything else after that was just filler. Of course, there are exceptions to this principle, when deeper thought on a question does reveal a keener insight that may not have been uncovered at first glance, but for the most part, when I notice myself or others mentioning a list of things, I always pay special attention to the first thing on the list. 

GIVE AND RECEIVE

One day this week I helped my neighbor with a project. He is building a treehouse at the back of his property where the yard meets the woods, which is quite clearly a job more easily done by two than by one. I was happy to help him out as a friendly neighborly gesture without any expectation of a return favor. As we started getting set up for the work, he mentioned to me that he had read my latest blog post. Not only had he read it, but there was something specific in it that he could relate to in his own experience as a parent. (It was in this post where I contemplated about what my child is really trying to say at certain moments, but they don’t always have the mastery of the language or the emotional skills to voice what they really mean.) His mentioning this to me cost him nothing, but I received it as a huge gift. Not only did it feel good that some other human actually was interested in enough in the hodgepodge of words I’d put together to take time out of their day to read what I’d written, but also that something I wrote actually resonated with someone else. Dare I say made even the slightest positive difference in his life? What a great feeling that was!

It made me consider two things:

1) How much does this feeling get amplified for professional authors, teachers, podcasters, or talk givers, when their messages and insights improve the lives of thousands or even millions of people?!

2) Noticing how good this made me feel, I want to carry forward the practice of voicing my admiration, my noticing, my appreciation of others’ thoughts, words, and actions. It costs me very little and the reward for the other is great! 

THE HUMBLEST OF BEGINNINGS 

When I was younger, I was really into playing music. First piano, then saxophone. I was pretty good. Jazz improvisation came naturally to me. I chose to spend hours in the practice room with a friend, a guitar player, and we would accompany each other (me on tenor sax and him on guitar) playing through jazz standards, fake books, whatever was around the music room in high school. We’d have jam sessions in our other friend’s basement; he was the drummer, of course. After high school, I chose to pursue a practical degree in business, but even still as a Marketing and Entrepreneurship double major, I played in the jazz band at the University of Minnesota my Freshman year. After that, though, I quit. I quit playing music. I was wrapped up in navigating the puzzle of college, of how I could cruise through four years of university with two business degrees as efficiently as possible. Jazz band was a lot of time and only earned me one credit. So I put it aside in pursuit of business. (And parties.)

As my life continued, the distance from the time I’d last played music widened. I still enjoyed listening to music (this was the age when P2P servers like Napster and LimeWire were in their prime!), and I loved going to see live shows (one of my college roommates was the drummer in the band Quietdrive). But I never played. I watched with admiration as my friend, the drummer who hosted our high school jam sessions, continued his pursuit of music, moved to L.A., formed bands, created his own music studio, engineered incredible tracks, and crafted a sustainable life in the music industry. (Shoutout to Sam Brawner, Raquel Rodriguez, and Blue Dream Studios. Watch and listen to them perform one of my favorite songs live in their studio: Mile High.) I sometimes wondered, fantasized what my life would have been like had I, at the crossroads of deciding what to pursue in college, chosen music over business. But as happens with so many of us that practice some art when we’re young, the ideas of practicality, of finances, of the “real world” creep in and overtake the artistic side.

It has been a long-standing idea of mine to record my own music. Not to become the next Jon Batiste, not to go on world tours, just to have a setup at my house where I could mess around with music. A musical playground, if you will. I never made the time to make this happen while I was in the working world.

This week, the time finally came. I transformed idea into reality; I set up the ability to record audio in my house. The configuration is beyond basic, but I at least now have the ability to record a microphone, a keyboard, and a guitar into a computer and start playing around with music and sound. As I fired up GarageBand and started tinkering with my first sounds, I felt so giddy I was cackling to myself, having uncontrollable belly laughs, by myself, in my basement. The “music” I was making was complete unskilled trash, but that didn’t matter. The product didn’t matter. I had built a playground for myself, and it felt so damn good to play. 

The most basic music studio in the history of music studios

INSPIRATION ON A DRIVEWAY

On the weekend, my family went over to my friend’s house for his daughter’s fifth birthday. While the kids were busy zooming around their backyard and basement, I took a moment to step into their front yard, free from kids, with another friend of mine. While we know each other pretty well, we are both better friends with the host of the party. In other words, we are friends through the host. He and I got to chatting about the state of the world and of our lives, and I quickly realized he and I share a lot of the same values and views. We got to talking about hiking and camping, and boom! I was hit with a wave of inspiration to see if we could squeak in a camping trip before the temperatures got too cold. But rather than let this idea slip by, like so many ideas of fun activities can do (because they take a certain amount of planning, organization, and effort), I did not leave that birthday party until we had picked a tentative date that appeared to work on each of our calendars. I don’t know if this plan will hold, but I’m excited at the prospect, and I’m sure glad I took a minute to sneak away from the bounce-house to have an actual adult conversation at this otherwise sugar-induced crazy-fest! 

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

As I woke up my youngest on the first day of school, a full two hours earlier than her body had grown accustomed to waking up in the summer on its own clock, she started to rise and sleepily, and somewhat grouchily, told me, “Daddy, I didn’t want to have any mornings this year.” 

 

Oh! And my kids made their own bruschetta with basil and tomatoes from our garden, as well as strawberries, balsamic vinegar, mozzarella cheese, and sourdough bread, hence the featured image on this week’s post. I absolutely love giving them very small portions of chopped up ingredients and then just sitting back and watching as they create their own meals. 

On Sabbatical — Week 16: One Dad, Two Kids, and the Great Outdoors

Months ago, I planned and booked a camping trip for our family to Itasca State Park. I had done a three-night solo camping trip there in September 2021, and at that time I had assessed that it would be an excellent state park to bring the entire family. So as soon as it became available to reserve, I booked us a campsite (with a camper cabin, a one-room log cabin to add a touch of convenience) for the end of August 2022. As the day of departure approached, Kristyn began to develop a cold, and I suggested that perhaps I could take the kids camping and she could stay home to rest and enjoy some alone time. This offer did not take much convincing. And so, the kids and I loaded up in the minivan and embarked upon a four-night camping trip, just the three of us.

Even though my kids are only six and four years old, and even though we were going to be three and a half hours from home, and even though I was not going to have any help in taking care of my children nor myself, I was feeling confident about the adventure. Excited. A touch of nervousness, perhaps, but having completed a successful two-night camping trip with my eldest earlier in the summer, and having spent so much time with both kids all summer long and observed their current maturity levels, I felt like we were just on the right edge of being “old enough” to make this a viable endeavor with me as the only parent. Thanks to the awesomeness of my children, I couldn’t have been more right.

Here’s an excerpt from my journal on the night of arrival to our campsite (and let’s just reflect on the fact that I had even one moment to consider writing in a journal!):

The girls have chosen to use the markers and paper we brought to color while sitting on the floor. “Amar Pelos Dois” is cooing over the portable speaker in our nicer-than-expected camper cabin. Four nights in a cabin with my two kids – it feels a bit like ‘The Ultimate Survival Challenge,’ but it also feels like it’ll be a cinch. It’s the second hour of being here, and the girls are showing me they can occupy themselves and each other, even with rain bringing us inside. … This time in the woods with my kids is the last hurrah before summer is over and the final school year in the USA starts. What is my intention with this time? To demonstrate to my kids that fun and joy can be had without much. To experience hiking in a positive way (my youngest is not a huge fan, yet). To let them lead so we all can learn from their choices and behaviors.

We had a lovely spaghetti dinner. I cleaned up while they played Concentration with each other. We began a tradition of enjoying tea and apples after dishes were done. And for the next three days, we enjoyed exploring, hiking, playing, finding bear tracks, picking M&M’s out of trail mix, swimming, and simply being in the outdoors.

MY CHILDREN ARE MORE GROWN THAN I KNOW

When taken into the outdoors, without many modern conveniences and left to their own devices, they seemed to age two years in two minutes. All of a sudden, not only did my youngest child no longer need or want any help in a public bathroom (the family bathroom kind where it’s just one small room), they specifically requested I leave them be and wait outside. Both kids, all of a sudden, seemed to just know how to wash and dry dishes, when given the opportunity. When we arrived at the headwaters of the Mississippi River, the main attraction of Itasca State park, the kids did not hesitate. You see, at these headwaters of America’s largest and most powerful river, the river is very small, almost streamlike. There are rocks that act as stepping stones where one can actually hop across the Mighty Mississippi. It’s not the most challenging physical act, to balance on these rocks and make it across, but it’s also more challenging than taking a stroll on a sidewalk. And when my kids saw this, saw a few adults carefully making their way across the stones, my kids did not hesitate. As I wrote in my journal later, “Before I knew it, their shoes were off. Fording the Mississippi with two children… it was mildly stressful, but I was simultaneously proud and in awe of their bravery and ability/balance, while enjoying the experience for myself.” It blew me away how ready and equipped they already are to act more mature, and all it took was removing distractions, removing convenience, giving them an opportunity to shine, and then getting out of their way.

MEETING THE COLDWATER’S

One afternoon, we were hanging out at the park’s largest playground, the one near the swimming beach, and it was here that we had what felt to me like a fateful encounter. It was here that we met the Coldwater family, a family of three that live “off the grid,” as they put it, in northern Minnesota. The woman and her son were playing at the park, speaking French to each other (I learned the woman is from Belgium) and at this my children’s ears perked up, because they are learning Spanish and have an ear for foreign language. This curiosity about their language was enough to spark interaction with these people, and the more I learned about the Coldwater family’s life, the more I was drawn in. They built their own house using natural materials like straw, wood, and lime plaster. They are acquiring a sailboat and have plans to sail from the Caribbean, through the Saint Lawrence seaway, all the way to Lake Superior to return to their home in northern Minnesota. They also plan to take this boat on a Trans-Atlantic voyage to the Mediterranean for a couple of years. They have no running water and bring water from the natural spring that’s 1/4 mile away from their home, 2-3 times every day. They have intimate knowledge of how to harvest and prepare wild rice, a practice they learned from the Lakota people. I could go on. Oh, and they were just delightful human beings who seemed completely in tune with enjoying the present moment. I was and still am so enchanted with this family. I don’t necessarily aspire to live in a log cabin off the grid, but I do believe they are living in a way that is much more connected to the natural world, the world from which we all come, than I am, and for that, I admire them. I deeply hope to stay connected to them in some way, but if not, I’m happy to have met and to have been inspired by them. And I am grateful that I listened to my kids and let them lead the way when they said, “We want to go to the park,” or I would have never met the Coldwater family.

A FEW FINAL MEMORIES OF SOLO CAMPING WITH TWO KIDS

  • When you arrive to the state park and your campsite isn’t ready yet, head straight for the playground.
  • A quick backstory – when I was a kid, I remember eating apples after dinner, but before bed. We would do this often in my home (via my dad), and we would do it even more often whenever I was visiting my grandparents (my dad’s parents). While I still enjoy apples, eating them nightly is not a habit I carried forward into my own life. Fast forward to this camping trip, and as I packed for it, I brought precisely enough apples with us so that we could share an apple together every night. Not sure why, it just felt right. Every night, as I placed a bowl of sliced apples on the cabin table in front of my children, I could feel some historical, inter-generational frequency vibrating within me. Like, even though I haven’t actually been there before, it felt like I had been there before. Almost like I could feel my father and his father working through me. And I was aware of the feeling like I am actively passing on a tradition, a conscious programming of my children to share some of the same programming etched into my core. I did not plan for nor expect this feeling to arise, but it was really cool when it did.
  • At one point, the kids were using the toys that I had brought in ways I would never have imagined – they were outside, using the jump rope and ladder golf ladders, and other items from nature to construct a sort of… bridge structure. At one point, in between the gathering and placing of sticks, rocks, and pinecones on top of this structure, my kid looked to me and said, “We know that water is the glue of nature, so we’re going inside to get our water bottles.”

Building a bridge together

MORE FUN OUTSIDE AND FINDING INSPIRATION EVERYWHERE

Our camping trip was from Sunday-Thursday, so when we got home, we still had the weekend to enjoy, and although one might think we would have been depleted of energy from the time outdoors and the long car ride, it was quite the contrary – we all felt energized from living a more simple life and spending time together. So, we went out for some more activity!

The day after we returned from camping, the weather was gorgeous and Kristyn was still not feeling 100%, so I took the kids to a park in town. They simply could not get enough of being outside! I felt proud at how easily they made friends with other kids at the beach. As they played with newly-made friends, I went for a nearby stroll, and I happened to notice this dedication placard on one of the park benches. It reads: “Jerry Gale [In Honor Of]. High-energy dad, grandpa, & eternal optimist who went to bat for causes he believed in.” I don’t know who Jerry Gale is, but I know he must have been a great man. If, once I pass away, my family remembers me in this way, I will consider my life a success.

An inspiration

THAT’S A WRAP ON SUMMER – WHAT HAVE I LEARNED FROM ALL THIS TIME WITH MY KIDS?

The end of this week marks a wrap on summer. A sabbatical summer. I spent so much time with my kids, intentionally so. Earlier in the season, I consciously made the choice that this summer was going to be a time of me being a kid again, of letting go of what’s “supposed” to happen. So, what did I learn from my two little sources of wisdom?

  • We are social creatures. My kids love making friends with anyone. It’s a credit to their friendly personality and disposition, and it’s also their plain humanity shining through. Their “flow state” is enabled when playing with or talking to new humans.
    • What does that look like in the adult world? How do I suppress my natural urges to connect with a new person? Why do I do that? What do I fear? What would it look like if I gave all strangers the same benefit of the doubt that my kids give other children on the playground?
  • Siblings are extremely valuable. My kids practice so many life skills together: communication, problem solving, teamwork, debate… They don’t really realize how lucky they are to have each other.
    • This makes me more grateful for my own brother. Even though we don’t talk much these days, I’m very grateful we had each other in our formative years. I believe I’m a better person because I had him (and my parents) around to teach me the kind of things an older brother needs to be taught: humility, thinking of others, sharing, and so on.
  • Parenting is easier when I let go of personal wants. In spending heaping amounts of time with my children, moments of my impatience or frustration inevitably arose. When I examine the root cause of those moments, they almost all originate from having my own desire. I want to finish the chapter in my book. I want to go on a long hike. I want to start making progress on preparing dinner. I want, I want, I want. Whenever I have a want that doesn’t align with my kid’s want, friction occurs.
    • If my goal is for parenting to be easier, and for my relationship with my child to grow positively, there is a simple answer – let go of my want. It fixes everything.
  • My kids simply want me to be with them. During the day. At night. They seem to not be able to get enough of me, of my attention, of my love, of my energy. They want me to be their witness. Their cheerleader. To be there in case something bad happens. To have someone to read to them. Someone to snuggle. Or climb on. Someone to play pretend with. To hold the heavy things. Someone to help. Sure, they’re getting old enough to be able to play on their own for a while and enjoy it, but it’s never their first choice. I am not this great to anyone else on the planet.
    • For two people to have this much pure love of me, I owe them my energy and my time.

On Sabbatical – Week 15: Back In Business. Already?

It’s time to play catch up. As I write this it is October 27, 2022 – Week 23 of my sabbatical. Yet I’m only now compiling my notes from Week 15, the week of August 22.

When I set out to write this weekly log of my experiences and thoughts during my sabbatical, my vision was that it would be a fun, manageable project to catalog each week’s happenings and insights. It has become a burden that weighs on my shoulders. Ever since our two-week trip to Canada, I had felt like that experience was so important that it deserved extra attention in the blog. I allowed the Week 12-13 blog entry to take a lot of time, and it has now put me in a position where I’m a full two months behind writing about this sabbatical. I continue to take weekly notes as my life unfolds, but it loses a little something when I sit down to actually write about those notes weeks afterward. The potency of my emotion lessens. 

So, I have decided to play catch up, to accept the next few week’s worth of sabbatical blog posts will just not quite have the polish on them that I’d like. It’s more important to me to get caught up and back on a regular cadence of cataloging and publishing as it happens. In the long run I will be more happy with that, and this whole thing is really for me, after all! 

With that, here are some notes from Week 15. 


 

Without making any attempt to do so, I’m back into work. Not exactly, but work has found me. It’s wild that the purposeful act of avoiding work has brought a golden opportunity to my front door. How could I say no to a chance to, once again, be in business with my best friend? (We worked on a startup together in our twenties.) And this time around, my exact expertise is the thing he needs help with most. In the coming weeks, I’ll be taking my first crack as a media consultant for a local business. I spent seven years working at a TV station selling TV and digital advertising to businesses and ad agencies. Now I get a chance to be the ad agency. Looking forward to seeing how this goes! 

In other news, I have a story to share, but in order to appreciate the following story you need one point of backstory, which is that our kids refer to one of their grandmothers as “Babi.” File that little nugget away. Now, one of my kids and I were lounging in the hammock while the other kid was rolling serviceberries down the slide and Kristyn was inside, in her happy place, uncovering the secrets of the universe by contemplating the intersections of attachment theory, collapse awareness, Tarot, and the Tony-award-winning broadway musical Hadestown. My kid and I were discussing the Bear Paw campground we’d be visiting soon at Itasca State Park, and I clarified it wasn’t that there are real bear paws in the campground, but that it’s just the name of the campground. But, perhaps there’s a chance we’d see a bear; we are traveling 3.5 hours north after all. “What would you do if we saw a bear, Dad?” That depends on the type of bear. “If it was a grizzly, I’d back away slowly. But if it was a black bear, I’d make lots of noise to scare it off…” and so went an impromptu lesson on bear encounter etiquette. (Thanks to the TV show Alone for the assist on upping my bear encounter knowledge!) And as our conversation about bears came to a close, my kid asked, “Dad, what if there were wolves on one side, hyenas on the other side, and a grizzly bear behind? What would you do then?” As I gave a serious ponder to this question with a deep breath, before I could exhale she chimed in, “… Would you call for Babi?” 

The final gem of a moment this week came when some friends of ours came to our house with their two kids for an afternoon of play and relaxation. I had already seen the man of this family earlier in the week, but when they unloaded from their vehicle he greeted me with a sincerely stated, “Man, the days are treating you well.” An enthusiastic embrace followed. I have to say, this was a fantastic way to be greeted. I felt… seen. This feeling of being seen as someone who is in their element, or in a groove, or happy and at peace with the moment, or however it was he meant that… it made me wonder what it was about my presence that made him say that, and it made me feel great about myself. It’s amazing what a few simple, heartfelt words, said aloud, can do to improve someone else’s life. I shall utter such words more often henceforth. 

Oh, and our kids built, colored, and played restaurant in a paper food truck all afternoon. The adults “ate” many sand pies, stick stews, and mud cakes. Good times. 




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!

 

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