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

Tag: Sabbatical (Page 1 of 3)

On Sabbatical – Week 29: Gratitude For Authors, Monitoring Behaviors, and Living Deliciously

I kicked off this week by making a brand new recipe for my beloved Kristyn’s birthday. 

Our favorite restaurant in the Twin Cities is Bar La Grassa. It’s a hip Italian joint in the trendy North Loop neighborhood in Downtown Minneapolis, and everything about this place is spectacular: the craft cocktails, the entire menu section dedicated to bruschetta, the mouth-watering entrees, the housemade pasta… it’s all just so damned good. Kristyn has enjoyed their Gnocchi with Cauliflower & Orange in the past, and our neighbor so graciously mentioned that she’d found this recipe from a Minnesota food blogger who created a make-at-home version. 

And so, in a fashion not unlike one of our first dates, where I first had Kristyn over to my place and made her fettuccine alfredo, I rolled up my sleeves and did my best Bar La Grassa impression, gnocchi-style, complete with a couple of bourbon old fashioned’s. 

The dish turned out absolutely delectable. What really stood out about this evening, though, was not the lip-smacking tastiness of my concoction, but instead it was the deliciousness of the vibe we created in our home. Italian guitar strumming through the speaker. Candles flickering on the table. Cabernet in our glasses. Our kids were so into the peacefulness of the setting that, when we were done eating, they allowed Kristyn and I the space and time to slow dance in our family room while they busied themselves with their winter capes we’d just dug out of storage. It was a Monday evening as parents in the suburbs, but it felt like a Friday night on the town. These little touches made the evening feel special, indulgent. Even though it was my life, it felt like I had entered a nicer, higher plane of existence reserved for celebrities and royalty. It was an ordinary Monday made extraordinary with the addition of just two potent ingredients: effort and novelty. That’s really all it takes to keep life spicy. We can induce the pleasure of novelty simply by applying a little effort to find or create newness with the things we already have. 

Side note: if you try to make the Cauliflower Gnocchi recipe (which I heartily encourage you to do), use two pans, not one, so you can sauté the gnocchi separate from the cauliflower and shallot, and double the butter. I audibled both of these decisions while making it, and was very happy with both of those choices. 

THE FORMULA OF NON-FICTION BOOKS

This week I finished Gretchen Rubin’s book Better Than Before, a book about habits. I’m very curious about the power of habits, and this book offers a multitude of insights on the topic. One of the bigger takeaways of the book is that habit formation is an individual endeavor and that one approach will not work for everyone. We each have different tendencies (based on our life experiences and genetic dispositions), and only based on our unique tendencies (such as how we respond to inner expectations versus external expectations) will a particular approach to habit creation be successful. 

One of the habits I’m forming with fairly reasonable success is to take notes of books (and podcasts) as I consume them. Rather than reading an educational book or listening to an insightful conversation and then letting the knowledge slip out of my mind as I make room for the next content, I slow down and take notes I can reference later. Of course, the process of writing the notes down is often enough to cement the idea into my brain more permanently. These notes sometimes turn into mini book reports that I publish on this blog, like The Most Important Lessons from “10% Happier” or Lessons From “Into The Wild” by Jon Krakauer

As I was wrapping up my notes on Better Than Before, I noticed a pattern, a sort of formula with books, specifically non-fiction books in the self-improvement realm. The formula goes like this:

Pick a topic you’re curious about –>

Research the crap out of it, which includes: reading tons, talking to friends, and interviewing experts –>

Document everything as it unfolds –>

Observe connections or patterns that emerge –> 

Map out or define these connections or patterns in some sort of diagram, flow chart, table, list, or framework, and –> 

BOOM, there’s your book 

(Plus, you know, writing 50,000 or 100,000 words in a compelling, expertly crafted, and easy to digest way)

While it may sound a bit obvious (as I read what I just wrote above), this noticing felt like a revelation to me. All of these self-improvement books I’m reading share a common thread – they all have their own sort of framework that the author has “created” (although some authors note they haven’t created anything per se, they have simply noticed and documented something that was already there). In Katy Bowman’s book Move Your DNA, she shares a Venn Diagram she created with a large circle titled “Movement” and within it, a smaller circle labeled “Exercise,” explaining the paradigm embedded in the book’s thesis–we are too focused on exercise routines and are ignoring the much larger picture of body movement that affects every cell in our body every moment of every day. In Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the framework he put together is so obvious it’s the title of the book!

In the case of Better Than Before, one of Rubin’s frameworks is the Four Tendencies, where she groups every person into one of four buckets, based on how they respond to inner and outer expectations: Upholder (serves inner and outer), Questioner (serves inner, rejects outer), Obliger (serves outer, rejects inner), and Rebel (rejects inner and outer). She capitalizes each of these tendencies as if they are proper nouns with the same credibility and “properness” as Christmas or Egypt, even though this idea of labeling these tendencies was just a notion she came up with during the research phase of this writing project. Yet, as a reader, I noticed myself reading these labels and this framework as truth, as fact; a smart person wrote this well-researched book and is capitalizing these terms, so this must be the way things are.

The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin - Kara J Miller

Noticing patterns and creating useful frameworks and lenses to view the world through is the helpful work authors contribute to the world. It’s what transforms an idea into a useful idea. It’s what takes reams of research and converts the findings into something one can internalize. I feel like I have now noticed a pattern in how authors notice patterns, and it feels like I’ve just accessed a cheat code on how to write a useful book. 

Now the question is–do I have the courage and the discipline to play the game in which I can use my new cheat code? 

MONITORING MY BEHAVIORS

When I started training for a marathon in 2020, I stole an idea I’d seen a friend posting about on Facebook; I created a simple spreadsheet to track how many miles I ran every day. I also used the Nike Run Club app to track my miles, but apps come and go (I’ve since switched to Strava), but no matter what mile tracker app I use, my spreadsheet never changes. I found tracking my miles in this way to be extremely useful and also rather enjoyable. I’m not claiming this method will work for everyone, because not everyone shares my tendencies, but I really enjoyed having a numerical and visual account of how my weekly and monthly mileages were progressing. I was motivated by beating my previous week and by seeing my monthly miles stack up over time. I don’t know if I would have been able to complete a marathon without this system of monitoring my quantitative progress. 

This week, I returned to this idea, except I’m no longer training for a marathon. Instead, I’ve started tracking other behaviors, other practices I have decided are the practices that align with my values, that I believe in, that I want to hold myself accountable to practicing on a weekly basis. I created two separate worksheets: Mind and Body. For both of these, I’ve decided to use the measurement unit of minutes–the number of minutes I spend doing the practice each day.

On the Mind worksheet, I’m tracking: Meditation, Spanish, and Music. I considered adding Writing, because it is a Mind exercise I’m deeply interested in practicing, but I’m jotting down notes so often throughout the day, it would be too cumbersome to track.

On the Body worksheet, I’m tracking: Strength, Cardio, Yoga, and Being Outside. I’m not training for any particular physical endeavor. I am interested in developing a body that is well-adapted to a natural life over the long term, minimizing potential for injuries and maximizing healthy longevity. With what I’ve been learning about the body and movement from people like Tony Riddle and Katy Bowman, I believe that a variety of movement practices is the key to achieving my body goals, so I’ve set up a rotation of dedicated exercise practice six days a week with the following cadence: Strength, Yoga, Cardio, Strength, Yoga, Cardio, Rest. I included Being Outside on my Body tracker, because it is just so freaking nourishing to be outside, so regardless of whether I’m running, walking, hiking, playing with my kids, or sitting under a tree, I’m going to monitor how many of my daily minutes I’m spending immersed in nature. 

Time is our most limited resource. What gets monitored gets done. My intention is that by monitoring the behaviors I most want to develop into habits, I’ll have the same excitement and motivation that I did when tracking marathon miles, and eventually I’ll be living a life in perfect harmony with my aspirations. (At which point, I’ll probably change the goals again, ha!)

Probably not so coincidentally, as soon as I finished making this tracker, I felt compelled to go for a walk outside. I hiked around the trails at Westwood Nature Center in St. Louis Park, MN, and it felt invigorating. It was a cold day. I saw two other humans. I saw many deer hunkered down, turkeys squabbling, squirrels scavenging acorns, and pileated woodpeckers hacking away to prepare for winter. I felt more alive being in the midst of all these creatures working hard at their own survival.

Pileated woodpecker adding some sonic ambiance to my woodland stroll

THANK YOU TO WRITERS

This week I also started and finished the book The Year of Less by Cait Flanders, a memoir in which Flanders shares her journey of detaching from the habit of mindless shopping and consumerism. I’ve always been skeptical when people would claim to finish a book in a day or three. I’m a slow reader. But this book was a fast one for me. Upon finishing it, I felt compelled to send Cait a quick email. I wanted to thank her for writing the book, to thank her for the value I got from it (I hadn’t really considered making “internet friends” with similar interests until she mentioned meaningful relationships she’d made that way), and, more than that, I wanted to share how I related to her on several levels, to lob a hook into the water that I feel like a kindred spirit and am open to connecting more deeply than as just a reader of her book.

I then remembered hearing Dan Harris share on his podcast that one of the ways he first got into relationship with Dr. Mark Epstein was by reading his book and then reaching out to Epstein to set up a call, which Epstein agreed to.

Eureka! This gave me the idea to write the author of every book I read, as long as they are living, and thank them for the book. I don’t necessarily aspire to meet and become friends with all of these others, but as someone who’s dabbling in this whole writing business, I know how hard it is to put words down, so the very least I can do is to thank them for their effort. It feels karmically right. Plus, I’ve been in sales my whole career. I know how to do successful cold outreach, and that’s when I was peddling every business owner’s least favorite expense–advertising. It can’t be harder to write someone a thank you note. What’s the worst that can happen?

I started this new gratitude practice with Cait Flanders, and I’m looking forward to continuing this tiny way of giving back to my writer teachers out there. 

On Sabbatical – Week 28: Words of Work, a Tree Branch Hammock, and a Rabbit’s Foot

A CASE OF THE MONDAY’S

I started out this week like I have many other weeks of sabbatical–feeling aimless. Many Monday’s I will make a list of what I want to do that day and that week, and I will look at the list and feel like I have a lot to do, and I will not know where to begin. I’ve tried many productivity apps and journaling systems, but try what I may, I often get a feeling of Monday Doom: so much to do, so little time, clueless where to begin. 

Luckily for me, I have a life partner who listens, holds space for me, and allows me to process thoughts through conversation. It’s incredible how useful it can be to externalize my thoughts with another person; so often the act of putting my thoughts into words that are cohesive enough for someone else to understand reveals the answers to my questions without the other person needing to say anything. In a Monday morning conversation with Kristyn, I was able to see that I know I don’t ever want to have a “job” again, a job where someone else is in control of how I spend my day. Therefore, if my plan is not to jump into some preset system but instead to forge my own path, then of course it’s going to feel aimless because I am creating the aim as I go.

This realization brought me some relief; however, it also made me consider the following–how can I carve out a custom existence for myself without completely reinventing the wheel? How can I make this easier? Who can I model myself after? There clearly are other humans who have exited the traditional workforce and embarked on a less traditional, less linear path. And I do have some role models, but none that I want to emulate entirely. This line of thinking launched me into a vortex of studying the online presences of some of my role models, to really study how they present themselves and market themselves to the world. I started bookmarking and screenshotting websites like crazy. I subscribed to email newsletters. I worked on building up a picture of what my ideal lifestyle design really is. What do I like about the work other people have done? What gap do I see in all of their collective work, what questions have been left unanswered that I want to devote myself to? What am I uniquely positioned to do in this world, that my unique combination of skills, experiences, and interests will best serve the greatest good? How does one answer questions like this??

Surprise surprise… I went for a hike to process. During this hour-long walk, I left myself a ten-minute Voice Memo. The following mental downloads came to me. 

I may have these exact details wrong, but I liked how in the book Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin tells the story of her friend who wanted to write a book, and to form the habit she scheduled the time from 11am-1pm every day to be dedicated to writing. The power of Scheduling helped her form this habit. Three years later, her book was done. I love this! I love this use of time, this way of harnessing the power of the long term to one’s advantage. Over time, if I do small, incremental actions consistently, big things get done, big change can happen. As they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day. 

I want to have confidence of what my vision is and where I’m headed, so that I can be laying down meaningful daily bricks toward building my own Rome. I’ve learned (from many sources including The Dalai Lama, Carmen Spagnola via Kristyn, and various guests of the Ten Percent Happier podcast) not to have too much attachment to the end result, not to be focused on completing my “Rome” to some precise specifications. But, I do believe in the power of the strategy of small practices and actions done consistently over a long period of time, and it would sure be nice to have a concrete direction for my actions. For example, if my vision was to become a professional beach volleyball player, then it would very easily become clear that my daily practices need to include a ton of physical exercise, strength training, sand workouts, and the like, as well as a focus on nutrition and on studying the game. When my vision was to complete a marathon, it became crystal clear that I needed a plan, a roadmap of weekly mileage recommendations, to get me across that finish line. I followed this 16-week plan from Runners World, scheduled all the runs in my Google Calendar, ardently followed the plan as best I could (with a few adaptations along the way for the inevitable curve balls of life that arose), and presto–I ran a marathon. 

I know I don’t want a “traditional job” ever again. Unfortunately, I don’t know exactly what I do want. I’ve learned about myself enough over the past six months to know there are certain activities that are largely energy-giving to me (hiking on trails, making music, writing, playing with my kids, cooking a tasty meal, meditating, yoga, volleyball…), but I haven’t been trying to string them together in any productive, career-oriented way. So far, it’s been more about experimenting with different practices and behaviors and taking note of which ones feel right, resonant, important. I have been intentionally not thinking too far ahead, not worrying about practicality, profitability, or perfection, and instead drawing my focused inward, to the present. But, much like how the decision we made 4 years ago to move to Costa Rica made a lot of other decisions along the way more clear (knowing how important Spanish immersion school was, knowing we’d be changing employment, knowing whether or not a certain repair on the home would be worth it since we knew our move-out date…), I am wanting another hit of the clarity that comes from commitment to a direction. 

I then recalled what I had seen on the websites of Spring Washam, Oren Sofer, Ryan Holiday, Tim Ferriss, Shawnell Miller, and others who are their own business, and noticed something in my mind’s eye; when you condense your life into a Navigation Bar, you are forced to pick a just a handful of words that you live by, a few choice labels you want your essence to be about. I had seen words like: Author, Books, Podcast, Newsletter, Blog, Speaking, Courses, App, Group/Club, Events. These words aren’t personal value words–those are a different set of words to live by. NavBar words can help act as useful containers for one’s work. I don’t want to simply exist and be content with stillness only. I want to do my part to make the world a better place, to make my life’s work meaningful, and to make sure I give back to the planet more than I’ve taken before I die. I want to work. I want to try. And at some point, if I’m going to find water by digging a well, I just have to pick a spot, start digging, and keep digging

What spots am I going to pick to do my digging?

What kind of work do I want to devote myself to? 

What do I want my words to be on the top of KevinCarlow.com? 

What words do I want to hang my hat on? 

And then it hit me, this idea and felt sense of being my authentic self, of living a life that I’m so confident in and unashamed of that I’m OK with it being public, that I’m OK with sharing it. A public way of living where I know I’m genuine and that I’m not being a fraud (by, for example, talking about how great being vegetarian is but then eating a bunch of meat myself, or by inwardly despising advertising but making my living from the industry anyway). If I hold that thought, of being so authentically me that I have no shame of being public with it because I am always just being me… that level of honesty, that’s what’s going to get me there.

I walked with this idea for a bit, and then I noticed a particular tree situated twenty feet above on the uphill side of the trail. One of its thicker branches was shaped with a natural hammock-like parabola to it, and this thick branch extended outward from the trunk at an easily mountable height of four feet off the ground. I marched up to it, climbed in, positioned my mittens under my tailbone, laid my head back, and immediately a sense of ease and peace washed over me as I gazed up at a sparse winter canopy and the bright blue sky beyond. 

I then uttered, “I’m now lying in a tree and looking up at the sky. And I think I need to give myself permission to write. That is what I’m holding myself back from. To ask for and to give permission to take large chunks of hours to indulge in my interest of writing. To muster the courage to write the piece about leaving Corporate America, about leaving a successful career and why. It’s time to write that. It’s time to write the harder stuff.” 

Answers arriving in a Tree Hammock

After a while I got down from my tree branch cot and, as I reached the wide open lowland area that sits right at the intersection of the narrow path that leads back to my neighborhood, I concluded the walk like this:

“And now I’m sitting here in a squat, gazing toward the setting sun (ridiculous that it’s this close to the horizon at 2:34pm), and I’m reminded of the balance of accepting that the way things are right now is totally fine. There’s so much peace and joy of sinking into… now. Today is great as it is. I don’t need to worry too much about building toward some big outcome, some epic destination. Kristyn mentioned earlier that everything I was talking about this morning was outcome-based. She’s right. I have a lot of conditioning and training from the business world about focusing on outcomes. So as I’m squatting here in my hiking boots, sinking into the soft, squishy earth of dying leaves and wet soil, I want also to sink into having a dream day, today. Whatever that means for today… going to bed with the feeling of completeness, of wholeness. That I turned over some stones today, and that the stones I left unturned were left so intentionally, mindfully. Today was not the day to turn over those stones. And that’s OK.”

TUESDAY

Morning meditations are starting to feel less like something I have to make myself do and more like something I just do. I went to bed before 10pm last night, and this morning I woke up at exactly 6:00 with no alarm (I’ve been setting my alarm for 6:15 and groggily waking up). I now have some extra time before the kids get up, and I’ve already done some stretches and am now writing this! 

I followed up on yesterday’s contemplations by revisiting some of the websites of people I like. I made my way to Gretchen Rubin’s homepage, and BAM! Her opening line hit me like a ton of bricks. The featured sentence on her homepage reads, “We can accept ourselves and also expect more from ourselves.” I’ve examined the paradox between ambition and acceptance many times, and seeing this on her site gave me a conflicting sense of validation mixed with hopelessness. In a way, I feel validated that a successful author shares in my focus on this topic, on its importance. It makes me feel more connected to her and that perhaps I am onto something significant if a successful writer is also intrinsically intrigued by this yin and yang of contentment and striving. But it also makes me feel hopeless. Who am I to attempt to do anything valuable in a realm that’s already been explored by experts, by wiser, more knowledgeable, more skilled people? Who am I to write, to blog, to podcast, to create my own newsletter? Will I really be able to create anything so valuable that the world is truly better off because of my creation, as opposed to if I’d dedicated all that time to planting trees or whatever else? Ugh. 

CONNECTION TO NATURE

On Friday I convinced my kid that was home from school to strap on the winter gear and head out to the snowy woods. Getting children out the door during Minnesota winters is a massive struggle, moreso with a highly sensitive child that doesn’t enjoy the feeling of snow pants and walking around in large, thick boots (especially when the destination is a “boring hike” and not sledding with the neighbor kids), but once we got going and started noticing nature’s interesting gifts, she quickly forgot about the comfort level of the snow gear. 

As we got to the very end of the small trail, the very first reasonable checkpoint to turn around and return home (which is as far as I could convince my kid to go), we came upon a most peculiar sight. About 5.5 feet off the ground hung the rear portion of a rabbit carcass, skewered onto a sapling. We discussed how it might have gotten there, and we couldn’t come up with any definitive theory. We were flummoxed.

Upon returning home, my child wasted no time telling Kristyn what we had discovered. It was a most unusual sighting, after all. Kristyn, in return, wasted no time with her response to this news. Without hesitation, in supremely witch-like fashion, Kristyn’s response to learning of a skewered rabbit carcass within walking distance of our house was–we need to get that rabbit’s foot. 

The back half of a rabbit just hanging around

Armed with some latex gloves and a tree trimmer, Kristyn bounded away from the house with the fervor and pace of a Black Friday shopper hellbent on beating everyone else to the best deals in town. She retrieved the foot, began the curing process, and traipsed back into the snowy lowland area behind our house to place the remaining bits in an area more easily accessible to the wildlife and the worms. Our child was understandably uneasy throughout this process, it being her first encounter with dead animal bits up close, but she fed off our energy and was curiously asking questions, and once the foot was sealed in a mason jar of isopropyl alcohol, she made sure it was placed in a location she and her sister would be able to look at it. 

My experience throughout this whole ordeal was one of gratitude and of most pleasant surprise. I was thankful to myself and to my kid that we went through the painstaking process of gearing up to get outside, enjoy the fresh air, and move our bodies along the snowy path that led us to the rabbit remains. And, moreso, I was so pleasantly surprised by Kristyn’s reaction to the situation. The idea had crossed my mind that “hey, rabbit’s feet are lucky, and we just found one,” but I did not consider actually retrieving it. Kristyn had never done anything like this before, but she acted as if we had just found a pot of gold and decided to leave it out in the woods. I was proud to watch her so highly value an opportunity to gain more connection to the land around us. It’s fun being married to a witch. 

On Sabbatical – Week 27: Beyond Thankful

GIVING THANKS IN A BIGGER-THAN-USUAL WAY

It’s Thanksgiving week! While the traditional American Thanksgiving spread has been a long-standing favorite meal of mine, the holiday had some extra significance this year, for a few reasons. For starters, I volunteered to prepare four of the side dishes for our extended family of ten. I offered this up because… it felt right. My mother in law was still rehabilitating her broken leg from a car accident a few weeks prior. I’m currently unemployed. I enjoy cooking. I love the combination of mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, and cranberries (and whatever else is on the table). So, I scooted out to the store on Monday to gather supplies and beat the last-minute rush on green beans and the like. 

Prepping mashed potatoes, dressing, green bean casserole, and cornbread casserole the day before Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving this year also felt significant because I wrote a sort of prayer to be shared before the feast. I had never done this before, and I was nervous about actually saying the words out loud. The idea came to me, as many of my ideas do, on a hiking trail. I have never identified as a religious person nor as a spiritual person, but lately I have been uncovering a more spiritual side to myself, a side that is open to and invites in the notions of prayer, of contemplative practice, of the possibility of energies unseen, of the possibilities of ancestral spirits being accessible to us, if we allow them in. And so, while I was hiking around and considering what my ideal November would look like, I thought about Thanksgiving, and this family gathering felt important to me. This is also around the time of year that my partner’s father died when she was a child, so Thanksgiving has always had an extra significance, an extra weight to it, ever since I joined the Moravetz tribe. In Thanksgiving’s past, we would typically share in a brief, uncomfortable (for me), semi-automatic Grace, the same Grace (I learned) that my partner and her family would say around the dinner table as a kid. It always felt a bit awkward to me, since this was the only meal of the year where Grace would be said, and it was rather abruptly hopped into and hopped out of, and then we carried on. As the years have gone on and our family has grown with the addition of little ones, getting everyone together, at the table, waiting to eat, and attentive for a moment of unity had drifted away from the routine.

After reading Thubten Chodron’s The Compassionate Kitchen, in which she describes in great detail the rituals around food practiced at her Buddhist abbey in Newport, WA (where the only food that’s consumed is the food that is donated), I had been contemplating my own consumption practices. How mindful am I when I cook? When I eat? Am I happy with my relationship to my food? My big takeaway from this book was a newfound interest in the following notion: taking a moment before eating the food on my plate to stop and to think about and appreciate the food, its source, how it made its way to me, and how it will nourish me. For me, for now, it doesn’t have to be an elaborate series of prescribed verses or have any level of formality to it; I just want to have a more consistent state of mindfulness in the moments before and while I nourish myself.

Applying this concept to a Thanksgiving prayer, I spoke the following words into my Voice Memos while hiking, and I later transcribed them so I could read them for my family at the table: 

PRAYER OF THANKS
Let us give thanks for togetherness, for the privilege and the great fortune of being able to gather as a family. As a healthy, mostly functional family. This gift of life that we all enjoy is amplified especially when we share in that life, together.

We express our gratitude to have so much. To have the resources to enjoy such a magnificent feast. We give thanks to everyone and everything involved in bringing this nourishing food to our table: To the farmers who grew the crops, to the workers who transported, organized, and distributed the food to us, to the bird and the pig which gave their lives to sustain ours. to all of you, we give thanks.

Let us celebrate this Thanksgiving holiday as did our ancestors. Not our colonial American predecessors, but our far reaching ancestors, who would celebrate the fall harvest and its bounty with an expression of togetherness, of sharing, of generosity, and of gratitude. Let us hold their spirit in our hearts, and let us carry forward their spirits for future generations.

May we also hold space in our hearts for those who are not here with us tonight. May this family continue to grow in its ability and skill of creating space for sadness and grief. To find comfort in the discomfort of loss, or the discomfort of anything really. the presence of those not here in body is still felt in mind and heart, and so long as we tell their stories, remember their stories, they are not gone. Even though their bodies may have returned to the earth, their spirit lives on through us.

I’d like to give a special thanks for (my mother in law), who, when she was our age, when she was growing up and raising her family, worked her ass off, saved and invested prudently, and positioned her family and descendants to have more easeful lives than she had. That type of forward thinking, a down the line sacrifice that has no immediate pay off… it’s something special. And so to you, we give thanks.

May our lives be filled with joy and compassion for ourselves and for others, today, and every day.

Cheers to family!

When the moment came, when we were all sitting down and it felt as good a time as any to announce that I had some words to say, I could feel a nervous anxiety spike within me. It was like that moment in karaoke when your name is called, it’s your turn to sing, and you have to make your way to the microphone and wait until the music kicks in. There were these pivotal few seconds where I sat at the table, with my hand holding my phone under the table, having a frantic mental debate with myself. “Am I really going to do this? What if it’s too long? What if the kids interrupt me? Am I doing this for me to show off my writing, or do I actually believe it will bring the family closer together and model the behavior I wish for our family? People have already started eating; did I miss my moment?” And with one deep belly breath, I shut off the mental chatter and announced that I had written a little something that I wanted to share. 

It was much harder to get the words out than I had anticipated. I’d already spoken these words once into my Voice Memos with no problem; why was it so hard to get them out now? I found myself getting choked up in the throat and hot in the face, even at the “easy” parts of the prayer. Nerves. I’ve gotten this way before, and I realize now that it happens most often when I actually deeply care about what it is I’m saying. I could read some sort of written verse to an audience of 1,000 people, but when it comes to heartfelt, meaningful words that I’ve written, and it was to an audience of the people I care about most… woof! Much harder. I did manage to get through it, though, and afterward I felt proud and relieved. I think my family was relieved too, relieved they could stop letting their food get cold. 

I want to continue doing things I believe in, no matter how hard they are to do. 

 

I DON’T ENJOY THE OUTDOORS; I NEED IT

On Tuesday of this week, I was really having an existential start to my day. “Existential crisis” is too big of a phrase, but the internal struggles I was having felt existential for sure. It’s like my mind is a big soup pot. I’ve been throwing all of these inputs into the pot – Tony Riddle‘s inspiring barefoot runs and natural lifestyle, the Minimalists on the Ten Percent Happier podcast talking about getting rid of the stuff that doesn’t bring you joy or have a purpose, working on decluttering our own house and the umpteen steps it’s going to take to move to Costa Rica, meditating and watching my own thoughts, talking with a financial advisor about how we’re investing, managing, and donating our money, countless conversations with my partner about her learnings and about our shared trajectory – and I’m having a hard time seeing clearly through the mind soup and envisioning my actual ideal existence for right now, today.

I contemplate about this often, and there are times where it continues to elude me. It’s typically the abundance of choice that gets to me. There are so many “could’s” with how I could spend my time. Where to start? What to do now? I’m often seeking for the “right” answer to this question. I’ve learned that when I get lost or stuck or overwhelmed, it’s time to change things up and move my body. 

Piggybacking on what I’d been reminded of by listening to The Minimalists, I picked one room in our house to look for stuff to get rid of and ended up grabbing 15 junk items to dispose of. Immediately I felt a little bit better, one half-inch farther down the path of decluttering our lives. After this, I went out for a walk in the snow and sun in 35 degree temps. It’s becoming more and more evident to me that I don’t just like hiking and walking around outside; I need it.

I get so many mental downloads from the practice of walking around in nature and focusing on: mindfulness, mindful breathing, mindful steps, mindful listening. Amós Rodriguez, one of the participants on the show Alone, taught me that “my sphere of disturbance should be smaller than me sphere of awareness.” I think about this often as I make my way through the woods. The nature, the movement, and the absence of distraction clear my head, and so often do I get zapped with an “aha moment” from my own inner voice: new thoughts for what I now am almost certain is going to become a podcast, answers to my various relationship anxieties, realizations about questions I’m pondering, they all just… appear. On this particular walk, I enjoyed the cycle of walking, actively clearing the mind, getting inevitably zapped by an insight, stopping to squat and write it down or voice memo it, and then getting up and starting the cycle over again. Moving meditation is a highly effective technique for me. 

Resting the body and mind on a snowy trailside hill.

On Wednesday, after making mashed potatoes with my kid (one of the four side dishes we were preparing for Thanksgiving) I once again went for a walk, alone, this time to the nearby lake instead of the woodland trails I so often favor for hiking. This spot is where this week’s featured image comes from. There are some steps that not many use which lead down to the waterfront on the western banks of the lake, and I found a perfectly situated downed tree with a comfortable, level seat right about 12-18 inches off the ground, directly facing the sun. At around 3pm in the Minnesota winter, the view was sublime, unencumbered by bush or branches, with a clear view of the wide open, frosted lake. It’s about a 15 minute walk from my front door. I am grateful to live somewhere with access to choice spots in nature like this. I am grateful to myself for seeking and appreciating this simple, costless pleasure. 

On Saturday I again headed outside. I sought out the lakeside sit spot again, and this time I did a formal meditation by the lake, by which I mean I focused on my breath and did nothing else. Even though the temperature barely crested 50 degrees Fahrenheit, I had the sun beaming directly at me and some wind protection from the trees to my one side. The jacket came off.  The cool breeze was invigorating and the wind gusts, rather than swaying me off my perch, actually anchored me deeper into my sit spot. When my body reacted to the wind by sinking deeper into the earth, that’s when I knew I was “in the zone.” The lake was mostly frozen, but on this warm day, the area at the lake’s edge had thawed. The soil and sand were wet. The smell of wet earth and decomposing leaves filled my nostrils with each inbreath. It was pleasant, like Earth’s rich odor was nourishing me somehow. 

On Sunday, I closed out the week with a run. It was 38 degrees. I ran for about two miles, pushed through the first hump of temptation to stop and turn around (which often happens when I run without a specific length or destination in mind), and then found a patch of roadside grass that had been mowed. You know, how sometimes cities will mow a 3-4 foot swath of grass if there’s some grassland-y type land next to the road or trail? Anyway, this patch of grass called to me. There was no snow on it. The grass was almost green still. If there was ever a time and place for me to give barefoot running a try, the place was here, and the time was now. I kicked off my shoes and socks and I ran barefoot in late November in Minnesota for about a mile. First I was carrying the shoes, then I changed tactics and tossed them into the deeper grass for later retrieval. The ground was cold and squishy, but it didn’t bother me. It felt nice. Running without shoes, I immediately noticed that I paid way more attention to the ground. I took shorter strides. I used my whole foot. And I smiled. It was not painful. It was invigorating. I felt like I could have gone forever like that, were it not for the concrete separating me from my home.

NEIGHBORS ARE WHERE COMMUNITY BUILDING STARTS

My neighbors are redoing their kitchen and main floor. Big project. They needed to move a bunch of stuff around their house to get ready for the workers. I offered to help out. To my pleasure, they accepted the offer. 

I bring this up only to say this; I wish I was more neighborly with my neighbors. Like, old school neighborly. As Kristyn often ponders–why do we have seven houses in our cul de sac, and we also have seven snowblowers and seven lawn mowers? Is all this individual stuff-acquiring really necessary? How much cheaper and easier would life be if we worked together as neighbors more often? Took turns watching each others kids, took turns making meals, had a snowblowing committee and a gardening committee. Why do we all grow tomatoes in our own gardens? No one can ever eat them all! 

I know it sounds kind of perverse, but I was sincerely delighted that my neighbors let me carry their furniture up and down their stairs for an hour or two. That is what neighbors are freaking for! 

AVATAR IS NON-FICTION

One evening this week, Kristyn and I watched Avatar. I’d been wanting to rewatch this movie ever since I read its mention in the book Active Hope. Once I looked up how to stream Avatar, and was reminded it’s a James Cameron creation (the incredible Canadian filmmaker also responsible for Titanic, The Terminator, and Aliens), it leapt up to the top of my must-watch queue (which currently consists of zero other shows).   

There is so much about Avatar that I love. Other than a slight issue with a sort of “saviorism,” where the outsider protagonist is able to come into this new culture and save them from oppression, the rest of the film really works for me. The metaphors to real life are correct, even if they are portrayed with a fictional species on a fictional planet in a futuristic setting; humans are extracting precious resources with reckless abandon, disregarding who might be harmed, all for the sake of economic growth. Colonialism, capitalism, white privilege… it’s all there. These are the lessons we should be paying attention to. I hope the future Avatar movies continue on these themes and adapt them for our current times.

I also loved how the Na’vi people were portrayed (the indigenous people of the moon Pandora). They were super connected to their land; the “training” sequence showed it all. When Neytiri is teaching Jake their ways, she shows him what fruit to eat, how to fall from the top of the forest canopy and use the trees and plants to break one’s fall (a lesson which later saves Jake’s life), and they are so connected to the land that they even literally connect their minds to horse-like and dragon-like creatures through a cord in their long hair braid. There’s also a powerful scene when the Na’vi people band together to attempt to channel the power of Ewya (their sort of “source”, Mother-Nature-type energy) in a ritual to heal the human Grace, who has suffered a bullet wound. In that scene, the tribe of a few hundred Na’vi are all squatting low to the ground in a restful low squat, hands on each other’s shoulders, swaying back and forth in front of the tree of souls. Watching this was like watching the definition of connection to land for me. 

Avatar Eywa

I mostly am mentioning our watching of Avatar because of a comment Kristyn made as we debriefed after watching. As we were discussing how the metaphors and symbolism in the movie are so spot on, she remarked, “Movies like The Matrix and Avatar should be considered non-fiction.” After a chuckle, I realized I think she’s onto something. I’m not an uber-fan of science fiction, but I’ve enjoyed the genre my whole life, and I think the thing that separates the great science fiction and fantasy stories from the lesser ones is that they are basically non-fiction – they are so relatable and the themes are so resonant to our actual lives. I wonder if that’s how scriptwriters and novelists think; I’m going to create a fantasy world with some interesting characters as the “container,” and then inject a bunch of actual scenarios, emotions, and problems from everyday life. There’s probably a little more to it than that. Or is there? 

NATURALLY BETTER RESEARCH – A SURPRISING FIND 

As I embark on this Naturally Better journey (I am still defining what that even means), I felt compelled to poll my friends and followers (all four of them). I created a survey and sent it out to my network. I’ve done this on occasion in my life, creating a survey and badgering people to fill it out. I enjoy learning how other people think, and, sometimes, I like doing it in a measurable, quantifiable way (as opposed to having a bunch of anecdotal conversations).

One of the reasons I enjoy surveying people is that I like to get data to compare myself and my own thoughts to a larger group. I like to learn if I am an outlier or if I’m closer to average. When I sold advertising for a living, countless times I would run into objections that sounded like this: “Does anyone even watch the TV news? I don’t,” and, “The only time I watch the news is at 10pm, so that’s when I want my commercials to run,” and, “Has anyone ever clicked on those Google ads? I always skip right past those.” Everybody thinks they are average. Every person thinks they are in the middle of every bell curve. Nobody thinks they are special. Nobody thinks they are different. We all consider ourselves “the average consumer,” “the average homeowner,” or “just another parent.” The truth is – we can’t all be average at everything! This is why I like gathering more data points. A data point of one (i.e. my life, my experience), while it may be a very important data point to me (because it’s me!), is still only one data point. I am not statistically significant of the market or of all people. When it comes to getting good sleep, maybe I’m pretty average, but when it comes to weekly exercise, maybe I’m more disciplined than most people, even though to me my routine feels “normal.”

With my first survey that would help inform my future work with Naturally Better, I wanted to keep it short. I asked three multiple choice questions, all with the same multiple choice answers. I wanted to learn what fundamental aspect of our everyday lives people want to get better at most. Then, I wanted to learn how that changes if they change the focus from themselves getting better to the future of humanity getting better. 

The results of the survey are below. If you’d like to take the survey yourself before reading further, you can do so at this link – Kevin’s Simple Survey. If enough people add to the responses, I’ll republish this article in the future with the updated findings. 

Question 1

Here are the results to the first question – If you could instantly be better at one of these, which one would you pick?

 

When people were asked about their own self improvement, their top choices were Exercise more regularly and Experience fulfilling relationships more often and more deeply. So people want to get better at Exercise and Relationships above things like Sleep, Meditation, Eating, and Living in Harmony With Resources. 

Question 2

I then asked – If you could pick a second one, which one would you pick?

Here we see much more of a mixed bag. Sleep got the most votes, but it’s pretty spread out. My takeaway here is that once you get down past our first burning desire for improvement, we are individuals that have different growth edges. 

Then came the kicker – Above all else, which of these does our world need us all to do the most for the long term benefit of humanity and life as we know it?

Question 3

Here we see a huge shift in the responses, with the overwhelming winner being: Live in greater harmony with my resources. 

I have two takeaways from this.

First, it’s worth noting that when we focus on self, our responses are more varied, but when we focus on all people, our response was much more uniform. As we widen our perspective, as we zoom out beyond self and community and country and politics and get all the way out humanity, regardless of our backgrounds and identities, we tend to agree. This notion gives me hope. 

Second, I find it very interesting that when we look at our own lives and we examine what we want to get better about ourselves, most say the top priorities are Exercise and Relationships, but when we think about what’s most important for the long term collective, we say it’s Resources

This begs the question–why? Why aren’t our personal aspirations more in line with what we know is needed for a viable future for our grandchildren? I could theorize, but instead I plan to have some conversations about this with people smarter than I to see what can be discovered here.  

One thing I do now “know” from this utterly unscientific survey of a mere 31 of my friends: no one gives a rip about meditation and journaling. 

On Sabbatical – Week 26: Where I’m At After Half a Year of Uncovering Me

This week marks a half year. It has been a half of a year since I quit my job, left the workforce, entered a state of sabbatical, and started a new chapter in my life. Now that I’m six months in, it feels like more than a new chapter; it feels like a new book. Huge swaths of my days are filled with practices and activities I was not doing at all a year ago. My relationship with my partner is at an all-time high; our communication has leveled up, several levels. As I write these words, I’m listening to a 5-layered house music track that I recorded just earlier this morning. Neither writing nor music-making were in my list of weekly to do’s a year ago, save writing emails to clients or crunching out the occasional scrap of advertising copy.

When I initially started sabbatical, I told myself it was going to be roughly a two year period: one year in Minnesota, and one year in Costa Rica. That was and has been the tentative plan. I told myself, “once we move, once we complete this transition and get settled in to our neighborhood, a new school, a new community, a new way of life… that’s when I can start actually letting myself think practically, letting myself worry about the future.”

I am just now, in this moment, checking in with myself to reflect on the time so far. It’s not a question of what I’ve done, what activities I’ve done, what items I’ve checked off my bucket list. The question is – Where am I now? How do I feel now? What brand of Kevin am I now? How do I feel about the fact that I’m 25% of the way through this ‘plan’? And what path am I headed on? What is my trajectory? And what is my relationship to my current state and to my trajectory? 

I feel… comfortable with it. This time has had its challenges, mostly of the existential variety, but for the most part the common thread throughout the last six months has been joy. It has been a gift to untether from my old self, from my previous conditioning, from my past decisions that I have now grown away from. It has been a joy to spend more time with my kids and to act more childlike myself. Digging in to who I really am and who I want to be has its uncomfortable moments, but on the whole it has been a treat to afford the time to fully detach and to put maximum effort into starting anew. 

I like the person I am now compared to Old Kevin. I have asked myself what I value, and I’ve sat with that question until I’ve come up with some answers. I have more clarity about what I value, what I want my life to be about, what I want my time to be spent doing. It’s family, it’s outdoors, it’s the environment, and it’s being generous and giving to others, others now and others in the future. I love that I’ve been able to prioritize myself and doing what I want to do, being how I want to be. If I want to go outside, I go. If I want to listen to music, I listen. If I want to make music, I make. If I want to do nothing, I sit. If I want to let a blog post take four hours to make because I’m trying to perfect it or get it “just so,” then so be it! That’s what I wanted to do. I let myself do it. I’m not letting any external influences or thoughts or preconceived notions or conditionings get in my way. 

I know that I’m a better communicator. I’m more mindful of how I am, of what I say and how I say it. I’m more in tune with others. Friends have told me, observed this about Kristyn and I, that we have an ability to be tuned in to how others are feeling.

I know that this is making me a better father, not always having some place to go or some place to be or some project to work on, when my kids just want to play with me in that special time between end of school and bed. 

Life is not meant to be rushed through. I’ve really enjoyed slowing down and trying to actually live each day, not just move through each day. 

And yeah, there are days that are hard, days where I feel lost, days where I’ve told Kristyn, “I’m lost. I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t like this feeling. I feel like I don’t know what I’m supposed to do today. But I want to know what I’m supposed to do.” There are a lot of “could’s”: I could write, I could exercise, I could cook, I could brainstorm a teen fiction series, I could make a new beat, I could go for a walk, I could meditate. Which one should I start with? Should. Should based on… what, exactly? Should does not exist. Should is a facade. There is no should. So yeah, I have days like this, days where I feel aimless, but that’s a small price to pay for the tradeoff of the joys of slowness and simplicity. In fact, the discomfort of that aimlessness is what I want to be experiencing, because that is where growth comes from. No pain, no gain. 

I’m still working on this, but as I reflect on the last six months, one of the underlying themes has been my effort to let go of yearning, of wishing, of wanting things I don’t have, experiences I haven’t had. I’ve been really trying to mindfully think into what is within my power to make today feel like a “dream day,” a day where I lived as close to being in choice that I could be. What can I do today to make it feel like a “million dollar day”? And I have to say, I’ve been having a lot of days that feel that way. It’s hard to put a price on that. 

I hold my privilege front and center in my mind as often as I can remember to do so. I hope that by unlearning many of the assumptions I had been operating under, by focusing on becoming the truest version of myself, and by generously radiating compassion toward those around me, I am putting my privilege to the best possible use for the betterment of my family and humanity. 

So… what now? What are my goals for the next six months? Knowing what I know now about these last six months, what does that make me think about next semester? What do I want to do differently? How do I want to be different? What do I want to continue? 

I know I want to continue many of my recent practices: morning meditations, exercise routine rotating strength, cardio, and yoga, writing on this blog, building up the Naturally Better idea, and plunking away at the keyboard to make fun little tunes for myself. 

One big difference for the next quartile of sabbatical? The move to Costa Rica. In the past six months, I have done very little to prepare for this transition relative to how much I’m going to need to do in the half year ahead. In this situation I think using some labels will be helpful for me to give some structure to my time.

Labels that feel right for what the first quarter of sabbatical was like are: Unplug, Reset, Rebirth, Childhood, and Unlearn.

The labels I intend to uphold for the next half year are: Practice, Adolescence, Authenticity, Minimize, and Transition. 

Practice: having the discipline and devotion to practices that align with my values, and not allowing disruption of these practices by things I value less than the practice.

Adolescence: when I was a teenager, I went through phases where I practiced stuff relentlessly. There was a semester in high school where I played saxophone five days a week. I would play volleyball every chance I got. I did these things not because someone was making me; I did them because I loved doing them. I want to embody that passionate spirit again, of not worrying about the practicality of an activity or hobby and letting myself get absorbed by something for the sheer joy of it and for the satisfying feeling of improvement. 

Authenticity: as I learn about new concepts (such as meditation or barefoot running), can I actually walk the walk? If I learn that beef is the most harmful food for the environment, can I actually stop eating it? If I discover that spending more time barefoot can unlock huge health benefits, do I have the courage to actually kick my shoes off around the neighborhood? 

Minimize: it’s time to get rid of my crap. I have no choice but to do so; the house we’ll move to in Costa Rica is much smaller than our current house. Less stuff.  More space. 

Transition: while the last half year was a time of detaching and jumping off a moving train, the time ahead will start to feel like movement toward a new direction, a transition in to something new. 

That’s a wrap on reflecting about my sabbatical so far. Onward to reviewing the experiences of the past week! 

 

A WORK MEETING? NOT EXACTLY. 

I kicked off this week with something I haven’t done in half a year – a professional networking Zoom meeting. I should put “professional” in quotes; I had a conversation with one person I knew from my most recent job as a TV advertising sales rep. She had worked on the Marketing team at one of my best clients, had seen my post on LinkedIn where I shared my departure from the workforce and my intention for the time ahead, and had reached out to me to set up a time to chat. 

When we hopped on the Zoom, I learned she had also since left her position and was pursuing self-employment as a freelance marketer. As she explained her situation, what she was working on, what she was feeling stuck with, I noticed myself going into a sort of “counselor mode.” I listened intently. I gently probed for her to expand on her hesitations. I did my best to help her see her own answers were already there. At one point she even joked, “I can’t believe we’re talking about this; this is starting to feel like a therapy session!” Even though our conversation carried on without missing a beat, when she said that, I strangely felt a rush of pride. The idea of someone talking to me feeling like therapy for them… I liked that idea. It was a tiny hint, an iota of a clue that, perhaps, I’m on the right track, that everything I’m doing, every choice I’m making, every book I’m reading, every uncomfortable conversation I’m having with Kristyn, every word I’m typing is what I’m supposed to be doing. Validation feels incredible. 

After this conversation I also learned that I want to practice framing up “what I’ve been up to” more succinctly. Most of the time, when I tell people I’m on sabbatical, they ask, “So what do you do all day?” or “What have you been up to, then?”

I wasn’t adequately prepared for this question in the context of a more professional, career-oriented conversation, of being more mindful of my conduct, of my words, of how I carry myself. I wrote these notes down after the call as I brainstormed how to give a tighter elevator pitch to people of what my sabbatical has been about thus far:

  • Doing less and being more.
  • Reading lots. Writing some. 
  • Focusing on mindful living.
    • Being present with my kids.
    • Being present with my partner.
    • Being present with myself.
  • Cooking (almost) all my food. 
  • Moving my body when it wants to move. Letting it rest when it needs to. 

After that last bullet point, I was struck with an idea. Maybe it would be helpful for a large number of people if I could put together ways to detach from the nine to five and reinvent your life. Creating a roadmap for this. I know I could’ve used one! As soon as I had that idea, I realized there must be thousands of books and courses designed with this exact idea in mind. In fact, I know there is at least one, because I’ve read Tim Ferriss’ 4-hour Workweek and even reference that book on the Resources page of this website. A quick Google search and indeed, this is not a novel concept. Still, what would make my idea unique is that it would be mine. It would be of my thoughts, of my experience, and of my learnings. And it wouldn’t be too hard to create, because in a way, all I’d have to do is document exactly what I’m doing. I’m fling this one away in the “ideas” folder, for now. 

TEN PERCENT HAPPIER

I’ve really gone headfirst into the podcast Ten Percent Happier. I can’t seem to recall how I first came across this gem of a resource, but now that it has made its way to my awareness, there’s no turning back! I started at the beginning and have been downright plowing through the episodes. I’m loving the guests Dan Harris has on this show to talk about their various experiences and expertise within the world of meditation, from well-known veteran teachers like Sharon Salzberg, to Buddhist figures like Thupten Jinpa (the Dalai Lama’s English-language interpreter), to Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo. I love how its exposing me to many people I instantly admire and want to emulate and learn from in various ways. This week I enjoyed the incredible stories and outlook of author and Buddhist meditation teacher Mingyur Rinpoche and the candor and communication prowess of author and mindful communication teacher Oren Jay Sofer

I’m getting a lot of value from this podcast. Listening to it is giving me ideas for my own giveaway, my own creation, my own collection of conversations that will include the topic of meditation and also many natural living topics. The Naturally Better podcast is in development, folks! 

CREATION PROGRESS

Part of my journey is learning, and one of the main ways I learn is by reading. If the book is good and I’m getting value from it, I enjoy the process of reading a book, taking down notes and excerpts that jump out to me, and, when I’m done with the book, compiling these notes into a blog post and add it to my growing collection of blog posts about books. This week I’ve been realizing that oddly I can read an entire book faster than I can write up a summary with my takeaways from it. Hopefully getting caught up with this sabbatical blog will help! 

Right now I’m reading Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin, which is a book about habits and how to harness the power of habit to improve your life. There are a lot of useful nuggets in the book, but one thing I really love is the open of the book, where Rubin takes a moment to talk about the process of writing the book: of an immense amount of reading at the beginning stage of the project, and about capturing those “eureka moments” that happen along the way as she reads, examines her own life, and starts having conversations with others about the world of habits. 

It got me to thinking about my own habits, especially around reading. For most of my adult life after college, I didn’t read much. I’d read the occasional business book or biography if it came highly recommended by someone I trust. Once I quit my job, I’ve upped my reading substantially, but it’s been a bit all over the place. I haven’t had any real “system” to it; I have just been adding books I learn about to a reading list and have been plowing through the list with no real rhyme or reason, other than to say that I read only one book at a time. (I don’t understand how people can read multiple books at once.)

As my thoughts about Naturally Better continue to coalesce, one of the challenges I face is – where do I start? There are so many things one can focus on in the world of self-improvement, and there are too many that I personally want to focus on to do them all at once, but I also don’t like the idea of limiting myself to one avenue or niche like habits or meditation or nutrition. I understand the conventional wisdom with creating a book or a podcast or a brand or a business is to be very specific, hyper-specific, so that you are speaking to a very narrowly defined niche, and in that way, your product will have much higher value to that group of people. The thing is, I’m not on this journey for other people; first and foremost, I’m in this journey for myself. I’ve always identified as a sort of “generalist.” I’ve said many times that “I’m the kind of person who’s pretty good at a lot of things, but I’m not an expert at any one thing.” I enjoy the variety that life has to offer.

In pondering this dilemma, I came up with the idea to treat my reading a little like a batting order in baseball (which is a bit ironic, because, while I having enjoyed playing and watching many sports in my life, I’ve grown to loathe baseball. So slow and boring!). In baseball, the hitting team has a batting order, with the player whose turn it is to hit “at bat,” the next player “on deck,” and the next player “in the hole.” I’m going to try taking this approach to the development of Naturally Better, where I have an “at bat” topic that is my primary focus and taking up, say 70% of my time dedicated to this project, but to avoid the feeling of limitation, I’ll have a second topic “on deck” that I’m starting to dabble with, and a third topic “in the hole” that I’ll allow my brain to casually wander into every once in a while. The rest of the areas I want to explore will just have to wait their turn. 

From this point, I felt compelled to start listing and mapping out the topics I really want to dive into and learn more about. My kids have countless sheets of barely used paper in their playroom (with a touch of marker here or there, which means, in their minds, it’s no longer suitable for them to use in future days), so I picked up the closest piece and eight of their markers. I started jotting down topics about nature and aspects of humanness, grouping them by theme. In the picture below, I started with the word “Food” and what sub-topics might be grouped under it. Then came “Body” and “Mind” and also “Resources,” with their associated sub-concepts. Next was “Community/Social,” because humans are the most social beings on the planet. Once I had written down a few thoughts under “Community/Social,” though, I got stuck. I was uncertain where to go next, but I knew my map didn’t feel quite complete. I had written down “spirit,” “heart,” and “compassion” on the side of the paper… all these words were important and needed a home. And all of a sudden, a Gretchen-Rubin-style eureka moment hit me like a lightning bolt – LOVE! The next marker color I had up in the rotation happened to be pink. It’s the focal point of every song in the history of music (almost). And my kid had already written the words “I LOVE YOU” on this very piece of scratch paper. Eureka! 

I have no idea where this map is headed, but I’m going to follow it and see where it leads me. 

All good business ideas start with gently used scratch paper and children’s markers

A FRIENDSGIVING OF TRIFECTAS, FOUR-FECTAS, AND ALL THE -FECTA’S!

On Saturday of this week we had four friends over to our house; two married couples who are dear friends of ours. There were two standout memories of this gathering that I want to document. Both are related to music. 

Earlier in the day, my partytime preparation included compiling a playlist of songs, custom-made for this group. I really enjoy having music as a part of social settings, and I love how the music can both set the mood and also be a reflection of the mood, depending on the flow of the environment. I made sure to add at least three or four songs that each of the six people in the group would really enjoy, would feel like the song was on the playlist “for them.” Of course, if one of my favorite songs happened to be Got To Give It Up by Marvin Gaye (which it is), it may very well also be a special song for one of my friends, and so we might both feel like this song was on the playlist “for us.” 

As I pulled up this playlist to play over our basement speakers, I announced that I was putting on music, that anyone was free to suggest adding a song to the rotation at any time, and that I had personally curated this specific playlist with my guests in mind.  

As the evening proceeded and new songs came up, we all enjoyed the game of guessing who the song must be for, which combination of us I must’ve had in mind when selecting the song for inclusion. If three of us felt like the song was “for us,” then it was a trifecta of song awesomeness! Four? A four-fecta of head-bobbing, hip-shaking sonic bliss! It was a fun way of stringing moments of connection together throughout the evening, and it’s a practice I’m going to continue for future get togethers. 

The other immensely satisfying memory I have of this evening is when the men retreated to our guest room, which is now doubling as our “home recording studio” (emphasis on the quotation marks). I had one friend in there already, and I was playing him a song, really just the early seedling of a song, that I had created, over the studio speakers at a medium volume (so as to not disturb the vibe in the other room). As the third guy strolled into our room, as my music made its way through his ears to his brain, I grinned as his body hopped into the groove: toes tapping, hips swaying, head approvingly nodding. I asked him, “What do you think of this tune?” To which he replied, as he kept his gentle body groove going, “Yeah, it’s good. I can dig it.” Sensing that he might not know, I then commented, “I made this song.”

As much as it made me feel good that I had made a collection of sounds and rhythms that made a person move, it was an even lovelier experience to behold the fleeting expression on his face as he processed what I had just said. He hadn’t known I made it. The flash of surprise followed by approval on his face… it’s hard to express how gratifying that felt. I created an artistic thing that someone liked! They didn’t like it because I made it, because they know me and want to be supportive of me; they just flat out enjoyed it. And not just anyone, a close friend! This experience acts as fuel for my creative fire. I don’t sit in my basement and tinker around with making music for other people; all I do is make what sounds good to me. But that taste of validation from someone else, that they too can share in the joy of these sounds that I birthed into existence… man that is a juicy feeling for me. As scary as it can be to share stuff that I’ve created, this night makes me more inclined to share in the future. Thanks to you, friend.

FOOD OVER FOOTBALL

The next day I took my kids to the neighbor kid’s birthday party. Afterward, we went over to their house under the guise of “watching the Vikings game.” I haven’t been paying attention to the NFL or any professional sports this year (other than a little bit of AVP, of course); no fantasy teams, no gameday watching, and definitely no following of players, trades, injuries, and current events in the league. It has just seemed so unimportant to me. It’s an entertainment source that has lost its entertainment value. I remember past years where I’d be in three fantasy football leagues, and the hour of 11am-noon on Sunday wasn’t fun, it was stressful – checking all the last minute injury notices and waiver wire pickups. Meanwhile, I had a ton of leftover snack foods that didn’t get gobbled down the night before, so I loaded up our wagon with fixings for a fairly substantial spread to share. In the course of this neighborly Sunday afternoon get together, I realized that while Old Kevin would have been in his element watching football and tracking his fantasy team’s stats, New Kevin can’t really hold a conversation about the NFL anymore, but he can talk about food, recipes, and what cheese would perfectly pair with mango habanero jelly all day long!

(And when you think about it, which is really more important to you: watching large sweaty men give themselves concussions or discussing fun and delicious ways to fuel your body?)

CLOSING THOUGHT ABOUT THIS BLOG AND MY WRITING

I’m so close to being caught up to realtime with the weekly blogging about my sabbatical. It feels exhilarating to know that time is also here. I’ve been feeling buried under the weight of getting caught up. It’s starting to feel like I can actually write these weekly sabbatical posts the way I want to, the way I want to feel like I have the freedom to, not just by cataloging the events and documenting the actions, but also by giving myself the space and the permission to expand, to open up, and to share freely my thoughts, feelings, and reflections of the week’s transpirings. Plus, I’m holding on to this notion that once I’m caught up to realtime, I’ll be unburdened by the “catching up” and will have more time and energy to commit to other writing projects. I don’t know how much of a crutch that thought is right now, but I do know it’s been enough of a motivator to keep me going the last couple of weeks, so… if it ain’t broke…! 

On Sabbatical – Week 25: Commitment to Practice

TO RUN OR NOT TO RUN?

I started out this week as I start out many weeks – creating and then staring at a long list of aspirations for the week, wondering where to begin. As always, exercise is on the list. On Monday, as I pondered the week ahead, I knew I wanted to make exercise a priority, and on that particular day I was feeling drawn to go for a run. The idea of going for a run felt right. I was telling myself, however, that I want to have the discipline to do exercises I’m not as good at, exercises I don’t have as much strength or practice in, like strength training or yoga. What’s the better approach to take? Listen to (what feels like) my intuition and do the body movement practice that comes more naturally to me (running), or is taking a more challenging route the way to go? Of course, part of the answer to that question lies in my goal, my objective: what am I trying to accomplish with the exercise? I’m not training for a marathon. I’m not training to join the AVP Tour. I’m not training to become a yoga instructor. For now, I settled with the goal of simply moving my body for an extended period of time in whatever way it wants to. I went for a run. It felt great. And yet, I think I have some work to do to hammer out a sustainable exercise routine I can stick with and and commit to through the winter. 

COMMITMENT TO MEDITATION

This is the week I took the idea of meditating regularly and turned it into a practice. I meditated every morning for twenty minutes before the family woke up, including Saturday and Sunday. I even snuck in an extra afternoon session on Sunday. 

Before I go on about this, I have to admit I have Jon Kabat-Zinn’s words ringing in my ears from his book Wherever You Go, There You Are. I’m paraphrasing, but he says that if you find yourself wanting to talk about meditation, about how great it is, about its benefits, about how other people should try it… you should take it as a sign your mind is a little too active and go meditate some more. 

I don’t take his advice lightly, and I’m holding it mindfully as I write these words. My intention with proceeding about my experience in my first full week of consistent meditation is not to preach nor to entice nor to persuade; it is simply to document my own experience.

So far I have been using the Headspace app. I’ve used the app before, albeit inconsistently. I like the idea of using a roadmap that someone with expertise has developed, so that’s what I’m doing. In the app, they have a course called Headspace 365, which is a meditation program with one lesson per day for an entire year, and it’s from the very earliest version of Headspace. This is where I’m starting my journey. I had dabbled with this before, so I’ve picked it up where I left off, with a series called Take 20, where I meditate for twenty minutes for twenty days in a row. 

Here are the things I observed and thought about during my first week of consistent meditation practice:

I’m noticing interesting things happen with my body as I sit on a cushion on the floor for twenty minutes. After a few minutes of settling in to the meditation, I will make tiny body adjustments to remain comfortable. I notice my spine making soft “cracks” as it realigns itself. I notice my sinuses audibly opening up.

I notice just how tight the muscles and tendons around my hips and pelvis are. In order to be able to meditate for longer stretches at a time, I’m going to have to spend extra time working on hip mobility and flexibility. 

Diaphragm diaphragm diaphragm… it’s what I focus on most when meditating. The uncomfortable sensation in my hips are always the main area I notice when I do the body scan my meditation teacher instructs toward the beginning of the sit. Focusing on diaphragmatic breathing allows me to maintain an erect but not rigid posture, by using my diaphragm to expand and contract the belly as I breathe. I kind of just discovered this on my own, but I wish someone had taught it to me sooner! 

I love how the teacher queues the end of the meditation. After concentrating the mind on the breath for about twenty minutes, the final prompt is to “let your mind be totally free.” In that moment, you let go of any concentration and let the mind do whatever it wants. If it wants to think, let it think. If it wants to be still, let it be still. It’s that moment when I feel like I really see what’s on my mind, in my subconscious. Sometimes there’s a flurry of activity. Other times, it’s actually more still than when I was focused on the breath. One day this week, in this final stage of the meditation, I had a flash of Yellowstone National Park, and then of going outside today, and then (randomly) of brushing my teeth with charcoal. And then I thought of my friends, spending more time with those I love and hold dear, to deepen and enrich those relationships before we move to Costa Rica in summer 2023. It’s interesting to observe my thoughts without judgment, let them come and go, and then look back at them later for further consideration. 

During most of the meditations I’ve done in the past two weeks, the same thought has surfaced at some point or another: “Next time I’m about to meditate, I’m going to grab my journal in addition to the cushion.” I have yet to remember to do so. One day this week, when I was feeling it was an especially potent meditation with important insights surfacing left and right, I again reminded myself to grab a journal next time, to be able to jot down insights either as they come up or immediately after the meditation is over. But, as meditation training goes, I then do my best to cast that thought, like all thoughts, aside. I tend to visualize dumping the thought into the river, as you might toss a stick or a leaf into a river and watch it float downstream, out of sight, out of mind. But as I cast aside the thought of grabbing a journal next time, another thought surfaced. 

I was reminded of a Paul McCartney interview I heard where he explained that many times when he and John Lennon were crafting a new song, they wouldn’t necessarily write it down or record it right away (say, if they were in a hotel room). The interviewer asked Paul something like, “Weren’t you afraid you’d forget the song, or some piece of it?” Sir Paul replied, “Not really. We knew that if the song was good enough, we’d remember it. How could we expect the song to be a hit and get stuck in a large audience’s ears if it wasn’t catchy enough to get stuck in our own heads?” And it occurred to me during meditation that I could apply the same principle to the thoughts that come during this contemplative state, this state where I’m concentrating on letting thoughts come and go with no attachment, no effort to remember them, just noticing that they are there, and as soon as I notice them, I return my attention to my breath. If I have an insight that feels so important that I have to stop meditation to write it down in a journal, then it’s probably an important enough insight that I will inevitably remember it after the meditation is over. The cost of breaking the meditative state is high, because it takes some time to sink into that present awareness, at least for a beginning meditator like me. So, perhaps I don’t really need the journal nearby, after all. 

Toward the end of the week, I had one, one , stretch of five consecutive inhales and exhales where I felt a true lightness, a deep sense of ease, where I was holding no tension in either my body or my mind. This was new, and it felt utterly peaceful and brilliant. These few seconds were a window into the bliss a continued meditation practice might lead to.

The most epic meditation moment of the week, though, came not during my steady early morning practice, but in the bonus session I snuck in Sunday afternoon. We were just finishing “family bathtime” in our bath (with a rotation of adults and kids until everyone’s had a turn), and one of my kids was still lingering in the bath, playing calmly. My wife and other kid were already downstairs, and as I got changed, I noticed a potential opportunity for some quiet me time, so I sat down on my bedroom floor, within eyesight of my kid in our bath, but facing the window, away from my kid. Had I not seized this moment and done exactly as I had done,  I would have missed the chance to hear her sing. There’s a song in Mary Poppins called “Feed The Birds,” and as my kid was gently playing with a plastic duck in the bath, she gently cooed this lyric over and over, “…Though her words are simple and few, listen, listen, she’s calling to you.” As I sat ten feet away, eyes closed and facing a quarter-turn away from her, it was as if my daughter was speaking in the third person, talking to me subconsciously through her song. Her words were simple and few, and she was calling to me. It was as if she was saying, “I am able to hold this state of calm because you are showing me what calm looks like, and I am living out my true nature right now, which is to sing this beautiful song.” In this moment, I could feel joy radiating throughout my entire body. It was deliciously soothing, to have this reciprocal and positively reinforcing state of calm between my child and I. 

When she was done singing, she continued to play, and another cool thing happened. I was able to hear her playing aloud to herself (pretending to be the voice of the duck and of herself) without actually processing the words, without having any attachment to or effort of following the plot or story, just noticing the sonic quality of her voice, noticing that the sound brought me pleasure and happiness. It was like when you’re in a play room with a kid, and they are busy playing with their toys and you are busy reading a book; you can hear them playing, but you’re busy with your own thoughts or activity so you don’t actually know what they’re saying. It was like that, except I didn’t have any distractions. No book, no phone… I was just sitting there, but mindfully tuned in enough to just let her talking wash past me as calming but meaningless noise. It almost felt like I was able to be like a baby, a baby that hears the soothingness of its mother’s voice, even though it hasn’t the faintest clue what she’s saying. I could hear the lighthearted, earnestly loving tone my daughter was imparting onto her aquatic Dora the Explorer mermaid toy, and I was able to stay focused on my breath enough to NOT be processing the actual language, but to be moved by her sincerity and affection she was emitting. It’s incredible what sitting and actively doing nothing can do! 

NATURALLY BETTER

It’s time to put this idea out into the world. I came up with an idea for a project I’d like to pursue this week. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve written in my journal about it, the more I’ve read things adjacent to this idea… the more it makes we want to pursue the idea. 

The name of the concept is – Naturally Better. I even created a splash page for this idea that I will build out over time, which can be viewed here – KevinCarlow.com/Naturally-Better.

What is it? Is it a podcast? An essay? A book? I don’t know exactly. I know I want to document the journey of creating it. The idea goes something like this. 

Naturally Better is for people who want to get better and improve their lives, naturally. In the post-industrial, technological age that we’re in, humans have come to rely on and live with machines more and more. We sit in chairs, stare at screens, crank up thermostats, and eat food wrapped in plastic. Is this natural? This is not the way our ancestors lived for millions of years. Our ancestors lived in ways that were in balance with nature and the earth.

Naturally Better will examine what it means to get better. How can we improve, have ambition, improve as a person, as communities, as nations, as a species, and as a planet? What is needed most to get better? Most would argue that the conditions of life now are vastly improved from how they were 200 years ago, at least by many metrics: infant mortality, average life expectancy, management of diseases, % of people in poverty… This looks like progress. But we are also now seeing that our current systems are not sustainable. Our systems rely on non-renewable resources – fossil fuels. This is a finite resource that has an end. Plus, we are in overshoot – we overproduce and overconsume. So… how do we get better, in a natural way? 

At the same time of wanting to get better and make progress in the right ways, we also want to explore what it means to accept how things are right now. That you are enough, what you have is enough, and that getting “better” might actually mean learning to appreciate and accept what is, to live with a sense of satisfiability, and just in that understanding and accepting, we can become better.

We’ll explore what it means to be better. A better version of one’s self. Does that mean adding new skills to your arsenal, learning new things to be a more whole and rounded person? Or does it mean chipping away at our outer shells, the layers of assumptions we’ve acquired through the years of growing up and being in society, so that we can chip away at the true best self that’s already inside each one of us? Does better mean change, or does better mean learning to accept what is?

We’ll explore natural ways to live better, to feel better, to improve wellness and happiness. Body movement and exercise, natural foods, sleep, ways to live more sustainably, ways to be more in tune with our natural bodily systems, to affect them and be in more control.

We’ll talk to people who are experts in ways of living more naturally: plant experts, homesteaders, food scientists, sleep experts, meditation, somatics, rewilding, yoga, movement…

We’ll discuss why we hesitate to be outside more. For children, the outdoors is a place of endless wonder. Why and when does that stop?

I live in the digital age. I didn’t choose that; I was born into it. So what can I do with the unchangeable conditions I was born into and still live as naturally as my conditioning will allow? What new conditions can I create to improve my connection with nature? 

Naturally Better is for the everyday person. Rare are the people that become masters, world-renowned experts in their fields. There are a lot of aspects to our lives – the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the things we buy, our relationships, our careers, our sleep, hobbies – how can we become experts at all of that? This podcast aims to explore the most important topics to a naturally better life and uncover simple, but not easy, steps anyone can take to nudge their existence in a more natural direction. 

My ultimate goal with Naturally Better is to heal myself and learn more about becoming more natural, and share these lessons so they can spread to others to help heal the world, and in that way I can do the thing that I feel uniquely situated to do. 

Of course, all of this might change over the coming weeks, but now that I’ve put it out there for the internet, there’s only one way to go – forward! 

On Sabbatical – Week 24: Improving Communication With My Partner and With Myself

HALLOWEEN & REMEMBERING THE DEAD

Monday of this week was Halloween. Due to my bushy, unkempt sabbatical beard, I slapped together a last-minute costume and attended our neighborhood Halloween driveway get together as the cross-country-running version of Forrest Gump. I still hadn’t done anything with the beard in the days after Halloween, which you can see proof of in this week’s featured image. 

Ever since enrolling our children in Spanish immersion childcare, pre-school, and public school, and being more exposed to aspects of Latin culture, we have grown an admiration of the traditions around Día de Muertos. We have made it a tradition to create our own ofrenda (home altar) in the entryway of our house around this time of year, to remember loved ones who are not with us any more, particularly Kristyn’s dad. She wrote a great piece about this on KristynWithAWhy.com, which I encourage you to check out. 

The Carlow Moravetz Ofrenda, 2022

(I realize I’m a white American man that’s now talking about a tradition that is not exactly of my own lineage, and of the trickiness that brings, but at the end of the day, I know how I feel, I know my intentions, and I know that the way we acknowledge the spirit of it in our house feels right to us and is done in an honorable way, so for me, that’s what counts.)

It was also quite adorable this year to observe how my children, while Trick-or-Treating around the neighborhood, cared much more about petting the animals of the homes we visited than about snatching up their candy. They would’ve stayed and pet the 9-week-old kitten all night if we’d let them. 

STRIKING A BALANCE WITH MY PARTNER

On Tuesday I had a lengthy conversation with my partner about food. In many aspects of our relationship, we find a balance that works for us. With any given task, though, a “balance that works” does not always mean we split the task 50/50. We each have our own strengths and our own chores that annoy us less than other chores. She doesn’t hate folding clothes, I don’t hate cleaning out the fridge. Over the last ten years or so, we’ve been tweaking and refining how we tackle all of the responsibilities of home ownership, adulthood, and life so that, on the whole, things feel balanced to both of us. 

Food is one of those unavoidable aspects of life. We need it to survive. But when it comes to food, there’s more to it than just cooking the food. Someone has to plan what food is going to be acquired. Someone has to get the food. Someone has to organize how the food is stored. Someone has to prepare and cook the food. Someone has to clean the dishes used to prepare and to eat the food. And, if you care about food waste (we do), someone has to monitor the aging of all the ingredients and factor in how and when the leftovers will be eaten and/or incorporated into future meal plans. It’s a job with a bunch of sub-jobs underneath it. 

On the whole, I get less stressed about food than Kristyn does. I like cooking, and I like being intentional with the ingredients used to nourish the bodies of myself and my family. I don’t want to speak too much on Kristyn’s behalf, but the short version is – years ago one of my roommates had said that he wished he could just take a pill and it would satisfy his hunger and his nutritional needs so that he didn’t need to think about food at all, and upon hearing this, my reaction was, “Oh that sounds so bland and boring, and think about all the flavors and connection to your fuel you’d miss out on,” while Kristyn’s reaction was, “YES absolutely me too.” So, the balance that works for us is that I am the primary food person in our house. 

Before I go on and get myself into a heap of trouble, I want to be clear – she does make food and does get groceries and does do many dishes. It’s just that we’ve come to an understanding that I am the primary food person. And, like with any big job that has one person shouldering a larger share of the job, it can get to be a lot. There are times where I feel “kitchened out.” In those times, a break from the kitchen would feel great. The problem is, I feel resistance to ask for help. I’m terrible at asking for help in general. When I worry that the favor I need or the assistance that would really make my day is in direct contrast to my partner’s wiring and preferences? Forget it! I know that meal planning and prep can be more stressful for her, so I tell myself this story that I’m putting an “extra burden” on her by asking her to take over making dinner for a night. 

What I learned through the course of this conversation, though, is that by not asking for help and trudging through another slog in the kitchen, I’m not actually helping the situation. I’m not resourcing myself. I’m operating from an imbalanced place. This has downstream effects, and those effects aren’t positive. 

What is especially great about not only this specific conversation but also the general state of our relationship is that we are having these conversations, we aren’t leaving things unsaid, and we are having them in a calm, constructive way which leaves both people feeling better than when we start. I’m really grateful to have Kristyn in my life to teach me and to practice with me communication and attunement to others. 

IMPROMPTU SONG-MAKING WITH MY CHILD

From 2:30pm-5pm Monday-Friday, we have our eldest child at home with us (before the younger gets picked up from Spanish pre-school). We try to mix up how this time is spent, with some togetherness as well as some independent work and play. 

On Wednesday of this week, she and I headed down to our ramshackle “music studio” in the basement to mess around with the funny sounds we can make on the microphone. She immediately requested the “robot voice” (a sound setting in Garageband). As soon as she started talking in that voice, we got the idea to make a song about a robot. Over the next fifteen minutes we created a super simple track with two verses and a bridge. We didn’t write the verses, though; she improvised them on the spot as a basic musical accompaniment played in the background! It was such a cool experience to watch as my kid’s brain came up with clever things a robot would say and sing them on key and to a beat. 

“I Am A Robot” is not quite ready for release yet, but when it does make its way to the web… you’ll know. 

WHAT IS MY DREAM? ANSWER: THAT’S TOO BIG OF A QUESTION TO ANSWER

On Thursday, I once again fed myself a prompt in my journal. The day’s prompt: What is my dream? When I give myself journal prompts like this, I try to write with a brainstorm mentality, to free the mind and the pen to write without filter or direction. Anything goes. Any thought counts. If the though enters my brain, write it down, no matter how ridiculous or (seemingly) off-topic it might be. This particular day, even with the brainstorm mindset, I was stuck. Like, majorly stuck. I couldn’t quite picture anything concrete. Then I started judging myself for not having a solid dream. “How ridiculous is that?! I don’t know what I want? What I yearn for? Even kids know what they dream of. Why are you having such a hard time with this? You don’t even have a job right now. This is all you’ve been thinking about for months and you can’t even write down one stinking dream?”

It was time for a hike (see featured image). Not only did I have exhilarating encounters with two different sets of deer partners (buck and doe) mere feet off my trail, but I unlocked an insight while thinking on the prompt “What is my dream?” and talking out loud into my Voice Memo app as I walked. This insight came after 20-30 minutes of fruitless pondering. My mind was easily distracted. It was looking for any excuse, any thought to pull me away from the discomfort of sitting answerless to this question. Every time I noticed my mind following another train of thought, I re-centered on the prompt “What is my dream?”. 

Eventually, when I finally was able to just linger in that question, really embody it, I realized that, for me, in this moment, the question was too big. It needed a time constraint. What if I broke the question into small time increments? What if I changed the prompt to “What is my dream for today?” and then expanded from there? This approach was game-changing. 

In breaking this big question down into tiny chunks, I was able to figure out the following (these are the notes as I wrote them on that day):

  • My dream for today is to simply be doing what I was already doing – hiking outside. Eating delicious food for supper with my family. Spending quality time with my family where we are making each other laugh and enjoying each other’s company. Have an easeful time putting my kids to bed where I am in lock step with their desires of what they need to have an easeful bedtime. And then connect with my partner, have some mutually incredible sex, and close the day with an effortless meditation. That is what would make today a “dream day,” and I’m already on the path of living it. 
  • So, then, how is my dream for any other longer stretch of time any different than stringing a bunch of those exact days together in a row? Wouldn’t I just repeat this day again tomorrow? And the next? In a way, yes! But also, life has certain requirements; not all minutes of all days can be play, unless you happen to have access to unlimited resources. Ok, so let’s zoom out a little.
  • I then inquired “What is my dream for the month of November?” … My mind immediately gravitated toward Thanksgiving, a holiday landmark in the month of November. I dreamt of preparing delicious, crowd-pleasing dishes and of delighting in the joy they bring to my family. And I then felt compelled to think of a prayer to offer before the meal. I went on a twenty-minute tangent writing out a Thanksgiving prayer that flowed effortlessly out of me. 
  • And finally when I returned again to my question about my dream for November, and I finally stopped the many distracting thoughts my mind was taking me in, in the split second that I finally cleared my mind and just left space for that question, the feeling rushed in that I want to be making more progress toward our move to Costa Rica next summer. It is starting to feel like time to be tackling that project more enthusiastically and prioritizing it at the tippy top of the list. This is broken into three parts: learning Spanish, completing the project of building out our property, and getting rid of our unneeded possessions. 
  • I quit the exercise here. This seemed like far enough for now. Let’s make November my dream November. And that starts right now. 

If I can live out my dream day, and my dream week, and my dream month, all I have to do is start stringing those together and I will be living my dream life. 


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



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