What have I done.

It started when the long-time speculation of a train in our back yard turned into actual bulldozers, the cracking sound of chain-sawed trees hitting the earth and our squirrel and bird sanctuary replaced with people in neon vests and hard hats who could not meet our gaze. Our house seemed so beautiful and grown-up when we bought it. The first year felt like living in someone's parents' house. We expected to be here when the kids were off to college. It was our dream house until the roots were literally pulled up from under us. 

Around the same time, my husband's small, vibrant firm that happily anchored us to this area for years, merged with a large, public corporation. Morphing into a corporate, public entity ratcheted up the sleepless nights, increased hours, churn and stress. This sea change prompted some previously unexplored soul-searching for my husband about what's next. Another root loosened. 

In the past year, I wound down my business strategy practice to focus on mindfulness-based coaching and teaching. My consulting clients, once heavily DC-based, became coaching clients from all over and I can now work from anywhere. Another root pulled up.

Amidst these changes, our family experienced some difficult, emotionally draining situations at our children's elementary school, which left us questioning if this school system is a long-term fit for our family. On many fronts, the ground had shifted beneath us and planted us at a true fork in the road.

Here, we chose the road less (or more) traveled.

So, in three weeks, the movers come to pack up our house. It’s also my husband’s last day of work when he will say goodbye to a place he has loved for almost 14 years. One week later, we are pulling the kids out of school and then traveling the world for a few months. We have an idea of what we're doing in the next few weeks but then it gets real fuzzy. We are heading to Switzerland, New Zealand and Vietnam but have some work to figure out the rest of the trip that will include Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand and possibly Malaysia and Laos. (The critical action items leading up to stepping on the first plane have blitzed us so we are left with an official plan of figuring out the rest of The Plan on the plane.)

Before we travel, we still have a blank portion on our moving agreement where we tell the movers WHERE to move our things. We are targeting the Denver area but don't have specifics because storage places will not rent more than 7 days in advance. The movers email every few days asking if we know where we’re moving yet.

After traveling, we intend to return to DC, pack up the cars and drive across the country to live in Denver. We do not have a home there, schools or jobs. Hopefully, we will at least find the storage place where the movers put our things. 

We're working with a couple of hypotheses here. One is that we simply want to live closer to nature. We want it to be a more seamless and integrated part of our day-to-day life and to live in an area that feels largely the same way. Our family tends to do well together when we're outside. So, we're going to test out mountain-living (or at least a city near the mountains!) 

The other hypothesis is that we want to bring more experience into our family's life instead of things. We live in a very affluent area so the relative frame of reference can be distorting. Seeing the world with our children at ages 10 and 7 is perhaps the most amazing gift we could ever offer them (and ourselves).  They will be old enough to remember the experiences and hopefully store them away as they move into developmental years where the emotional and social cross-currents will be strong. I hope seeing other ways of being in this world gives them a grounding within themselves that surpasses what we could teach them in our parenting or schools. 

This plan all made sense on paper. In practice, however, we are crushed under the administrative lift and interlocking project plans of what we set in motion. We are selling our house which preparations for have been shockingly time- and cost-intensive. We are also selling and buying a car, figuring out how to homeschool our kids, planning 3+ months of international travel, and triage-packing for our trip into categories of stuff we need for travel, temporary living in Denver on the back-end and long-term storage. We are also researching the heck out of Denver and Boulder, taking recon trips to Colorado to go on school tours, housing searches and explore neighborhoods.  We’ve talked to dozens of professional acquaintances, friends of friends and complete strangers who live in Denver to learn more about neighborhoods and to begin the daunting task of looking for jobs and clients in a new city.

There are many, random, ancillary things, not on the project plans, that knock us over in the wake of these moves. For instance, we abruptly rearranged our work schedules for a week when our son was sick with a bad reaction to the typhoid vaccine (one of many vaccines we have for travel). Ironically, saying what should be taken for granted, e.g. “My son doesn’t have typhoid” raises alarm bells with the school that there’s a definite chance the child does have typhoid. There are also the powerful emotional undercurrents of stepping away from good friends, family, our communities, our pool. My husband grew up here so there are many layers to his good bye.

In the middle of the night, the stampedes of thoughts switch course from project planning to panic management. I wonder if we're being reckless, irresponsible, derailing our children's education, forsaking friendships that we've built for years. What if Denver is an utter bust? What if we drain our life savings in this experiment? Will we say, "AH! But look at how rich we are with experience!” or, "My god. What have we done?"

By the way, Denver is simply on paper. In reality, nothing is meaningfully tethering us there other than we've thought about it a lot. If sheep farming in New Zealand suits us, with very low switching costs, we could simply stay there. We are as unscripted and untethered as we've ever been. I imagine myself to be free-spirited and would feel ultimately liberated in this space. In actuality, I want to splay myself belly-down on this ground, clutching at the earth to hold on. My husband, who, historically loves (capital-P) plans, stability and predictability can't leave soon enough. His bags are mentally packed and he's at the door wagging his tail, ready to set sail. It's an interesting space to reflect (and not for the faint of heart) when our very sense of identity gets reality-checked. 

Ripping up roots, drastically downsizing and taking a micro step back from life can cause tufts of hair to fall out like a stressed cat. It is an understatement to say this exercise is an impressive stress-test to a marriage, family and the individual. It can also open up some breathing room and space we didn't know we were missing. The very fullness of life we invite in can also crowd us out. We have obligations and expectations of who we need to be from work, family, friends, society and for ourselves. Our To-Do checklists are endless, like amazon searches that return 50,000 results.

In our lives and for many of our friends, there is not a whole lot of space to simply allow. To allow things to surface, new stories to take shape, to test our assumptions and discover new ways of being. Who would we be if there was nothing to do? ..to fix? ...to improve or achieve? Could we just be with ourselves? Why do questions like this stir up a vague sense of panic? Better get back to that checklist!

Admittedly, I have long been a striving, shameless A+, extra-credit seeking, over achieving dork. This template is true for many of us. We set a goal and work backwards to follow the right stepping stones to get there - college, grad school, promotion, title, certifications, etc. You certainly don’t get approving nods for not having a goal - for not knowing the "next thing." There’s even a sense that stepping away from the should-path could spook the herd. At a minimum, people send sideways disapproving or concerned glances our way if we admit to (really) not knowing what we’re doing. I know this firsthand as we’ve receive a lot of feedback on our "Plan" ranging from well wishes to confusion to concerned interventions.

Our current Plan is a mutation from our typical path – swapping for a short time the To-Do list for a To-Be list. There is no goal from which to work backwards – no result or any external measure that will tell me I earned the gold star. We have pulled up some of our deepest roots and opened ourselves up to the world without an expectation of what will meet us on the other side. There is a lot of uncertainty there and uncertainty is not a place many of us enjoy for very long.

Part of that uncertainty is not knowing what it will be like for our family to have so much time together. Maybe we will grow closer or maybe there will be an actual mutiny with one or more of us swimming away from the ship.  I hold my alone time sacred and private. I've only recently realized I'm a deep introvert. I'm happy going into the world and playing my part. Once everyone is sorted and busily paying attention to other things, I quietly back away and retreat unnoticed to my unaccompanied space. Discovering your introversion is not a welcome insight when you're embarking to travel Pac-Asia in an RV with three other people. Even though I’ll be with three people I love the most, the fear of not having my own place to retreat has sent me to a therapist. 

I am trying (with great difficulty) to stay present with this part of our life and not lean into the future that is consuming us in its planning. Rather than "getting through" it, I am trying to notice what this experience, in and of itself, is like. What does it feel like to manage the overwhelming administrative burden we have set in motion? What can I notice about the emotional tides that swell? Where do I feel the tightening of fear and the exhilaration of the unknown? Can I hold myself with kindness as I experience the grief of letting go and acceptance of the profound truth that everything changes?

In answer to these questions, I hold the intention to commune with each moment and honor the present as part of the richness of experience to invite in. I am not always successful but, as said in mindfulness trainings... This, too. 

I’m also trying to use the word “unfolding” instead of “change”. Consider these sentences:

Everything is changing.

Everything is unfolding.

In the first statement, I lean forward, adrenaline-fueled on my runner’s mark.

In the second one, I feel quieter, more ease and a sitting back. There is a mystery to this universe that I cannot know but can accept. Change is a seismic shift that could send us into oblivion. Unfolding has more allowance, even faith in the boundless and emergent possibilities of life.

So. What have I done? I honestly can’t say yet. We will see as things unfold.

 

 

Ashley Gibbs Davis