Tag Archives: Declutter

Transitions – Part II

It was a different kind of travel these past months.

In January, I reported that I was transitioning to “advancement” a.k.a. retirement.

The transition has gone according to plan, … mostly.

Cheryl’s resolve to go on working was thwarted by a meltdown at her employer. In March she resigned, and is now looking for a year-long contract. Despite the unexpected tightening of finances, I’ve been fairly good at not abandoning my Declaration of Self-Actualization in favour of going back to work. I wish Cheryl could join me in this new endeavour, but for now, she’s committed to being a working woman.

i-Minds by Dr. Mari Swingle

i-Minds by Dr. Mari Swingle

You may recall that my transition was to have three distinct phases: Endings, the “Neutral Zone”, and the New Beginning.

My journey through the “Neutral Zone” was interesting. Limiting Internet usage to four evenings a week proved highly challenging – life is so Internet-centric these days! But I mostly succeeded, and it gave me a new sense of freedom, not to mention more time. Among the many books I read was “i-Minds: How Cell Phones, Computers, Gaming, and Social Media Are Changing Our Brains, Our Behaviour, and the Evolution of Our Species.” It definitely added to my rationale for taming the iBeast.

For the last five days of my Neutral-Zone period, I engaged in a “mostly silent” retreat at the seaside Krishnamurti Centre of Canada in rural Metchosin, BC. I knew nothing about Jiddu Krishnamurti before I went, and chose the location primarily as it offered a nearby opportunity to spend some time in contemplation. I spent most of the time strolling in the gardens or on the beach, or contemplating views like this one. However, I did read one of Krishnamurti’s shorter books, and found his stuff intriguing. Somehow I’d missed him in the 60s.

View from the Krishnamurti Centre of Canada in Metchosin, BC

View from the Krishnamurti Centre of Canada in Metchosin, BC

I returned from my retreat energized and at peace; work was a distant memory so the “Endings” were done. I was ready to leap into the New Beginning. An opportunity for a jump start presented itself in the form a weekend “New Warrior Training Adventure”, run by the ManKind Project as a “modern male initiation.” And that it was! I returned from the weekend part of a new community and ready to take on the next stage of my “advancement.”

I’m happy to say that I’ve started my 3rd Act Career – although there may be no money in it, … or not for a long while. I’ve started a practice of working every day on writing a novel, something I’ve wanted to do for years. On an author friend’s recommendation, I began with the system outlined in “Writing a Book in 30 Days: A 60-Minute Masterclass.” At my current rate of progress, I’m estimating 30 months will be barely sufficient. But I’m having a lot of fun. My nascent plot spans three continents, so Cheryl and I are both looking forward to the location research projects.

Camp Pringle - one of the locations of the ManKind Project's New Warrior Training Adventure

Camp Pringle – one of the locations of the ManKind Project’s New Warrior Training Adventure

Since my writing muscles are now engaged daily, I’ll likely limit future posts this year to travel reports. While we decided to postpone any overseas travel until next year, we have a pretty full schedule of outdoor activities closer to home. This month, we’ll be hiking in Utah, and cycling some of Washington State’s coastal islands. Stay tuned!

Cycling will be a big part of this year’s activities. For my “kedge”, I’ve signed on to do the two-day 175-mile loop of the local Ride to Conquer Cancer. Since Day One will exceed my longest-ever ride by about 80%, I’ve to a lot of training to do. I’m out at least three days a week, and expect that to rise as the August ride date approaches. I’ve invested in a faster bike so I can ride with a local club later this season.

Cycling in the Valley

Cycling in the Valley with the Outdoor Association

While my novel file is growing and my average cycling speed is creeping upwards, a few of my other projects stalled. When the decluttering was about 30% done, we realized we weren’t likely to downsize this year, and put the project on hold pending the autumn rains. On the training side, I managed to pass only one of my two assessments, leaving the other to be rescheduled during those same autumn rains.

For now, the weather is great for some beautiful spring rides.

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“Freedom from the Known” by Jiddu Krishnamurti

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Transitions

2015 has so far been a most unusual year.

Last Fall, I made a declaration that I would be “retiring” from my employer at year end.

I use “retire” in quotes because I’ve never much liked the word. Heather at Shedders suggested “advancement”, and I much prefer that – but it always requires so much explanation!

Today I’m thinking of it as a Declaration of Self-Actualization: a declaration that I’m no longer going to organize my life around earning money – safety, on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – but instead around expressing creativity, a quest for spiritual enlightenment, the pursuit of knowledge, and the desire to contribute.

Maslow's Hierarchy

Maslow’s Hierarchy, by FireflySixtySeven [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I made this declaration with pained awareness that Cheryl and I had not yet reached our targeted level of financial independence. Being younger than I, and still at the peak of her career, she volunteered to go on working for the time-being. What a woman! That may add to the complexity of my new situation, however.

As I was contemplating how to make the transition from job to no-job, a friend recommended I read “Transitions” by William Bridges. As I had yet to complete the decluttering project begun last Spring, there just happened to be a copy unread on my bookshelves. It spoke to me.

Bridges writes about the need for a three-phase process: Endings, the “Neutral Zone”, and the New Beginning. But it was the Neutral Zone he stressed: a seemingly unproductive “time out”, the most frightening stage of a transition, yet a really important time for reorientation.

“Transitions” by William Bridges

I could sense the value of quiet reflection even as I knew I’d struggle with it at times. Realizing there’d be a pull to fill the time with time-wasters, I made a few rules for my next few months: limit Internet usage – email, social media, and news sites – to four evenings a week; similarly for videos (we’ve never had TV.) At the same time, I pledged to continue my Younger-Next-Year exercise program – at least 45 minutes at least six days a week – as well as Yin yoga weekly. I signed up for a five-evening course in mindful meditation with my son and his girlfriend. I even enrolled in a five-day silent retreat at the end of March.

I also resumed and ramped up our decluttering project, seeing it as a perfect physical metaphor for clearing the mind in the Neutral Zone. And I found it much more challenging that way than I’d expected. Every little trinket seems attached by sticky threads: this one was given by a dear departed relative; this one reminds me of that time in Rio or Venice or Perth; this book reminds me of my thought of returning to the study of architecture some day; that one was meant to be read by my kids when they got older. Eventually, I developed an ability to look at the stuff, thank it for its service, and let it go – mostly to charity stores and the like. In meditation, we learn that, when we have attachment to a thought, we just need to notice it and let it go. Decluttering must be a form of meditation: notice an attachment to something, let it go, notice an attachment, let it go, …

Perhaps unsurprisingly, decluttering seems much easier now than it ever has. Last month I sent off 30 boxes of books to a book sale – some of them had survived over a score of moves from Los Angeles to Sydney, Australia and many points in between. I guess my growing detachment from physical things is a sign of approaching elderhood. In “What Are Old People For?”, Dr. Bill Thomas

“What Are Old People For?” by Dr. Bill Thomas

talks about how, after an adulthood centered on Doing and Having, elders return to the earlier childhood emphasis on Being. Sounds like fun to me.

Last week, there was a crisis. I started the week by awaking one morning and, for the first time, strongly feeling that my time was my own. But by the end of the week, I was updating my resume. Whoa! What happened here?

I’d made a promise to Cheryl that I wasn’t going to worry about my lack of salary for the next few months, at least, and here I was breaking it already. We had a serious tête-à-tête, and she re-enrolled me in the wisdom of my original intention. I trashed the proto-resume. There will likely be another one before too long – but it will be for volunteer positions, and much more fun to write.

Now I could really embark on building my retirement, whoops, self-actualization lifestyle. I dusted off my bucket list. I signed up for the mid-week hiking group and an online course on gratitude. I ramped up my efforts to complete my diplomas in Leadership and Conflict Resolution – I’d been working on the latter for over five years, but the goal is now close at hand. I had some of the completion conversations I needed to have about coming to grips with my last job. And I continued to plan some of our trips for this year. With the complexity of our current situation, we decided to defer European travel for a year and concentrate on local trips with our outdoor club this summer: kayaking in the Salish Sea, cycling Oregon’s Columbia Gorge, hiking on Mount Baker, and cycling from Oroville, Washington into British Columbia’s wine valley.

“The One Thing” by Gary Keller

And, ever so tentatively at first, I began to think about that New Beginning. What’s next? (I should have known I couldn’t do nothing for too long.)

To save me from overwhelm, another friend recommended I read “The One Thing” by Gary Keller. “By focusing on your ONE Thing, you can accomplish more by doing less. What’s your ONE Thing?” I’ve found it a good question to live into. It may save me from new mental clutter as I take on those aspects of self-actualization: creativity, enlightenment, learning, and contribution.

What transition are you making?

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What Happens While You’re Busy Making Other Plans

A Time Thief is operating in our neighbourhood.

How else to explain that my mid-May promise to supply part two of my decluttering post has been outstanding for over three months?

Fittingly, a large part of the delay came from the very non-physical clutter I had planned to write about. My embarrassment at this irony led to further stalling. Could the death of this blog be far behind?

It took a nudge from this young blogger to get me back at the keyboard. (Thanks, Jen!)

While our decluttering project has inched desultorily forward this summer, we’ve been living the “No Pension, Will Travel” lifestyle on other fronts.

Half-way turn on the cycle leg

Half-way turn on the cycle leg on Cheryl’s new road bike.

We’ve continued with our kedges this summer. On the heels of Cheryl’s first half-marathon in the Spring, I joined her for a “sprint triathlon” in May – her third, my first. I enjoyed it more than I expected, and we both bested our targets. Unlike Cheryl, I’d done relatively little triathlon-specific training this year, but my overall commitment to exercising six days a week really paid off.

Synchronized Diving Event at World Masters.  The geodesic dome in the background is from Montreal's Expo '67.

Synchronized Diving Event at World Masters. Geodesic dome in the background is from Montreal’s Expo ’67.

Later in the summer, Cheryl swam her first three-kilometre open-water swim at the FINA World Masters Games in Montreal, Canada. She was thrilled to do this race for the first time ever, and even more thrilled to beat her target time, coming in 22nd in her age-group in an international competition. Along with about 15,000 other swimmers and supporters, we took the opportunity to sight-see in the second-largest French-speaking city in the world – after Paris. Through AirBnB, four of us arranged to stay in a stylish apartment belonging to a McGill University professor. Luxury digs in a great part of town for about a quarter the price of hotel accommodation.

Outdoor Chess near the Place des Festivals

“Montreal Chic”: Outdoor Chess near the Place des Festivals

Between swimming events, we explored the various parts of the Old Town, shopping districts, parks, squares and museums that Montreal is famous for. With unlimited passes for bus and Metro, it was easy to get around – and we were only a half-hour walk from the City Centre. Montreal in the summer has a vibrant outdoor cultural scene, and we found people friendly wherever we went. Everyone was willing to go along with our attempts at French, or switch to English when we got in over our heads.

Something that that stood out for us was the large number of cyclists in Montreal, both on and off the many dedicated bike lanes. Unlike our home town, helmets were in the minority. Those with helmets were more likely to be cycling up Mount Royal at 6am. Those without – often on shopping trips – were more “Montreal chic” – often on bicycles rented by the hour from the Bixi cycle network. We didn’t try it, but, in the summer, you can borrow a bike for free at some Metro stations. All this got us thinking more about a cycle trip through Quebec some summer. Cycle routes abound, and some say it’s like cycling Europe right here in North America.

"Montreal chic" - a member of Montreal's finest sports pink camouflage pants, a creative protest against changes to their pension plan.

“Montreal chic” – one of Montreal’s Finest sports pink camouflage, a protest against changes to their pension plan.

Our next big kedge comes next month, when we will tackle several of Croatia’s Dalmatian Islands by bicycle. We’ve been told to expect after-breakfast climbs to hilltops as high as 1600 feet above sea level, so we’ve taken every opportunity this summer to work on those leg muscles. With friends, or members of our outdoor club, we’ve tackled a number of areas with challenging hills of their own.

San Juan Island Sculpture Park: over 20 acres of outdoor art.

San Juan Island Sculpture Park: over 20 acres of outdoor art.

We started in June with a great couple of days in Washington’s San Juan Islands. No shortage of hills, but most were manageable. After we were forced to walk a steep hill in Orcas Island’s Enchanted Forest, we decided that Mount Constitution – all 2400 feet of it – would have to wait. We continued throughout the summer with several more island cycling excursions with our club, moving northwards into British Columbia’s Gulf Islands. One of those trips included some kayaking as well.

The beach at Sandwell Park on Gabriola Island, British Columbia.

The beach at Sandwell Park on Gabriola Island, British Columbia.

BC’s Northern Gulf Islands boast one advantage over their more southern cousins. In the summer, the water is often warm enough for swimming, especially after you’ve just cycled over the top of the island.. One thing about island cycling – every side trip down to a beautiful ocean bay necessitates a climb back up a hill. Putting in 1600 feet of vertical in an otherwise lazy day is not that hard to do. We’re feeling pretty confident about the hills of Korčula, Mljet, and Lastovo. I hope we’re not fooling ourselves!

Our annual coastal reunion with the Shedders often includes a forest walk along this peaceful lake.

Our annual coastal reunion with the Shedders often includes a forest walk along this peaceful lake.

We also got in some good visits with friends and family: a trip to the near-desert to visit the new home of friends who will retire this year; a visit from Cheryl’s brother and family on their way home from an Alaskan cruise; and our annual waterfront reunion with our friends from the Shedders. This year, we also got a chance to meet the third Shedder couple, if only for a couple of hours. Can an Australian reunion be far behind?

The gang from Shadowlawn, bracketed by two of the Shedders.  (Photo courtesy of Heather of the Shedders.)

The gang from Shadowlawn, bracketed by two of the Shedders. (Photo courtesy of Heather of the Shedders.)

We also took advantage of some serendipity to bring together three groups for a wonderful evening last month. Our investigation of shared-housing options had led me to discover “Shadowlawn” – the joint Pittsburgh residence of Jean, Karen, & Louise (JKL) featured in “My House, Our House.” I emailed them, and let them know about the Shedders – and vice versa. They must have recognized kindred spirits: before long they were commenting regularly on each others’ blogs. When JKL ended up vacationing in our part of the world at the same time as our friends from the Shedders, they arranged to meet up, and the five of them agreed to present to our “Free at 55” Meetup group at a special “Cohouseholding Corroboree.” It turned out to be one of our best events of the year. You can read Heather’s account of the day on her blog, as well as JKL’s account on theirs.

Equivocation, a play by Bill Cain

Equivocation, a play by Bill Cain (photo: The Bard Brawl)

We finished up that weekend attending a great performance of “Equivocation” by Bill Cain – one of the most engaging plays I’ve ever enjoyed. Heralded as “a play about telling the truth in difficult times,” it is most relevant to the times we find ourselves in this year.

With our weekends so long and full this summer, it was all we could do to pack our regular work schedules into three and four-day weeks in between. Not to mention a challenging one-week course on “interest-based” negotiation, giving our sons some assistance with consolidating their new careers and (for one of them) a new home, and regular chores around our house.

While in Montreal, we ran into this memory of John & Oko's "Bed-in" from the 60s.

While in Montreal, we ran into this memory of John & Oko’s “Bed-in” from the 60s. Still relevant today.

“Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.” – Allen Saunders (via John Lennon)

Reflecting on this summer of friends, family and fun has led me to see something more clearly.

I had viewed our decluttering project as the next step on our full transition to “No Pension, Will Travel.” When it stalled, I began to feel as if nothing was moving forward. My perspective fell into a “holding pattern”, waiting until I had the time to start addressing the “big concerns.” I lost my motivation to keep this blog up to date.

You never know what you might find along the way: road sign on Denman Island, BC

You never know what you might find along the way: road sign on Denman Island, BC

In the meantime, life happened. A life to be grateful for. I need to remember that. By all means, make big plans, always have something new to look forward to. But don’t forget to enjoy the meandering path that life follows all the while. For the river of time keeps flowing.

What are Old People For, by Dr. William "Bill" H. Thomas

What are Old People For, by Bill Thomas

Over the summer, I read a couple of books by Dr. William “Bill” H. Thomas that gave me a new perspective on this ageing journey we’re all on. I first read his recently published “Second Wind”. Finding it both challenging and enlightening, I tracked down a copy of his now out-of-print “What are Old People For”. I enjoyed that one even more. These books alone merit a post of their own, but one important idea was that getting older offers us the opportunity to re-learn living in the present moment. As we plan the coming year – or two, or three – I also plan to heighten my enjoyment of life along the way.

So what’s ahead? What stories do we hope to post in the months to come?.

Later this month we embark on our long-awaited cycling trip in Croatia. It’s been a bit more organizing work than I’d counted on. Even though we’re signing on to a pre-existing tour, coordinating the plans of the 15 friends who are joining us has taken some doing. I’m hoping to share some of our lessons learned in a future post. But now that it’s close, we’re finally feeling the excitement. We plan to start our trip with a few days on our own in Ljubljana, the romantic capital of neighbouring Slovenia.

"Ljubljanica 01" by Mihael Grmek - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“Ljubljanica 01” by Mihael Grmek – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Cheryl has been mapping out her schedule of triathlons, open-water swims, and half-marathons for the Fall and Spring. One thing she learned from her Montreal competition is that she enjoys the regular training more than the competition, but somehow enrolling in the competitions keeps the training on track.

We’re also thinking about our longer cycling trips for the coming year or two. Besides Quebec, we’re also considering is a trip across the three Baltic countries, passing through the town where my father was born. This would give us the opportunity to meet some of my second cousins for the first time. The family had been out of touch since WWII, and was only reconnected when I started building my family tree on WikiTree a few years ago.

Trakai Castle in Lithuania, by Marcin Bialek

Trakai Castle in Lithuania, by Marcin Bialek (Own work) [GFDL, or CC-BY-SA-3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

Finally, we’re still working towards the next phase of our retirement schedule. This year, we struggled with the timing of quitting our current jobs. Somehow, a joint decision kept eluding us. But in recent months, a new plan is beginning to emerge. Cheryl’s employment situation has improved since June, and she’s more excited about staying on for a while. Since I’m the older one in this relationship, it made sense that I should be the first one to make the transition. While a staggered “retirement” creates a few new challenges, it has a number of advantages. Sounds great to me! Christmas would be a great time to give myself a present.

Echoes from the mysterious "old country": Dad & his family

Echoes from the mysterious “old country”: Dad & his family

As for the challenges – such as decluttering – I imagine they’ll be part of that life that keeps on happening while we’re busy making plans.

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  • What do you do to enjoy the present moment while working towards retirement?

Clutterphobia

“Fezzik! Fezzik! Listen. Do you hear? That is the sound of ultimate suffering. My heart made that sound when Rugen slaughtered my father. The man in black makes it now. His true love is marrying another tonight. So who else has the cause for ultimate suffering?The Princess Bride

I knew who else.

Our landlord had just suggested that we might only have two months to clear out of our rented home – or perhaps they would be generous and give us four. The decluttering project we’d started desultorily was nowhere near complete, and the thought of moving without finishing it was the worst of news.

Intellectually, we’d known that decluttering was a precondition to the more mobile lifestyle we were moving towards with “No Pension, Will Travel.” Yet now I looked with dismay at the six or eight half-filled boxes that sat in the shadow of an exercise treadmill that had become a clothes rack. I’d started filling them when my son’s girlfriend had offered to sell stuff on Craigslist for a 50% cut. They broke up over a year ago, and his new love isn’t into online sales.

How is all that stuff going to fit into the new place?

How is all that stuff going to fit into the new place?

I felt in my gut the cost of all this stuff. I became exhausted every time I even thought about it. The burden of it all could turn a minor inconvenience into a near catastrophe. We were electrified. We had to get this lifetime accumulation pared down before three months of packing unwanted possessions bit into our upcoming travel plans.

The following weeks saw us tackle the project with a vengeance. We mapped out a strategy and dug in. Even when we later received a reprieve in moving for a least the next year, we kept the project going. The cost of our clutter – its clash with our plans and intentions – was now too evident to ignore.

In the past few weeks, we’ve delivered a couple of SUV-loads of donations to the local hospice thrift store. Another load went to our younger son who is establishing his first household. We dismantled and recycled the backyard trampoline that had years ago become an oversized hammock. Gone are the cross-country-ski machine that had waiting for a workout for well over a decade and the undersized racing bike that was “just too good to throw out.” There are still six bicycles in the garage for the three of us, not to mention three double kayaks and two treadmills, so we are not done yet.

Three double kayaks, two treadmills, and the Christmas tree's in here somewhere.

Three double kayaks, two treadmills, and the partridge in the Christmas tree’s in here somewhere.

But we are starting to feel energized by the process. There is a surprising liberation in getting rid of something you’ve been unable to part with for years – or even decades. The room that had held our “to be sold” pile for the past year now sports an empty shelf. I feel unexpectedly light every time I see it.

While we are nowhere near finished, we’ve climbed aboard the Declutter Express. In case you’re contemplating your own journey, let me share some of the things that have worked for us.

“Would you like them in a house? Would you like them with a mouse?Dr. Seuss

We established our vision. The title of this blog captures where we’re headed over the coming years. More travel. Long sojourns overseas without taking more than a couple of suitcases. Downsizing, perhaps with some form of collaborative living. All of these are easier with less stuff. And dreaming about them gives us the willpower to go through that next drawer. The next step was to map our trajectory to that dream. We realized that we were likely to be moving two or three times in the next few years, before we settled longer term. We developed a checklist when undecided about whether to keep something. Would you move it once? Would you move it three times? Would you take it to Spain? Do you want it in your “retirement house?” Would you pay to store it somewhere until then – in a locker with a mouse? Well, when you put it that way!

We remembered the best from our past. How many of our most memorable experiences came from our times on the road, with little more than a few changes of clothes to our name. “Remember Costa Rica!” became the family mantra. When the four of us spent six months there, we took four bags – and quickly pared that down to less than two. We traded stuff for experiences, and never looked back.

We got more realistic about how this process was going to work for us. This is something very personal, and depends on your disposition, your schedule, and even your income. After waiting for a year for someone else to sell our excess baggage on Craigslist, it was clear that weekly garage sales and want ads were not in our future. Besides, after recently dealing with the estates of both our mothers, we knew how little cash one generally realizes from selling a lifetime’s accumulation.

Addressing the eWaste problem.

Addressing the eWaste problem.

On the other hand, we like to support a number of charities, and many of them make good use of donations in kind as well as cash. Finding good causes to take our excess is a win-win. It took a bit of preparation, but what helped me the most was putting together a list of deserving and willing recipients so I could quickly decide what to donate where. I say “willing” since many charity thrift stores have lengthy lists of things they won’t accept:, including sleeping surfaces, safety equipment, metal furniture, pianos, pool tables, and almost anything electronic, from stereos to phones to PCs.

This last challenge – finding new homes for unwanted electronic devices – is one of the more difficult. Our only option has been to recycle them through local facilities. These you can often find by spending an hour on the Internet perusing sites like this. Seeing how quickly that shiny new gadget can turn into someone’s disposal problem has made us more thoughtful about our “epurchases.”

The electronic revolution has had another impact on our clutter problem. Growing up in the printed era, I had a great love of books – one that Cheryl shared as well. Most of our oldest possessions can now be found stuffed into the towering bookcases that line most of our walls. With a quick look, I could locate books that date back 50 years or more, and some of those were bought second-hand or handed down from my father’s collection. One of my greatest childhood pleasures was exploring the family library which was loaded with fascinating tomes on some of my favourite subjects. As I started to build my own book collection, one of my motivations was to offer that same literary playground to my kids. But they grew up alongside the Internet, home video, and eBooks – making the home library a bit of anachronism. Over the last few years, I’ve finally made the transition myself, and most of my books come on a Kindle, or from the local library.

Books may be looking for a new home.

Books may be looking for a new home.

Still, paring down that collection lovingly assembled over a lifetime has been a challenge, and it’s been important to find good homes for my “puppies.” Somewhat surprisingly, many places that are still looking for book donations – although absolutely no one wants encyclopedias, National Geographic, or Reader’s Digest abridged classics. So parts of my collection are heading for the local library, the regional library, some private schools, a senior’s facility, a new-immigrant centre, the local hospital, a nearby hospice, a local business collecting book donations for a school overseas – and last week one of the boys asked if he could take some to his new apartment.

So, we’re making progress, and looking at all our stuff no longer evokes “ultimate suffering.” The process of physical decluttering has led to significant changes on the mental front – I’ll share some of that in our next post.

“You have to give up some of The Dream to engage in The Dreaming.– a friend

Meanwhile, if you’re looking for more practical advice to help with your own decluttering project, check these out:

Paul’s Left Brain Takes a Mayan Holiday

Paul has been reflecting on what he likes so much about travel – about being in “vacation mode”.  He’s not one to sit around the pool with a margarita, but can usually be found on an all-day walking tour, or working on a new foreign language.  He observed that his favourite principles of good vacations apply just as well to “everyday life at home” – although we don’t always remember them:

Paul's not above trying the local beer, however.

Paul’s not above trying the local beer, however.

Here’s something he wrote on the subject a couple years back…

Ah, to live life in vacation mode every day!  What does it take?

I explored the texture of that question on a recent trip to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

For sun-chair reading, I’d packed a copy of Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight.  Neuroscientist Dr. Jill reports “from the inside” what it felt like when a massive stroke shut down the left side of her brain, and put the right side in charge.  As I understand it, the left brain manages linear reasoning and language functions;  the right brain fills a more intuitive, holistic role.  In Dr. Jill’s case, for the first eight months of her eight-year recovery, the “little voice” in her head fell silent.  Imagine!  She used her experience to reflect upon her life in general, and in particular, the relationship between her two different aspects.

Dr. Jill observed that “vacation mode” derives from the right brain.  So simple, I mused?  The question hovered over me like an iridescent Yucatan hummingbird.  Meanwhile, I did the usual holiday things.

Even plain, the best tortillas ever!

Even plain, the best tortillas ever!

One of my travel activities has me strike up conversations with strangers for no reason.  I dusted off my knowledge of Spanish, German and Portuguese to talk to almost anyone I found myself next to, even tried to learn a little Mayan.  Bix a bel, tz’unu’un!  What’s up, Little Hummingbird?  Yet my wife and I both found it hard to start conversations at the resort.  Our fellow vacationers seemed reluctant to connect, as if locked in their tour buses with the windows up.  I felt frustrated.  After this mood settled over me, something startling took place.

En route to climb the great Mayan pyramid at Cobá, we pulled of the road at a corner store in one of the small towns that crouch in the Yucatan interior.  We squeezed in to harvest a few nuts and chicharrones to stave of the need for a tourist-priced lunch.

I plopped a couple of bags of munchies near the cash register, while we continued to hunt for more.  Just then, a small Mayan girl of six or seven came in, chose a bag of the pork-rind snacks and took them to the cashier.  As we arrived at the counter with the rest of our purchases, I saw the store owner already totaling our bill.  The young girl stood waiting.  I sensed him directing preferential treatment toward us “gringo elders”

En route to Cobá, the better known Chichén Itzá

En route to Cobá, the better known Chichén Itzá

In my most sophisticated Spanish, I explained that she had preceded us, and that he should look after her first.  Alas, my linguistic abilities failed me.  After a couple of failed attempts followed by puzzled looks, he asked me if I meant to pay for the young girl’s purchase.  Annoyed that my communication attempt had gone so completely wrong, I shook my head and replied, “No, no!  That’s not what I was trying to say.”  Chastened into silence, I let him continue with our order, and we left the store.

While we poked around decaying ruins that afternoon, however, I had my own “micro stroke of insight.”  I saw that I had at least two valid answers to the store owner’s question, “Do you want to pay for hers too?”

My “right-wrong” linear left brain had jumped in and taken control of the situation in the store.  “No, that’s wrong.  That’s not what I was trying to say.”  End of story.

Yet his question had another valid answer, one that my less linguistically adept right brain could only whisper on a quiet trail in a Mayan jungle.  Did I want to spend sixty cents to buy chips for a cute kid who looked as if sixty cents mattered?  Did I crave a chance to make the tiniest human connection, no matter how fleeting?  Yes. I did!  Yes, I had!  Yes, I would have!  And then a wave of sadness and disappointment flooded my soul concerning opportunity missed – not just this one, but for all the little missed opportunities of a lifetime.

Jungle-clad Cobá from the top of its pyramid

Jungle-clad Cobá from the top of its pyramid

Fresh from Dr. Jill’s book, I supplied mental hemispheric interpretation to the event.  My number one priority on this holiday involved connecting to people, just because – I thought that a right-brain function.  Yet I’d let my linear left brain run the whole show with its need to get the Spanish right.

This reflection troubled me.  My troubling in turn shocked me.  My own stroke of insight had allowed me to glimpse how my left brain’s reaction had drowned out my right brain’s voice, leaving my life just a little less rich.  A single thread dropped from an intricate Mayan blanket.  Even after returning from Mexico, I kept brooding.  Intrigued that such a trivial event had bothered me for days, I pulled at the loose thread.

How often had I missed an opportunity like this one because I didn’t want to get something wrong?  Ba’ax ka wa’alik?  Hell-o?  Now I see how many threads I’ve dropped in the tapestry of my life. It’s a good blanket regardless and it keeps me warm, but my stroke of insight showed me that I could weave it even warmer, more colourful.  Sometimes I hush my left brain’s chatter, listening for a second right answer, a fleeting chance to make the human connection, just because.

Is Paul destined for the Sacred Cenote (also known as the "Well of Sacrifice") at Chichén Itzá

Is Paul destined for the Sacred Cenote (also known as the “Well of Sacrifice”) at Chichén Itzá

I’ve watched myself drop a few more stitches since then.  Sometimes I’ve gone back and picked them up again.  I look forward to catching more before the tapestry runs out.  The colours brighten.

Yum bo’otik!  Thank you, Mayan sun god.

For further exploration:

Speaking of vacation mode, here's another lounge lizard from around the pool

Speaking of vacation mode, here’s another lounge lizard from around the pool

What’s “vacation mode” mean for you?