Just kidding. We’re totally not coming home.
At least, we’re not defining a time for our return.
Just stating that out loud, so to speak, is frightening. We’ve always had a pre-defined return date for our time away and we put furniture and other stuff in storage so we could reboot our lives when we got back. All the while we were away, a little clock in the back corner of our minds was ticking down, reminding us we were coming nearer to the day we had to go home.
This time, there’ll be no clock – other than our bank account – and there won’t be a home to go to anymore. But if it’s so frightening, why are we doing it this way?
Our most recent adventure sabbatical lasted more than two years, August 2011 to September 2013. When we got back to Toronto, our plan was to settle down (finally) and get on with the core business of adult life, as it’s normally defined. We got adult jobs again and everything. But it just didn’t work.
Burning out on re-entry
Our 2013 re-entry was difficult; not materially, so much as emotionally, mentally. Things didn’t seem to fit right, despite the fact that it was a fairly smooth return: Right away we found a great place to live, and it didn’t take too long to find jobs we liked. But deep inside, something kept nagging away. Each year the nagging has become louder, not quieter.
We remember life clicking into place pretty fast in 2007 after we returned from living in India. But maybe things didn’t really click then either. We just managed somehow to distract ourselves for four years. To be fair, just a few weeks after we arrived home from Delhi in 2007, we drove from Vancouver to Toronto to start a new life. In the five days it took to reach Southern Ontario, we had already started making tentative plans to leave.
We hadn’t been in Toronto one day and had already decided we’d be here for a short time, not a good time. Indeed, four years later we were once again getting on a plane, our stuff stripped down to an even smaller pile than in 2006, and locked away in a 6 x10 storage pod. So despite a spectacularly successful life in Toronto, we still ran screaming just four years later.
And before people get indignant, listen. We know. We’re extremely fortunate people. We’ve both enjoyed successful and interesting careers, we’ve never been struck by serious illness or personal tragedy (yet). Our marriage is amazing. We like each other, a lot. We share similar values. We don’t have kids. We don’t owe money. We were born in Canada. We like our parents. Scott has no male pattern baldness. Karen is tall. The list of fortunate things in our lives is long. And we know it.
Maybe it’s a decades-long mid-life crisis?
We tried, we really did. But we’ve felt unsettled since landing from our last trip in 2013. At first we thought it would just take some time for us to adapt to working in a different context. We love our jobs. Great people. Interesting and progressive work. Amazing friends. But no matter how much time went by we could never shake the feeling of being a third sock. A fish-knife on the table at a steak dinner.
The Turning Point
In October 2015 Karen was in a meeting. Her phone wouldn’t stop ringing. Finally, she stepped out to check the message. Scott’s father, John, was in hospital in Vancouver. His appendix had burst. He was in surgery but there were serious complications. We were on a flight to BC a couple of days later.
To almost anyone who knows him well, Scott’s father is known as Perchie. He is lucky. Like horse-shoes-up-the-ass kind of lucky. He’s married to an amazing woman, who is also a retired nurse. She took control of everything and had the family well sorted. But it was a jarring reminder of what retirement years can look like. Lots of plans, some work out, most don’t. Unexpected trips to the hospital. What use is a pile of money if you’re not well enough to do much with it?
Perchie’s health blip had a clarifying effect on our own mortality and on the question of how to spend the years we have left; issues that had been brewing for both of us for a long time.
Our trip to Vancouver helped us realize three important things about our life:
First, loved ones matter most.
It’s important to be able to pick up and be with family on a moment’s notice. With permanent jobs and a life in Toronto, it’s harder to arrange time off and get across the country in an emergency. Added to our growing disenchantment with life in Toronto, this experience pushed us over the edge.
Second, we worried too much about retirement and not enough about actual life.
In talking to our parents about wills and end-of-life care, we learned they had not spent nearly as much of their retirement savings as they thought they would have needed by this time in their lives. It turns out we have saved more money at this point than Perchie did when he was our age. That was a revelation. We won’t ever be rich, but we won’t go hungry or homeless when the time comes for us to move into the Wrinkle Wranch.
Third, we know exactly what we would do if we didn’t work nine-to-five.
One night at a family dinner someone asked, ‘what would you do if you won the lottery?’ Karen said we’d get rid of our apartment and all of our stuff, put everything we needed in backpacks, and live like hobos – traveling, exploring meditation and our spiritual wellbeing, being of service to others. She just blurted it out laughing, without thinking much about the answer. But what started as an idle fantasy got richer and more detailed. Then it started to make sense in a crazy sort of way. After all, why not?
We returned to Toronto with some clarity.
We were living our lives by the rules of a game we don’t actually play. Developing a progressive career path, owning a house, having kids, and acquiring possessions. Planning for retirement. Lots of people do that, and it’s a legitimate, valuable and fulfilling way to spend your life. But it isn’t the way we live. We’ve never done that. And we’ve never wanted to.
We now knew we needed to reorient our lives around what mattered most to us. And we were certain we didn’t want to live for weekends anymore.
What if we oriented our lives to spend more time on the things that mattered most to our life?
What we’ve always wanted to do was to understand ourselves and the meaning of our life. We like helping other people. We miss our family. They live in BC and we’re in Ontario. We don’t see them enough. We’re not thrill-seekers, but we’ve had a few fond adventures. And there’s lots of things we’d still like to do before our teeth get too long and our memories too short. We want to jump before prostate problems, arthritis, or ennui kill our courage.
Karen in the wilderness? WTF?
Remember our Himalayan Trek in 2012? Let’s just say, she hasn’t ever been much for roughing it. But she’s going learn to dig her own toilet in the woods, and smile. She’ll haul 40 lbs of food and supplies on her back, and laugh. She’ll sleep outside. Or in a cave. She’ll be happy drinking water from a stream (using a very expensive ceramic filter, of course – she has a master’s degree in public health and she’s not stupid).
Our plans include trekking Dolpo in Nepal, the Dark Sky Preserve in Jasper National Park, and the West Coast of BC. We’re going to start with hiking and camping in England’s Lake District and the Scottish Highlands.
And the weirdest thing? It was all her idea.
We want to develop our spiritual wellbeing.
It’s practically impossible working 9-5 to take time off to meditate on a silent retreat for a month or more. And those retreats can’t run without volunteers, people who gladly give up a month and a half of their life just so other people can sit a long course retreat. Being a volunteer on these courses is a way for us to give back and something we’ve always wanted to do. After all, dozens of people we never met worked hard preparing food, cleaning and maintaining the centre so we could meditate peacefully and comfortably. The only way to repay the gratitude is to do the same for other people.
There are also several pilgrimages we would like to do: As much of the Silk Road as possible, the 50-day Shikoku island pilgrimage, the pilgrimage route to Mount Kailash, and more time with the monks and nuns of Myanmar (Burma).
And, of course, we’ve always wanted to do some of this travel with family and spend more time with them during the holidays.
Taking a second look at life. Again.
If it’s not already obvious, we are not millennials about to do a gap year before launching our plan to be a tech CEO before we’re 30. We’re middle-aged. Literally. If we live to be in our 90s, this is the middle point of a very short life. So what do those remaining years look like?
We want to know if it is possible to build a life oriented around giving service, personal development, spending quality time with family, and taking the odd vacation funded by contract work. Rather than a life that is structured the other way around.
We don’t know the answer, but we’ve decided to take a leap and find out. We have savings to live on and a little pile put away for retirement. We owe nothing to anyone. We hope to get work contracts here and there. If we fail, we’re okay with that. We’ll come home (wherever that’ll be) and get 9 to 5 jobs again. Just like everyone else has to do. But as we stare off in space from out of our cubicle, knowing we left nothing on the table of life, at least we’ll not be haunted by regret.
Our travel journal on the blog will record what we’ve learned, share our stories, and maybe spark curiosity in a few people about life’s other possibilities.
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