“life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.”
what would you do if you didn’t have to work? what favourite things would you spend time on? what foreign land would you travel? what stories (and ideas) would unfold? what would happen if you were to let loose … to let go …
stefan sagmeister a brilliant designer in new york city (think ‘the darwin chair) explores these questions and more in his riveting ted talk the power of time off. stricken with envy by his ability to close his design studio for an entire year (he does this once every seven years!) to focus on other experiments, sagmeister’s approach to life is a reminder to us all to never compromise our interests, ideas and inspirations for convention, complacency and conformity. in the lecture he points out, “if i look at my cycle, seven years, one year sabbatical, it’s 12.5 percent of my time.” whilst filling the other 85 percent with professional and personal priorities, his 365 day withdraw from the rat race is spent story writing, nurturing his creativity, implementing wild projects, enlivening future thinking and getting close to design again. he leaves what he loves so he can go back to doing it again. the unknown wisdom, “if you love something, let it go; if it comes back to you, its yours forever. if it doesn’t, then it was never meant to be” perhaps isn’t a philosophical cliché after all.
i stumbled upon sagmeister’s gem of a talk some months after i had already made my own decision to take some time off. more than just a holiday — a total break from my profession, my own daily practice. for those of you who are an idea-ist (no, not idealist, an IDEA-ist), someone who gets distracted by the bright shiny things, who has more visual diaries than bed sheets, i am sure you can empathise with me on the nagging conundrum: to work or not to work.
exhausted by the swinging pendulum that swung between both camps i decided last september that no matter how much i loved my work in philanthropy, championing various humble causes as a volunteer and non-profit development consultant, it was time to suspend the pivoting weight. it was time to swing freely. so one random day in late november i made the decision to start following the yellow brick road back from down under to up over. now as i sit here writing this in march — having arrived in australia exactly three years ago — i am reminded of the exhilaration that overtook me when the airplane took off. that flight would ultimately change the course of my life. i left the nest and never contemplated going back. but time has a way of changing things; a way of changing us. with about three months before i arrive back to my quirky hometown i am more homesick now than ever before. distance has truly taught me just how important the closeness of people and places are.
so, with the bittersweet decision of departure made i went to see my friend, the travel agent. “melbourne to toronto? one-way? yeah, that will be $2,200, please.” bullshit! she could tell that i was less than impressed so with some smooth talking i was soon planning a multi-city trip across the hemispheres. leaving in may i would go to cambodia, stop over to see my vikings in sweden and then enter north america via new york city (my little sister bellas and their beaus meeting me to boot!). i would get to toronto on my own accord from there. waiving the ticket’s condition to return to australia the travel lass quoted my final bill, “$2,100 please.” sold. i had a one-way ticket home. i wasn’t quite sure how to process the emotional pendulum swaying inside of me. there were still many months of contemplation ahead. the ticket, i tucked away instead.
in living overseas i have made every effort to be a dependable sister and daughter, loving aunt, and a dedicated friend. i have to give credit to three pieces of communication technology that have allowed me to be present during my absence: paper, video chat and short message services (SMS). paper and post has allowed me to ink love letters to my many pen pals, learning more about life through written word than conversation. without skype i would have missed sunday night dinners with my parents, friday night wine (saturday morning coffee for me) with my baby sister and watching my nephew take his first steps, maintaining a bond with my eldest niece through the playful magic of hide-and-go-seek or welcoming of the arrival of my youngest niece. instant messaging through mediums such as blackberry and whatsapp has enabled me to share random moments with my high school lovelies, these short messages getting me through some long and lonely grievances.
it was also through blackberry messenger that i had to tell my friend that our dream of reuniting in belize was exactly that, a dream. central america was out of reach (at least for now). upon returning to the travel agent a couple of days later to pay my final tax invoice i noticed that my itinerary had me transferring planes in reykjavik en route to new york city from copenhagen. simultaneously, i was saying goodbye to belize in a sms to my friend when i sent her an impulsive alternative. would she like to spend a week in iceland, the arctic edge of european civilisation. of course she would! i enquired with the travel lass. nope, no extra charge she said. so there i was, 100 dollars richer for some international travel rather than a direct journey to canada. i would be taking some interesting exits off the yellow brick broad albeit meaning i would arrive home six weeks later than expected. and if that isn’t enough all of this would succeed an epic visit at the end of april from two dear friends arriving from home for a 14-day road trip in australia. the gamut was set. time wasn’t going to be an issue but of course money always is.
my disposable income astray i focused on how i wanted to spend my time first. two weeks in australia, 10 days cambodia, 5 days in sweden, 8 days in iceland followed by 5 days in new york. that is some good time to play! as per my earlier revelation, i already knew that part of my exit strategy involved stepping away from my work as a fundraiser and development practitioner, professionally at least. i had become jaded, exhausted, making mistakes and failing not because of circumstances but due to lack of effort. this was unlike me and my immaculate work ethic. as a good friend who once gave me a lovely pair of socks has constantly reminded me since arriving on her porch the other day, “you’re not failing because you can’t do it or because you’re no longer good at it, you’re just merely not engaged.” reason enough to take a break.
i also need to publicly acknowledge that i haven’t been pleasant company throughout the month of march. for those of you who shared space and time with me you’ll understand. but your patience and kind guidance has gone truly hand in hand. i cannot express how much it has meant to me — how much you mean to me. you’ve nurtured me through my emotional mess.
alas, this tumultuous month is coming to a calming end. i boarded a plane to the gold coast, greeted by my dear friend with the warmsocks. when we were 18 we shared a locker and often dreamed about our university days when we could possibly live together. that never happened as i went east and she went west but here we are 13 years later, together again. her hospitality and humour is what i need right now and i know it is exchanged. through blended tears of sweet nostalgia and romance reminisced, she has been truly missed. ten days here to finish work, regroup and repack and then the power of time off begins.
i’ve found a gentle space on the sunshine coast hinterland to volunteer at for two weeks. self-described as a “demonstration centre for sustainable living”, bellbunya has accepted me as a “willing generalist” for part-time volunteer work, 4 to 5 hours a day in exchange for a bunk and vege meals. i’m taking it as a sign (props to my LA lass for inspiring a retreat and my travel writing friend for reminding me the importance of taking some serious “ME” time) that i am meant to go here — partly for the hands-on labouring of cleaning, cooking, painting and gardening; partly to explore the centre’s approach to meditation, yoga and holistic health; partly to prepare myself for my impending writing retreat in july at the jack kerouac school for disembodied poetics in boulder, colorado (yes, this IS the epic ending, final destination, to this leg of the yellow brick road); and partly to research some good material for my book (insert public confession — i have no clue what ‘my book’ means other than translating my morning papers to fiction these days). but i’m hoping these experiences will finally instill in me the one thing i tell others but never personally heed: slow down. as carl honoré, the canadian journalist turned contemporary godfather of the slow movement, tells us, “right across the world, people are doing the unthinkable: they’re slowing down, and finding that, although conventional wisdom tells you that if you slow down, you’re road kill, the opposite turns out to be true: that by slowing down at the right moments, people find that they do everything better. they eat better; they make love better; they exercise better; they work better; they live better.” tasty food, good sex and a wholesome life? well then, slow this girl right down please!
after this two-week cleanse (on every level) i return to varsity lakes to revel in my friend’s success of conquering the hill she’s been climbing for the past six months with days of sunshine and nights of white wine. our high school compatriots arrive and then this cavalry of four awesome birds get their holiday on.
a sabbatical comes at a price for sure. the security of my last pay cheque gone i’ve questioned my budgeting skills. in september i set a goal of $10,000 — surely that would see me through april to august. bills, travel, food and experiences, tuition and residence would teach me to be frugal at best. no dramas then. until a broken foot (a wine induced accident involving a bicycle and high-heeled shoes nonetheless) and another little personal mishap depleted said funds. life happens. stupidity comes at a cost. so i paid the bills, and i’m moving on. adding up everything i have $6,425 to fund my sabbatical. as i write this i am left with $2,900 cash in hand. my anxiety got the better part of me and panic unleashed in my head. until calming comfort came from another traveller’s story that i am currently reading about.
in the book, once while travelling: the lonely planet story, which is on loan from my sisterly like friend (her and her boyfriend, a talented photographer, are the greatest travellers i know), tony and maureen wheeler (the brilliant minds behind lonely planet) digress about their nomadic life as writers, publishers, pioneer entrepreneurs, parents and friends. no wonder their arrival on australian shores from london (via the asia overland trek) is admired the world over by backpackers and writers alike:
we’d set out with the simple aim of travelling overland from London to Sydney, stretching out money as far as it would go and arriving pretty well broke.
“how much money do we have left?” Maureen asked.
i fished in my pockets and brought out a handful of small change.
“twenty-seven cents,” i said.
this was 1972. if the wheelers were able to build a £130.2m investment from the BBC in february 2011 and become two of australia’s most beloved philanthropists from $0.27 only forty years earlier, surely my $2,900 will fund my sabbatical, my writing retreat and enterprise ideas which includes a thinking and creative space to support youth literacy, my op-ed blog, cancer research foundation and rural-inspired commune for the place i’m soon to call home for the first time as an adult, northumberland county.
of course it will. it’s not about money. it’s about love. or i could just hit two birds with one stone and marry a rich man i suppose. nah, i’ll take the rugged, rough dirt road instead and just pave it with some yellow bricks.
coincidentally as i edit this post i realise the conversation that led to me disclosing my static confusion online was three years ago today. if you fancy, follow me on my way home (enter your email in the ‘follow’ field on the right-side menu below). i really do look forward to meeting you again along the way. or for some of you it might be the first time we ever really say “hey”.
“a good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” -(lao tzu)