What The Heart Wants

We’ve spent the last three days on the road in a rented car, rolling down that long strip of asphalt that runs from downtown Seattle all the way to Boston. I’m writing this blog post from the road, propped up in bed in a shitty motel with no wifi, and perhaps if I tell you how I got here, I’ll begin to understand it myself.

That’s how this blogging thing seems to work.

After my last blog post, in which I wrote about my struggle with not-working, my brother in law gave me some good advice. “Go outside and skip some rocks,” he said.

I smiled, because it was a sweet thing to say to someone who needs an attitude adjustment. But even then, I angsted for a few days more, wracking my brain for ideas and coming up empty. Fun… Fun… what would be fun?

It turns out that fun is a heart-thing, not a brain-thing. Thankfully my heart had plenty to say, once I started listening.

Heart: I want to go back to coworking, so I can be around the buzz of productivity more often. I miss that!
Me: Okay, we can give that a try.

Heart: I want to do things with P. Not just exist in the same physical space. Like go on dates and stuff.
Me: Cool! Let’s plan some dates.

Heart: I want to write. But I don’t want to ruin it by turning it into a job. Please don’t ruin it!
Me: Okay, we’ll write. We’ll do it for fun.

Heart: I want to go to Montana!
Me: Why?
Heart: Do I need a reason? Let’s go! Let’s go eat some pie and stay in shitty motels like the Winchester brothers on Supernatural.
Me: You’re weird! But sure, if P agrees…
Heart: Montana! Montana! Montana!

Over the last month I’ve added 10,000 words to my novel, gone on a few lovely dates with P, spent more time with friends, and rejoined my old coworking space. It’s been fun, and weirdly productive too.

Somewhere along the way I stopped worrying that I had lost my purpose, and remembered that I am in fact, alive.

And perhaps being alive is enough?

What the Heart Wants

Life has gotten more interesting, since I’ve begun giving my heart what it wants.

My heart brought P and I to Montana, where we’ve seen forested hills, craggy mountains dusted with snow, bears and bison and white-winged magpies. We’ve marveled at the big blue skies, eaten strawberry pie, and even fulfilled my silly demand that we stay in shitty hotels.

We came to Montana because we wanted to, and it’s been a long time since I did something just because I wanted to, and without some secondary purpose.

It feels really good!

The Road to Bozeman

I want to tell you about another thing that happened, but I know it sounds super-weird.

The day after P and I booked our hotels, I plucked a book off my shelf at random because I wanted something to read. And inside that book, I found the story of a man on a mystical journey to Bozeman Montana with his son. The book was full of advice that felt like it had been written for me, personally.

To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain that sustain life, not the top.”

“When analytic thought, the knife, is applied to experience, something is always killed in the process.”

“To the untrained eye ego-climbing and selfless climbing may appear identical. Both kinds of climbers place one foot in front of the other. Both breathe in and out at the same rate. Both stop when tired. Both go forward when rested. But what a difference! The ego-climber is like an instrument that’s out of adjustment. He puts his foot down an instant too soon or too late. He’s likely to miss a beautiful passage of sunlight through the trees. He goes on when the sloppiness of his step shows he’s tired. He rests at odd times. He looks up the trail trying to see what’s ahead even when he knows what’s ahead because he just looked a second before. He goes too fast or too slow for the conditions and when he talks his talk is forever about somewhere else, something else. He’s here but he’s not here. He rejects the here, he’s unhappy with it, wants to be farther up the trail but when he gets there will be just as unhappy because then *it* will be “here”. What he’s looking for, what he wants, is all around him, but he doesn’t want that because it *is* all around him. Every step’s an effort, both physically and spiritually, because he imagines his goal to be external and distant.”

“We want to make good time, but for us now this is measured with the emphasis on “good” rather than on “time”….”

Friends, I don’t know why I took Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance off the shelf that day. I tried reading it in high school over twenty years ago, and found it incomprehensible. I didn’t know what it was about. It’s as if that story has been waiting all these years for the opportunity to whack me upside the head, at just the right time.

What I’ve learned is this: when I give my heart what she wants, a path lights up softly beneath my feet. And I’m reminded, yet again, that the destination doesn’t matter so much.

Saving Steve Rogers

Travel Diary #10

We need to talk about Captain America.

First, here’s a summary for those of you who aren’t Marvel fans: Captain America has been a comic book superhero since the nineteen-forties. He’s a patriotic supersoldier who fought villains associated with the Axis powers in World War II. He wears red white and blue, and carries a vibranium shield emblazoned with a star. In the Avengers movies, he’s played by Chris Evans.

Captain America’s real name is Steve Rogers. Out of uniform, Steve is boyish, charming, and kind. In uniform, he is brave, selfless, and strong. To four generations of fans, Steve Rogers/Captain America has represented the best of America.

After all, he’s a uniquely American hero.

Enter the Controversy

Recently, in the comic books, Steve Rogers was revealed to be an agent of Hydra, a Nazi-like organization. Marvel recently doubled down on this story line (called Secret Empire) by asking comic book sellers to dress like Hydra agents, right down to that evil Octopus logo.

And as you might imagine, comic book sellers and fans are losing their collective minds. Snopes recently reported what one comic store employee had to say:

They murdered millions and I’m a lesbian whose grandfather was held as a POW by the Nazis during the war, I’m not going to promote this book. I’m not going to glorify something like this so Marvel can make a buck.

Of course people are pissed! Why on earth would a person dress up like a Nazi for fun? And how can Marvel claim that Captain America is an agent of evil? Steve Rogers is as American as apple pie, and America is always one of the good guys!

We don’t buy it!
We don’t accept it!

Except…

Returning to America

Can I tell you what it was like to watch the USA from a distance? Painful.

We watched the USA bar immigrants for no reason other than nationality or religion. We watched as citizens and visitors alike were subject to illegal searches and detentions at the border. And we observed as our president continually blamed other countries for our own problems, real or imagined.

Before we got on our flight home, we scrubbed most of our personal data off our laptops and phones. We talked about what might happen if a border agent demanded our passwords. We made sure we had the number of a good civil rights attorney on our phones in case we got separated, interrogated, or detained.

No, we didn’t expect we’d be stopped. We’re boring-ass white people with laptops full of vacation photos. But somewhere along the line, the USA became the kind of country that treats school teachers, tourists, and even our own scientists like criminals. And no, I wasn’t going to make it easy for someone to violate my civil rights.

Fortunately, we passed through customs without any problems. My worry turned into relief, and then into disgust. Somehow, we’d become the kind of country I wouldn’t want to visit.

Let’s talk about how we are the land of the free, while we demand people turn over their passwords at the airport.

Let’s call ourselves the land of opportunity, while blaming immigrants for the problems we’ve been unable to solve.

And let’s talk about how brave we are, while we treat teachers and engineers and little kids as “too scary” to come inside (even for a visit!) because they might blow us up or something.

No. Let’s call America what it is: the land of hypocrisy. We talk big about our American values, but when it comes time to live those values, we don’t.

Our American President

It hurts my heart to write this blog post, but I won’t lie to you. Being back in the USA has been difficult.

Ask yourself this: If America had become so corrupted that we were one of the bad guys, like Hydra, would we even notice? Could we admit it to ourselves? Or would we keep waving the flag, singing the Star-Spangled Banner at baseball games, and believing we’re the good guys because we’re America. Duh!

And as much as our president disgusts me, it would be dishonest to blame him for our sorry state. When I look at our president and the ruling party I see racism, arrogance, ignorance, and tacky bluster. But I see those exact same sins in our culture every day. Don’t you?

To put it another way, President Trump’s worst qualities are America’s worst qualities. And in that way, he’s as American as apple pie.

Just like Steve Rogers used to be.

Saving Steve Rogers

I don’t know where Marvel is headed with Secret Empire. But I can’t be too surprised at the fall of Steve Rogers. Don’t our stories tend to reflect our very real hopes and fears?

Activists are organizing to fight back against America’s corruption. That’s promising, but when I speak to people I know about the state of America, they so often shrug and make a dismissive comment. “It’s terrible, but what can you do? Anyway, I’m sure it will all work out okay in the end…”

That indifference breaks my heart, but I get where it comes from. It’s damn painful to look into the mirror, isn’t it? It’s easier to believe that our problems aren’t as bad as they seem. Meanwhile, the tentacles of corruption are winding around our houses of government, our courts, and perhaps even our own hearts.

I’m not a politician, or a superhero, or even someone who wants to be writing about this topic! But as a storyteller, I know that our stories aren’t merely entertainment. They are maps to our future, and reminders of who we aspire to be. And superhero stories have always taught that what seems hopeless isn’t, if good-hearted people are willing to be brave, and to act.

Somewhere along the line, we forgot that Captain America isn’t a god. He’s a guy from Brooklyn named Steve Rogers, and he became corrupted as humans sometimes do. We believed in the idea of Captain America so strongly that we loved everything he did while wearing our national colors. We didn’t see what he was up to until it was almost too late.

“I’m just a kid from Brooklyn”

What if Steve needs us to save him, this time? Can we help him remember what Captain America is supposed to be fighting for? And in the process, can we save our country from the Hydra-like threats that threaten to pull us into darkness?

I believe we can, if we remember what America is supposed to be, and if we fight hard to make that into who we are.

One decision at a time.
One interaction at a time.
One phone call to congress at a time.
One vote at a time.
One march at a time.
One act of courage at a time.
One conversation at a time.

When the Cap needs you, are you just going to sit on your ass, blame other people, or make platitudes about how there’s nothing you can do? No! You’re going to make that phone call. You’re going to actively oppose injustice. You’re going to act like a fucking American.

Right?
Good!

Now let’s get to work.


PS: There are many ways to help America! If you aren’t sure where to start, pick a worthy organization, go to the “get involved” page, and sign up. 

The American Civil Liberties Union

The Electronic Frontier Foundation

Emily’s List

Indivisible

Anti-Defamation League

SwingLeft  (take back the house in 2018)

iCivics  (for kids)

Contact Your Elected Officials

The Slow Train to Kalambaka

Travel Diary #9

The train from Athens to Kalambaka was slow, thank goodness.

A five-hour journey was almost enough time to drink in the lush Greek landscape. There were deep valleys and tall jagged mountains, blanketed thickly in green. Herds of sheep flowed down the hillsides like milk poured from a jug. When the trees weren’t green, they were purple. When the grasses weren’t green, they glittered.

Images flashed past us, one after another. A valley. A mountain. A field. A farmer’s hut. A patchwork quilt of countryside. The stone tunnels dipped us into darkness, never for long, but long enough to frame each view like a shutter on an old-fashioned camera. We were low along the ground. We were up high, looking down as if we were in an airplane. I think Greece might be heaven, I remember thinking. Did I fall asleep and dream this place?

I snapped so many photos, but they seemed lifeless compared to what was in front of my eyes. I don’t want you to look at my photos! Instead I want you to take the slow train to Kalambaka, and see this place with your own eyes. How much beauty can one human heart bear? As soon as I thought those words, I was flush with gratitude.

Gratitude not only for this trip, but for everything.

For my entire life.

Three Months of Wonder

Three months of travel have brought us here, to the foot of the great stone cliffs, where ancient monasteries are perched impossibly high, over 600 meters in the air. They call the stones Meteora, which means the place between the Earth and the sky. And when you get your first glimpse, you might wonder if you’ve stepped into a fantasy novel.

Inside a church, inside a monastery, up on the cliffs, we saw prayer seats carved into the shape of dragons. Brass candelabras and incense burners hung above our heads, held aloft by four winged beasts with proud necks. Might dragons live in Meteora? We saw monks in their round black caps and long robes, which was exotic enough to my eyes. But I half-believe there are dragons, too. Where else would they want to live?

Over the last few days we’ve been walking the cliffs and feeling awe for the holy places, by which I mean not the churches but the landscape itself. Even if I were religious I’d have to ask: What could humans possibly create that could compete with this?

When we left home in January, I didn’t know where we’d end up. And I’m so glad that our path has lead us to Meteora, because it’s a place that fills your heart up to bursting. In fact, if I were a video game character, my life bars would be filled to the top.

Max life. Max energy. Max heart. Max gratitude.

Do you know what’s better than video games? And better than saving the princess? Saving yourself. Doing that thing you’ve always wanted to do. Making peace with ‘the scary’ and giving it a try even though you can’t guarantee it’s going to work out.

I’m not advocating that you act foolishly. But if there’s a dream you’ve had, that you’ve always had, I hope you’ll start preparing. Whatever your dream is, I wish you the joy of it.

The most important thing I’ve learned from travel is this: Following your bliss isn’t selfish. It’s self-care on steroids.

Returning Home

My father-in-law said this morning that it feels like we’ve been gone a whole year, and in some ways, I feel that too! It’s gone fast, no doubt, but we’ve been away long enough that my memories of home have gotten fuzzy around the edges. Not what home is like, necessarily, but how it feels to be there.

I expect our wandering feet will take us out into the world again, and soon. But for the moment, I’m ready to head home and reconnect with everyone I’ve been missing.

I miss my family and friends. There are books on my shelf that I want to finish reading. I’m tired of packing and unpacking, and it would be nice to have a bathrobe and slippers again. I miss my writers group, and Seattle coffee, and how the air smells like salt when the wind blows uphill from Elliott Bay.

How lucky I am, for these three months of wonder! And luckier still, to return home to the people and city I love.

Thank you, thank you, thank you! (my heart whispers)

Next Stop: Seattle

Living Dangerously in Athens

Travel Diary #8

We hesitated when booking our flight to Athens.

According to reviews online, Athens doesn’t feel safe. I read statements like these:

This (centrally located) hotel is in a sketchy area.
I wouldn’t walk around here at night.
Women should be very cautious here.

In fact, when you look up ‘dangerous areas’ in Athens, half the city center lights upon the map. What were we supposed to make of that? In the end, we decided to risk it. If we felt unsafe we’d hide out in our hotel, or leave.

Living Dangerously in Athens

When we arrived in central Athens, we were hit by a wall of sounds and smells, as well as colors and textures. The city has an energy you can feel, it’s like the humming of bees, both contented and active. The crowds are constantly in motion, talking and walking, laughing at cafe tables, smoking, or ushering their kids down the sidewalk.

We popped up out of Monastiraki station and into an immense open-air market, filled with nuts, dried fruits, colorful spices, olive oil soaps, evil eye talismans, and tourist schlock. Cramped bazaar stalls overflow with silver and bronze curiosities, musical instruments, and the kind of quirky treasures you’d expect to find in your great-grandmother’s jewelry box.

That cheerful chaos! Those smiles and shouts! Delights for the senses. We hadn’t even checked into our hotel yet, and I was wowed.

Still, it would be a mistake to think of Athens as a polished tourist experience like you might find in London or Paris. Instead think of it as a mosaic where some pieces are new, and some are cracked and crumbling, but where the overall picture is authentically beautiful.

Over the course of a few kilometers you’ll see streets with beautiful cafes and blooming flowers, graffiti-filled roads long neglected, and ancient sites full of tourists. The ruins in Greece are far older than those in Rome, and are scattered across the city like discarded toys. Some of them are breathtaking, while others are little more than crumbling walls surrounded by a high fence.

I never felt scared in Athens. It’s the kind of city where people hold the door at the train when they see a stranger rushing to make it in time. There was no malice that I felt, no sense of being watched or singled out. I was cautious, like I always am when traversing unfamiliar terrain. But honestly, the most dangerous thing I saw there was right inside the welcome packet at our hotel. Bungee jumping. Just call the front desk and they’ll set it up for you!

Crazy, right? That’s way too dangerous.

Staying Safe on the Road

We travel as safely as we know how to, although it’s impossible not to “look like a tourist” when you’re schlepping your big backpack from the airport to a hotel. We check the US State Department website for warnings, and we register with the SMART traveler program. We read up on a place before we go, not only how to get there, but also any recent news that may indicate a dangerous atmosphere. And whenever we’re separated from our baggage (when it’s stowed on a rack on the train, for example) we transfer our essential items to a small bag and keep it on our person.

In the case of Athens, the reviews were concerning enough that we took extra precautions. We booked a hotel with a restaurant, so we could eat dinner there rather than walk around after dark. We took a taxi to the train station instead of walking, because it was early and the streets were deserted. Were those steps necessary? Probably not. We were cautious anyway.

We also gave up some privacy, in the interest of safety. Our parents have a copy of our itinerary, but when we go off-script, as we sometimes do, we use a Facebook check-in to let them know where we went.

Hey! In case we die, here is where the bodies are! That might sound morbid, but I call it practical. I like leaving a trail, in case something goes wrong.

But I try not to get too wound up about safety, beyond those basics. People die in my hometown while crossing the street. Travelers occasionally die in freak accidents on their first round-the-world trip. Shit happens! Criminals exist. People die. I hope I won’t, anytime soon, but I’m not going to stress out over it either.

If I had let those fearful, tight-assed reviews on the internet dissuade me from coming to Athens, I would have missed out on one of the most interesting cities I’ve ever been to.

I’m glad we gave it a chance.

Next Stop: Meteora

Five Nights In Rome

Travel Diary #7

From the southern coast of Spain, we flew to Rome. We left Spain reluctantly, and gratefully. Italy would be a whole new adventure! I didn’t speak a lick of the language, and everything I knew about Rome I’d learned by watching an episode of Archer.

We arrived at Termini station in the early afternoon and walked to our AirBnB. After our host left, we tossed our luggage on the bed, changed out of our sweaty clothes, and went downstairs for a quick lunch at the cafe. I had lasagna. And a cappuccino, of course. Both were excellent.

Rome’s coffee game is on point.

While we ate, I tried to relax. The airport had been stressful. Taxi drivers stepped directly in front of us as we walked through the airport, one after another, aggressively seeking a fare. We ducked and dodged until we found the biglietto (ticket) machine for our train, but while we punched the buttons to buy our tickets we were hassled, still. Why would you ride the train? Didn’t you know you can’t see anything from the train? You should ride with us instead. The train is too expensive. We’re only one euro more! Per person.

Pushiness is a characteristic of the city. As we walked through town later that evening, we were continuously propositioned. Do you want a tour? A selfie stick? An umbrella? Will you make a donation? How about a different tour? Perhaps some lunch? We have pasta! Surely you want to read the menu? Oh! You’re gonna ignore me now?

Courtesy is noticeably absent in Rome. Pedestrians pushed with hands and hips as they walked, stepping between couples and families, leaving them lost to each other in the crowd. When a seat opened up in the packed Metro, people dove for it. Suck it, old people! This was a game of musical chairs, with muscle.

I was excited to tour the Vatican, but when we arrived the employees were so darn crabby. When I handed my ticket over at the appointed desk, I received a glare and a sharp rejoinder, “Receipt! Not the ticket!”  She gave the next three people the exact same response; her tone said we should have known better. Our tour guide was relatively nice to us, but bitched out her coworkers when they didn’t move fast enough, and then she went to find a supervisor to complain to him too.

By the third day, I’d had enough hostility and I was ready to exit the city by any means necessary. If you’d offered me a hot air balloon out of town, I’d have taken you up on it! I’d picked up the city’s irritation like a head cold, and peevishly suggested to P that the city adopt a new tourist slogan:

Welcome to Rome! Have some pizza, take some photos, and get the hell out. We’re thoroughly sick of all of you.

Five Nights in Rome

Despite my complaints, it would be arrogant to believe that a city or its people owe me a good time. I believe the purpose of travel is to appreciate a place for what it is, and to discover what it has to offer. And Rome has so much going for it.

The best thing about Rome? History comes to life there! When you walk through the Colosseum, you can almost hear the bloodthirsty shouts of the crowd. Those clanging swords, and a lion’s roar. When you stroll through the Roman Forum and contemplate the fall of the empire, you can’t help but see the parallels to our own fragile republic. And as you see how Catholicism has shaped the city (as much by violence and conquest as by faith), it’s upsetting and enthralling and mystifying all at once.

The history of Rome isn’t merely history, because it bleeds into the present. Behind the tourist hustle there is another world. One where you can see priests hurrying down the sidewalks staring at their cell phones, while their long black robes brush the ground. There are tiny cars full of nuns, the ever-present ringing of church bells, and water fountains connected to an ancient aqueduct.  The old and the new are intimately intertwined here; you can’t tell where history stops and the modern Rome begins.

The morning we left, we made our way down the rickety elevator in our building, turned right down Via Merulina, and saw a monk in brown robes walking down the sidewalk ahead of us. He had a bible cupped in his left hand, and when he reached the church at the end of the block, he paused. There was a man in shabby clothes reading a tabloid magazine outside. They smiled at each other like old friends, and wished each other a good day. P and I continued down the road toward the train station, as the sun was coming up.

Five nights wasn’t enough time to get a feel for the holy city. As soon as we got a glimpse of the Rome that exists behind the tourist hustle, we were already on our way out.

Walking Through Rome

Our best experiences in Rome were near the end of our trip, when we stopped trying to visit every interesting site and museum and instead went for long rambling walks through the city. That’s where P and I are at our happiest on the road – walking and observing without any particular agenda.

Or as P put it to me, “We don’t need to check off every box on the tourist bingo card.”

During our explorations, we ran across a lively street market, drank espresso at a real “coffee bar” where you stand at the counter, and ate gelato. We had lunch in the Jewish Ghetto, a charming neighborhood where we heard children singing in Hebrew through the open window near a beautiful Synagogue.

A few hours before we packed our bags to leave, we saw an elderly woman shouting at a street vendor. She was loud and pissed and back at home everyone would have stared with open mouths, or perhaps even called the cops, because she was making such a ruckus. But it was a temporary tempest. They shouted at each other for a while, then they stopped, and the woman left with her purchases, apparently satisfied. The vendor turned to his next customer, cheerful, as if nothing unusual had happened.

P and I looked at each other, and shrugged.

When in Rome…

Next Stop: Athens

At the Beach

Travel Diary #6

In the late nineties I worked as a headhunter for a “boutique” search firm.

LinkedIn didn’t exist yet, and neither did Facebook, so we’d dial for dollars all day long, looking for a candidate to shop around. The resume of a software engineer could be exchanged for a fat commission check, and during the days of the tech boom, companies would pay almost anything.

Hiring Manager: What do you charge?
Me: Thirty-five percent of the first year’s salary.
Hiring Manager: We’ve never paid more than thirty…
Me: (reluctantly) I guess we could do thirty…

Later that day:

Me: I got thirty percent!
The Boss: That’s good, but next time don’t cave so fast. He could tell you got one over on him, and now he doesn’t like us very much.

Cold calling wasn’t fun, but it prepared me for the business world. Getting yelled at and hung up on helps you develop a thicker skin, and a shark-like amusement towards those who would tear you down. I remember this one guy who responded to my call by getting indignant and saying that I “had a lot of audacity” to do what I did for a living.

He meant it as an insult, but I felt oddly empowered. My parents had raised me to be polite-bordering-on-deferential, and deferential chicks don’t really succeed in the business world. I printed out the definition of ‘audacity’ and taped it to my computer monitor.

Audacity (Noun) Fearless Daring. Bold or insolent heedlessness of restraints, as of those imposed by prudence, propriety, or convention.

One afternoon, while I was preparing to be audacious, I ran a search in our database and discovered a company called Beach. It was an odd name for a company, but then again, most startups had weird-ass names in the nineties. But there was no address and no phone number either. And the employees listed seemed to have nothing in common.

“What is Beach?” I asked my manager. He grimaced and ignored the question, before picking up his phone to make another call. That was boss-speak for “you are too stupid to live” or perhaps “I don’t want to talk about it” and so I went to a coworker with the same question. She said:

“When a candidate is beached, it means they retired or died or left the industry. We say they’re at the beach, and we assign them to that company. Don’t delete them, in case they come back. But don’t waste your time with them either.”

Retired, dead, or left the industry?

Those people were at the beach.

At the Beach

Here I am at the beach! And in more ways than one, because about a month ago, two things happened simultaneously:

We left Madrid in search of sunnier weather.
-and-
I decided to stop consulting. For real this time.

The work-thing was a disappointment. I’d been so sure that working remotely was going to be the best of both worlds. And why shouldn’t it be? I could sightsee by day and work at night. And while the mechanics worked just fine, my emotional engagement with work annoyingly went kaput as soon as I put distance between myself and my clients.

And I’m not talking about physical distance.

My focus is elsewhere these days, and my heart is pulling me in new directions. And while this isn’t the answer I was hoping for, I think I need to give myself enough time to see how it all plays out. That’s why I decided to turn my “sorta” sabbatical into a real one.

You can file me under Beach these days. Don’t delete me, please, in case I come back! But don’t waste your time with me either.

Cheri's Flip Flops

The Beaches of Costa del Sol

After Madrid, P and I headed south on a high-speed Renfe train towards Costa del Sol, which is Spanish for Coast of the Sun. We chose the port city of Málaga for our first stop because my friend M had told me about it and it sounded peaceful and sunny. She was right! In Málaga we packed our winter coats away with relief, and they’ve stayed packed. I stuck my feet in the Mediterranean sea for the first time in Málaga. We ate too much ice cream, watched the colorful Carnival celebrations, and had a nice evening with our friend E and her boyfriend while they were in town.

From Málaga we headed west to the resort town of Torremolinos, which is little more than a long promenade along the sea, and a corresponding row of small restaurants and shops. We booked ourselves an airy apartment on the fourteenth floor of a high rise, with 180 degree reviews of the sparkling water. That’s where I’m sitting right now, writing this blog post, and occasionally turning my head to the right to see the waves crashing in the distance.

Torremolinos View

Torremolinos is our last stop in Spain, unless you count the quick overnight in Madrid before we return home to Seattle. All of our days here have revolved around the beach, either laying on the sand next to it, or walking along the promenade from one end to the other. We’ve seen how the sea changes from smooth blue to swirling silver and back again, as the weather changes. There are grains of sand in our shower, tracked in on sandy feet. The sun has lightened my hair.

An entire day here can be taken up by a cup of coffee, a long walk, and a novel. And to me, moving at this pace feels like a superpower. (I am Contentment Woman! Watch me be happy for no reason!) I arrived in Spain in January productivity-addicted and mildly anxious, and I’ll depart as someone capable of enjoying her day even when there is nothing to do and nowhere to be.

Perhaps that’s been Spain’s gift to me: reminding me how to loosen up and let go.

In Madrid, we started each day with a list of things to do.
In Málaga, we started our week with a list of things we might do.
And here in Torremolinos, we give each piece of the day it’s due.

A day in Torremolinos goes something like this: when the sun shines brightly enough to wake you up through the gauzy curtains, you may as well enjoy that gentle glow for a moment before rising. And when you’re seated on the edge of the sea eating ice cream and watching the waves crash angrily against the sand, you may as well enjoy every bite, and the constantly shifting color of the water, and every cacophonous crash.

This kind of contentment has taken practice, except it’s the kind of practice which is less about striving and more about letting go. I’ve been so accustomed to focusing on the future— the “what’s next”— that it’s taken me months to remember how to simply be alive without any particular agenda. Because for most of my life it’s been like this:

Body here. —————————————————————————————————> Focus there.

When you bring those two things closer together, the world itself seems to change. I’ve used mindfulness as a technique in my professional life for years, and with good results. But what happens when mindfulness becomes your ordinary state of mind, and not something you “use” as a workplace technique? It’s a tricky thing to describe, being more emotional than verbal, but I’ll try….

Have you ever seen a slowed-down video of a hummingbird in flight? Have you noticed how that feathery bullet becomes ornate and gorgeous when viewed at a different speed? All of life can be like that, I’m starting to see. The sand on my toes, if viewed up close, reveals a museum’s worth of beauty, all those tiny stones and shells and the history of the earth. And there’s something miraculous in the drops of water sliding down the window when it rains, and the unexpected music of an accordion player in the plaza, and even the hilarious “sexy dance” of the male pigeons as they strut and spin on the sidewalk, trying to attract a mate.

When viewed at the right speed, without the distraction of the past or the future, the most ordinary things become engrossing. Possibly even transcendent.

Can I hold onto this feeling, once we’ve left the beach behind?

I hope so. I’ll need to be patient, and have faith, and see.

Next Stop: Rome

The Interview

When I decided to leave my job behind in order to travel and play, I had a lot of worries about how things would turn out. Was I making a mistake? Would I regret it?

These books will not tell you if you are making poor life choices.

In order to address those concerns, I traveled back in time to have a conversation with myself. What follows is a transcript of that interview.

Past Cheri (PC): Thanks for crossing the space-time barrier to answer my questions. I appreciate it.

Future Cheri (FC): My pleasure. Besides, I know how you love to over-think things and freak out for no good reason. What is it that you’d like to know?

PC: Does Trump win the election?

FC: It’s best if we stay on topic.

PC: Fuck! He wins, doesn’t he?

FC: Let’s pay attention to the things you have some power to control. It’s for the best.

PC: Well, that sounds dire… But fair enough. My first question is “Am I making a terrible mistake by stepping away from my business?”

FC: It’s too soon to tell, because I’m only four months down the timeline from you, but here’s what I think. You’ve got some growing to do, in areas of your life that have nothing to do with consulting. And it’s going to be hard for you to figure that out until you step away and give yourself some space. So no, I don’t think it’s a  mistake. I think it’s important that you take this risk.

PC: Alright. Here’s another question. I’ve always had a plan for where I’m headed. I’m used to setting goals, and going after them. What’s it like to not have that kind of structure? Am I going to wig out?

FC: Yes, you are going to wig out! It’s going to keep you up at night, and cause you a moderate amount of anxiety. You’re going to wonder what your life is for, if you aren’t achieving things. And you’re going to feel super guilty about not being productive. It’ll take a few months for you to get past those feelings.

PC: And then what?

FC: You’ve got a lot to look forward to! I don’t want to spoil it for you, but let’s just say the best is yet to come.

PC: As you know, I’ve got some remote consulting work lined up. How is that going to go?

FC: It’s going to go great, right up until the point when you realize you hate remote consulting and you don’t want to do it anymore. Ha! Isn’t that funny?

PC: Speaking of funny… do the Dems get control of one of the houses of congress? I mean, both would be good, but they get at least one, right?

FC: You’re going to love Spain, even more than you thought you would. The citrus fruit is incredible. You’re going to want to take home an entire suitcase full of lemons. In fact…

PC: It’s that bad?

FC: Ask me something else. Anything else.

PC: Fine. Am I going to get homesick?

FC: Yes! But that’s a good thing, right? You’re going to miss your city and your people. Three or four months is a great amount of time to travel, and when you get to that point, you’ll be ready to go home for a while.

PC: Am I going to lose weight, because I’ll be less stressed?

FC: No, dumbass. You will not magically become a size three because you are not working. However you are still welcome to track your calories diligently just like you could at home. Nothing has changed in that regard.

PC: Are you saying you’re the same pants size as me?

FC: Probably. I mean, I hope so. The food here is *really* good and I’ve been wearing stretchy leggings so…

PC: *Sigh* Am I at least going to write more, now that I have more time?

FC: Yes! Although not in the way you are probably thinking. You’ll be writing constantly, although much of it will be personal writing, and it will be useful because you’re “in transition” as the life coaches like to say. But you’re not going to start squirting out novels like diarrhea.

PC: Squirting out novels like diarrhea?

FC: Clearly my prose style is still under development.

PC: Clearly. Is there anything else I should know?

FC: I’d tell you to worry less, but I know myself too well for that. Ask P to swap out the acetaminophen in his first aid kit for ibuprofen. And you don’t need to bring your giant hiking water bottle. It takes up too much room in your pack and you won’t use it very much.

PC: Ok. That sounds good.

FC: Oh, and one more thing! When you get to the future, I’d recommend you *not* travel back in time for this interview.

PC: Why not?

FC: You’ve seen Futurama. You know that a time-travel duplicate is always doomed.

PC: So a tree is going to fall on you or something?

FC: Eventually. But for now I’m just gonna turn on the news and relax.

PC: The news? Why? It’s all political garbage, and President Obama is a lame duck.

FC: President Obama though…

Postscript: Future Cheri sat on the couch and watched President Obama give his weekly address. Just before it ended, she looked up at the ceiling, smiled, and informed the universe that she was ready.

A tree fell through the roof and crushed her.

Meandering Through Madrid

Travel Diary #5

After two weeks in Madrid, we’ve gotten a feel for the place.

We know where the best grocery store is, and that “para llevar” means you’d like your coffee to go, and that you need correct change at the laundromat. We’re no longer surprised to see that the fruit store next door is closed when the sign says they opened an hour ago, because signs are merely guidelines, and Spaniards are too tranquilo to get wound up about it. As one American living in a nearby village told us, the culture of Spain is one of patience.

If right now doesn’t work, hay no problema, you can try again later.

I love the way that pedestrians rule the side streets here, turning the narrow cobblestone roads into impromptu sidewalks whenever cars are not present. We’re occasionally confounded by the design of the city; streets fan outwards from Puerta del Sol in jagged diagonals, like shards of glass surrounding a bullet hole.

Still, Madrid is an easy place to be. And instead of gulping this city down like a hot cup of coffee, we’re trying to let this place seep into our bones gradually. We’re traveling slowly and taking our time.

Slow Travel is Cheap(er) Travel

The rumors are true! Traveling slowly is less expensive than a regular vacation.

Because our timeline is flexible, we were free to choose the least expensive days to fly. P did a good job of staking out various travel websites, and as a result we got here on the cheap. We paid $180 each to get to DC, $80 each to get from DC to JFK, and our round trip tickets between JFK and Madrid were only $390 each.

Flexibility can pay off in other ways too. Our flight to DC was so overbooked that they offered an $800 travel credit per person to get bumped, and we would have taken them up on it if we hadn’t had a friend waiting for us on the other side of that flight.

Likewise, there are good deals to be had on accommodation when you stay for a week or a month. Our 28 day stay in Madrid came to $1280, inclusive of fees and taxes. And for that price we got a newly remodeled studio apartment, totally private and smack dab in the middle of the city. There were less expensive options available, if we’d been less choosy.

Because we have a kitchen, we’re eating most of our meals at home. A nice meal for two (such as pre-seasoned chicken and fresh vegetables) runs about $8 US. Ground coffee is $4, and a bag of pretzels is $1. We’re enjoying local espresso shops and restaurants too, because it would be a bummer to miss out on that local culture, but eating most of our meals at home will help us spend less, which means we can travel for longer.

What we’re learning is this: when you travel slowly, your travel costs consist mostly of flights, accommodation, and travel insurance. Our household budget already includes some eating out, date night activities, and groceries. If we stick to our ordinary budget, we can simply transfer those expenses from home to abroad.

Slow travel is cheaper travel, for sure.

A Chance to Live Like a Local

Like the dork that I am, I got all excited about living on Spanish time, and so I put together a little schedule for myself.

Wake up 9:30am
Coffee & Morning Pages
Exercise, then Shower
Write (current projects)
Lunch at 1:30
Run errands, go for walks, or nap.
In the early evening, Skype with clients, read, or relax.
Dinner at 9 or 10pm
Netflix, FaceTime with Friends and Family (9pm in Spain is noon back home)
Bed by 1:30am

I haven’t been too strict—that would ruin the fun—but adapting to Spanish mealtimes and routines has been a good way to experience the city. Most of our afternoon excursions have been walks; we pick a direction and go. Or we run errands, filling up the fridge or washing clothes at the closest lavandería. In that sense, living in Spain isn’t too different from being at home.

We got plenty of time for everyday culture, on this trip, but less money for trinkets, tourist experiences, and restaurants. That’s a trade off, for sure, but it’s one I don’t mind making.

Enjoying the Differences

When we arrived in Madrid I was surprised at the super-long walk from the airplane to the terminal, we walked for probably fifteen minutes, and went up and down a few flights of stairs. While most of the passengers took it in stride, a few Americans muttered under their breath about how it was ridiculous they’d have to walk that far with their luggage. Why weren’t there any escalators or moving sidewalks?

Our apartment came furnished with coffee cups, but as an American, they looked positively doll sized. The food was smaller too, everywhere we went. And I noticed that the only people taking elevators were those with disabilities or who were pushing strollers or carts. After a week living here, I adjusted, and 8 oz of coffee seemed like plenty. Nor would it occur to me to take an escalator while I have a perfectly adequate pair of legs.

When my head-cold migrated down to my lungs, I was initially annoyed that I couldn’t find cough medicine at the local market. According to my Rick Steves phrase book, all I needed to do was walk into a pharmacy and talk to someone, which I didn’t want to do. Talk to someone? Ugh! But when I did so, I walked out ten minutes later with some effective prescription medicine, which cost only twelve dollars. Back in the states I would have needed a doctor visit, and a prescription, a trip to a pharmacy, and complicated paperwork.

It’s refreshing to discover, again and again, that what I think is “the right way” to do something isn’t necessarily right, or better, or even preferable. I enjoy it all – the surprises and the adaptation.

Meandering Through Madrid

When we were in Paris last summer, I was amused by the tourists who walked mechanically from sight to sight, snapping photos like they were checking items off a list. Something is pretty – you snap a photo, then you move on. It’s fun, and it gives you something to show the folks at home.

There is a different kind of delight available, when you travel slowly. Take last Tuesday, for example. P and I drank coffee in the morning, as we usually do, and after I finished my writing we walked over to a new part of town to check out a bookstore I’d read about online. The bookstore was great, and as we walked back towards our apartment afterward, I noticed that I was feeling a little bit bored. The previous few days had been quiet ones, and it was getting ready to rain again, so we’d be stuck inside most of the evening.

Blah, I thought.

We stopped at an intersection, and the sun came out briefly. I looked up towards the light, enjoying the warmth on my skin. And as I did so, I saw one of the magnificent buildings. There are so many of them here, you kinda tune them out after a while. But the iron towers seemed to pierce the blue sky, and the ornate carvings in marble swirled along the top like a thousand flowers blooming.

As all that hit me, I noticed we were surrounded by strangers, most of them speaking this musical language that I couldn’t quite understand. A bright blue bus swept by, and I caught the rich sweet smell of churros in my nostrils.

The crosswalk chirped, a sound both familiar and foreign, and we surged forward with the crowd, towards a narrow street lined with tall buildings, decked out with balconies in orange and gold and white, and the sun struck the cobblestone street making it shine…

Wow!

You see, slow travel has a way of faking you out. You arrive someplace new, and before too long, the unfamiliar becomes familiar. A grocery store is a grocery store, right? You tell yourself, feeling worldly and a tad cynical, that there’s nothing new under the sun. You might even ask yourself, why travel at all? It’s all just the same stuff, all around the world, with a few cosmetic differences.

Then something as simple as crossing the street crushes you. One minute you’re just standing there, and the next moment you’re drowning in wonder, intoxicated with the exotic, and then your husband is looking over at you, perplexed, wondering why you’re gaping at the sky, grinning like a madwoman.

The author Terry Pratchett once said this:

“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”

New eyes and extra colors? Yes, I think that captures it! And here in our rented studio on the other side of the world, I’m left wondering if that feeling of being overwhelmed by beauty is as available in my own neighborhood as it is someplace unfamiliar. And I suspect the answer is yes.

Slow travel is wonder-full in the literal sense of the word. Being somewhere new reminds you that wonder is freely available— if you’re willing to drop your grownup cynicism and open yourself up to what’s in front of you.

What are you thinking?” P asked me, after we’d crossed the street.

I squeezed his hand. “That I’m happy to be here, with you, right now.”

He squeezed back, and we walked home to watch some Netflix.

Next Stop: Málaga

Up In The Air

I loved the movie Up in the Air.

In it, the main character (ably portrayed by George Clooney) has built a life with few emotional or material attachments. He views his carry-on suitcase as a metaphor for a happy life. Belongings, houses, children, relationships… they all weigh you down. Be free! His certainty is rocked by three women. His coworker, a new lover, and his sister each in turn force him to re-examine his choices. And he begins to wonder: what if he’d been living wrong all this time?

What I love most about the story is that it doesn’t pick sides. Instead, it invites us to ask ourselves: What does it mean to live a good life?

That’s the big question, isn’t it?

 

Christmas with the Bakers

P and I spent Christmas eve with my brother-in-law’s family, at their house north of Seattle. We had a great time with them, as we always do. They’ve got this massive house crammed full of any useful thing you can think of. Their home is joyful and chaotic at the same time, with and kids and pets swarming about underfoot, chasing each other like minnows in a river.

One minute someone is laughing, and the next minute someone is shouting across the room because they need more wrapping paper, and then the puppy is chewing on your foot, and two of the kids start arguing, and there are whoops and cheers from the next room when the football team on the television scores a touchdown.

It was fun to visit their world, so different from our own. When we returned home late that evening, the quiet of our tiny condo enveloped me like a warm bubble bath. The city sparkled outside the window, and I sank into relaxation. When I’m at home with P, I feel like we’re in our oasis, safely distant from a world that can be stressful and loud. P lowered the lights, and we put on our pajamas and crawled into bed to watch some old movie, our feet touching beneath the blankets.

Q: What does it mean to live a good life?
A: Follow your heart, I say.

Backwards and Forwards

When I think about what a good life is, the first memory that comes to mind is the year P and I got our own place. We were in our second year at Washington State University, sharing a shitty one-room apartment off campus because the rent was less than four hundred bucks per month and it was within walking distance of our classes. Our fridge was Pepto pink and our brown shag carpet teemed with ants in the summer.

Because we didn’t have much money, our entertainment included books from the library, episodes of Dr. Who on PBS on our rabbit-eared television, and an occasional visit to the CUB for some free folk music in the basement. Perhaps a pizza if we were feeling flush.

While I look back fondly on those days, I remember feeling impatient for our real lives to begin. We wanted well-paying jobs, a nice house, and a car that didn’t have rusty holes in the floor pan. We had ambition! Goals! A desire for matching dinner plates, and a dishwasher, and a cat.

Fast forward the tape, now. Go past our college graduations, our first grown-up jobs, and our first house and new car and our second house and our second new car. Keep forwarding until you reach an ordinary Sunday afternoon last winter. I was sitting on the couch reading a library book and P was in the kitchen making one of his gourmet stir frys. Over the sound of meat and vegetables sizzling in the pan, he asked if I wanted to watch some Dr. Who. And of course I did. Didn’t I always?

I had this intense feeling of deja vu, and when I figured out why, I had to smile.

I saw that there we were, yet again, living in a one-room studio. We’d somehow worked our way up the American success pyramid, and then climbed most of the way back down to the lifestyle of our college days, minus the pink fridge and the ants in the carpet. We’d managed to create a life where we were living in a one-room apartment, carrying our groceries home on foot, reading free books from the library, and occasionally splurging on a pizza. We were about to cuddle on the couch and watch some Dr. Who.

All those ingredients for a good life? They’ve been with us since the very beginning.

Up In The Air

It’s been difficult to write blog posts, this last month. How do I write about what I’m up to, when I’ve got no idea where I’m headed?

I don’t know what’s next.

I finished my last consulting project of the year, and as soon as I tucked that final purple USB drive into an envelope, I burst into tears. My appreciation for how much my clients have meant to me, and my pride at what we’d accomplished together, and the reality of being done — all that emotion hit me like a gust of wind and made my knees buckle. P hugged me while I wiped my eyes, and then we walked to the post office together.

In the days that followed, I read poetry, and a half-dozen books. P and I ate lunch together and had long talks about philosophy and social justice and the world. I painted a memory of our first trip to New York City. We visited with family. And I threw out my business clothes and began shopping for some heavy leather boots like Akiko wore in my novels. (Hey, girl! I knew you were a part of me.)

I slept and slept! One night, I dreamed so vividly of life on a Martian colony that I took furious notes the next morning. Soon after, I wrote one tiny scene that *might* become a story, and the entire time it felt like I was drinking from a well that dispenses delight.

Is my life currently ‘up in the air’? Not in the ways that matter. It’s true that I have no idea where I’m going. No sense of direction. No goals. No overarching purpose, even!  And yet I feel so grounded, in my family, my marriage, my friendships, and in my passions. I know who I am, and what I value, and who I love. I think that’s why I’m feeling so steady, in the midst of all this uncertainty.

It occurs to me, on the eve of our next adventure, that the things that matter are all those things that stay the same. Because every map I look at seems to be showing me the same message:

YOU ARE HERE.  Welcome to your life!

With gratitude, I clutch that map to my chest and breathe in the sharp winter air. Because ‘here’ is exactly where I want to be.

Next Stop: Washington D.C.

Lessons from the In-Between

Last week, I facilitated a strategic planning retreat out on the Kitsap peninsula. It was my eighth year working with that group, and I always enjoy our time together. Over the weekend toasted marshmallows, and we also toasted each other. For me it was a goodbye of sorts, as I’m preparing to depart for my year of travel and debauchery. They’ll need a new consultant.

They presented me with a gift certificate to REI, which I used to buy the travel backpack I’ve had my eye on. It arrived a few days ago, and it’s perfect! Big enough to hold all my stuff, but small enough not to weigh me down. After I’d finished running my fingers over the fabric and zippers and lightweight buckles, I jotted down a list of what I want to pack for our first multi-month adventure. Three quarters of a page later, I was done.

osp40

Isn’t it pretty?

I’m excited about my new backpack, and the freedom it represents, but I’m also queasy about all this change. Letting go of my clients and my livelihood is harder than I thought it would be. I took my foot off the marketing pedal some time ago and my work has been tapering. But introducing my clients to other consultants has been what Pam Poovey might call “a kick to the ol’ emotional nutsack.”

She is such a poet!

She’s such a poet.

Over the last month I’ve managed to stress-eat an extra five pounds onto my body. I even tried talking myself out of taking next year off:

I can keep working… right?
I can do a bunch of projects over the summer, when we’re in town.
And when we aren’t in town, I can do coaching and webinars…

Yes, those things are technically true. I’m free to work next year if that’s what I want to do. But is that what I want? Am I *really* going to arrive in some beautiful new place and want to spend my time hustling for new business? I guess it could happen – I’m willing to see how it goes – but I’ve got a bigger question. Why am I trying to backpedal away from what I’ve promised myself?

Fear, probably. Being a consultant has been my identity for a long time. My response to feeling that identity slip away was to get super clingy. WAIT! I CAN KEEP IT ALL GOING. NO NEED TO PANIC! I’LL JUST WORK CONSTANTLY WHILE I TRAVEL. PROBLEM SOLVED!

Here are the questions behind my worry:

Will I want to work next year?
If so, how much?
Will my business survive, as I become semi-nomadic?
What should I tell people?

I’ve already answered the last one. My clients who hire me on a regular basis have already been informed of my plans and given other options. Everyone else (those folks who hire me intermittently) can call me when they need help, and if I’m not available at that time, I’ll connect them with someone awesome who is. Easy peasy.

The remaining questions are harder, because I have no way of knowing the answers yet. And I guess the whole not-knowing thing has been wigging me out, leading to spikes of insomnia and eating too many Cheetos.

If I look at this situation logically, it’s kind of funny. Why do I think I should know everything about what’s going to happen next year?

Because I’m used to living my life “according to plan” – that’s why.

Huh.

Lessons from the In-Between

My old life (that I loved for a long time) is slipping away fast, and that’s scary. My new life (that I’m enthused for) isn’t quite here yet, so I’m sitting here watching my old passions crumble into dust. Combine that with the fact that I’m a chick who likes to plan everything and next year is pretty plan-free—no wonder I’ve been so anxious. I’m stuck in the “in-between,” and way outside my comfort zone.

Here’s what I’m telling myself, when I feel afraid:

  • I can’t have an adventure until I let go of what’s familiar.
  • Following your bliss comes at a cost. No one tells you that, but it’s true.
  • If you miss working all that much, you can start working again. But wait and see, instead of rushing back in.
  • You and P have worked so hard for this. Enjoy it. Go see the world!

Letting go is hard! And even though I know that, knowing hasn’t made it much easier. But the good news is that I’ve only got three more months left in the in-between. Starting in January, anything’s possible.

“Let us step into the night and pursue that flighty temptress, adventure.”
― J.K. Rowling