Wide Open

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Above: At the oldest covered bridge in the USA

My first vacation is coming up later this month. This will be the first time in my 23 years of working that I have a week long paid vacation. I have never had a week off from work before, and it has not been paid.

Given that I had to cancel my travel plans to take care of my sick family member, I will actually be having a staycation punctuated by day trips. My schedule is wide open. In fact, the only thing on my calendar for that week is meeting a friend for lunch on one of the days.

In a way, it looks like I completed my objective of slowing my life down. No longer am I running from point A to point B like a crazy person who does not know which end is up. The hard part about having so much free time is that now I feel like I’ve been drifting for the past 9 months. I don’t really have a direction anymore. I almost feel like I am maintaining status quo waiting for my family member to die to try to figure out what is next.

That may sound really mean. I don’t intend it to be. I love this family member very much. It’s just that I need a break, and I won’t be getting the break that I need since I had to cancel my travel plans.

Part of my goal for my staycation is to try to figure out what I like most about my annual ADK camping trip and try to incorporate some of those aspects into my staycation that is upcoming. How can I feel like I’m on vacation even when I am stuck at home?

The biggest part that scares me is that this is the first time in 15 years that I have not been able to take my annual break from reality, and I am apprehensive if I will be able to cope for another year without it.

Mostly, I’m just tired.

I’m preparing to head into the great wide open where I have a completely empty schedule for a week and absolutely nothing to do. It’s a little scary. I have never had this problem before. Welcome to first world problems, I guess.

What would you do with a week long blank calendar? If you were unable to leave your home for more than a day at a time because you had to be at your house at a certain hour every single day, what would you do?

Freedom at Forty Plan

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Adventure. Romance. Intrigue. These are the thoughts that come to mind when dreaming about world travel – whether backpacking through Europe, hiking through the Amazon, or braving the bone-chilling cold of the tundra to the north. These are the type of experiences that we typically have in our 20s, that decade full of existential crises in which we strive to identify who we really are and where we belong. Have your fun while you are young, because then it is time to settle down and be responsible.

Baloney. I, for one, have never done anything at the so-called developmentally appropriate time. While most people complete their bachelor degree in four or five years, I spent 15 years completing mine, fighting homelessness, illness, and trying to forge my way through the unknown forest of academia without enough social capital to weather the storm. At 36, I tell everyone I encounter that life is so much better this side of 30. I fought many battles and demons throughout my 20s and would not go back even if you paid me.

So while many people may have had the privilege of having a “gap year” or being able to travel extensively worldwide in their youth, I did not. It’s a little hard to contemplate world travel when you are trying to figure out how to get yourself to work everyday, hoping that you have a functioning vehicle and enough gas money to navigate the 12 miles between home and employment.

When I say that life is so much better on this side of 30, I truly mean it. In my 30s, I have finally grown comfortable in my own skin, I have figured out how to adult (sort of),  I finally completed not only my bachelor degree, but also graduate school, and have been able to meet life’s challenges and obligations with more confidence and grace than I ever had in my 20s. While many people may have getting a stamp in their passport as an item to be completed on their bucket list before the age of 30, I have get a stamp in my passport on my bucket list for age 40. If you haven’t noticed, for all my degrees and intelligence, I’m a little slow on the uptake on some things.

Here launches the Freedom at Forty Plan. As I approach my 37th birthday, I am looking at about 37 months to prepare to make this happen. I already have a passport. I ran a marathon in Canada right after the regulations tightened that required a passport for entry to and from Canada, before the invention of enhanced driver’s licenses for those living in border states. As many times as I have used my passport to go between Canada and USA over the years, Canada never stamps it. Plus, in my book, Canada doesn’t count. It’s our neighbor right next door. I’m looking for Adventure with a capital A.

While I have always had this dream of backpacking through Europe, it has been a rather big, daunting, and vague goal. I decided that if I am truly going to make this dream a reality, that I better pick a location, a date, and start planning and saving to make the trip happen. I chose my 40th birthday because I feel like I want to do something big to commemorate the passage from my 30s to my 40s since my 30s have been so significant, and frankly, the best decade of my life. When I go from 39 to 40, I want to do it with a bang. Practically, this also gives me about three years to try to save the money for a large trip. Unfortunately, I am not one of those people with a safety net or a strong support network, so I have to do everything on my own, and I have to work for everything I want. If I want to travel internationally, then that money is going to have to come out of my own hard earned paychecks and have to be squeezed somehow out of an already tight budget.

I began by researching airfare, so that I could get an idea of how much money I need to try to hoard over the next few years. Even after checking multiple cities in multiple locations, I have decided that Europe is way too expensive for someone with my income to be able to afford. Also, if this is going to be the first true week long vacation of my life (and it is), then I have ideas on what I want to be able to do during that week in a particular location.

I want to go surfing. It’s been years since I have been able to go ocean surfing. The past year or so, I have been landlocked to the Great Lakes. I want the big waves. While the Atlantic has been okay the past few years, it does not live up to my time on the Pacific Ocean. Plus, there are other oceans and waters that I have yet to surf.

With all the research I have done on airfare, activities, culture, and safety, I have settled on Nicaragua. Nicaragua has the beaches and is a great surfing destination. I also plan on going volcano boarding. Nica is the only place in the entire world where you can go volcano boarding. If I am going to spend money on international travel, I am going to do it all.

I am calling this my Freedom at Forty Plan, because I have sacrificed so much of myself, my relationships, and my life in the pursuit of my education, that I am now free to do whatever I want to do. I am no longer confined to a semester schedule or a particular geographic location due to classes. At forty, I will finally have the freedom to travel internationally, as I have so longed to do for many years, and hopefully attain that feeling of adventure, romance, and intrigue that I seek.

In addition to having three years to save, I also have three years to learn Spanish (again). Spanish is my fourth language, and I have not retained it, as it has proved to be the most useless of my four languages (probably hard to believe, but it’s true). While I am sure that it is probably possible to get around Central America without Spanish, I believe in being a respectful guest if I am going to visit someone else’s country. I also believe that knowing the language will empower me so that I am able to better keep myself safe (multiple food allergies remember – I don’t want to get caught in a major medical emergency in a country where I don’t speak the language), and better able to fully immerse myself in the culture and interact with the people in ways that is going to make this one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

If people do not travel in there 20s, or even if they do, most people envision being able to travel while in retirement. I want to travel as soon as possible while I can fully enjoy the experience. With all due respect, as I’m sure that there are octogenarians who do, but I do not personally envision myself still surfing in my 80s. Running marathons, maybe, but probably not still surfing.

That said, in addition to my Freedom at Forty Plan, I am also thinking about my retirement from the workforce in about 30 years or so. I have joked that I will be working until I die, but honestly, I don’t want to do that. I want to retire from the workforce and be able to enjoy life. So while I am trying to save for my Nicaragua trip, I am also trying to save for retirement. Again, I never do anything at the correct “developmental time.” I realize that I should have started saving for retirement when I started working 20 years ago, but life circumstances just did not lend itself to that reality.

I am also taking this trip to Nicaragua trying to figure out where I want to retire. I have already decided I am not going to stay in my current location. For one, I don’t want to be here that long term, and second, I can barely afford to live in my current location on my current salary; if my earnings are reduced in retirement, I definitely have to relocate.

Nicaragua will complete my bucket list item of having a stamp in my passport by age 40, and will hopefully be one of the more remarkable experiences of my lifetime. I also plan on going with the vision of retirement. In my research, I have discovered that it is sometimes cheaper to expatriate and retire in other countries than it is in the USA due to lower costs of living. Nicaragua has generous visa requirements for ex-pats from USA and Canada. Central America is one of two locations that I am seriously considering for that time when I decide to leave the workforce.

Freedom at Forty is a lovely three-year plan that may or may not also fit into my long-term life plan. If I decide not to expatriate, then I have lost nothing. I have completed my goal of international travel and I’m sure will have a phenomenal vacation. Yet, Nicaragua could also be a location where I decide to retire. I haven’t decided yet. I have 30 years to go before I get there. I’m just trying to keep all of my options open.

Adventure, romance, intrigue. My time is coming. Now that I have a location and dates planned, the hard part comes of pinching pennies, making good choices, and trying to live life while saving for my future. It may not be backpacking through Europe as I imagined, but I am sure that I am going to have the time of my life. I spent 20 years in college, working on one degree after another. Now, it is time to spend the next three years of my life trying to check an item off my bucket list.

My retirement from my career as a professional college student has truly given me the freedom to be the captain and navigate my own life unconstrained by the linear goal of achieving an education. I have many goals in life and many items on my bucket list. Freedom at Forty is just the beginning. Graduation from graduate school was not an ending; it is the beginning of the rest of my life.

School’s Out Forever!

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“If you’re not building the future, you don’t believe there is a future.” – OITNB

I never planned for life after college. I loved being in school and spent a grand total of 30 years in the organizational silo that is the education system in this country. School was something I was good at; it was an escape from a shitty childhood that I honestly never thought I would survive. I never planned for life after college because I did not think I would live to see life after college.

After four degrees, I am officially done with school, and I have been enjoying my retirement these past few months working at a job I enjoy, and trying to figure out what to do with myself. I have not really had any distinct direction. This time has been perhaps the closest thing approximating a vacation I have ever experienced.

After what seemed like a lot of bureaucratic red tape and unnecessary aggravation, my diploma finally arrived today from my most recent and final degree. Not only do I feel a huge sense of relief, but I also have a sense of closure. I have never felt this sense of closure upon obtaining any of my other diplomas; that is partially how I know and am so sure that this is, in fact, the final degree. I have a sense of peace I have not had when completing any other degree.

While my formal education may be complete, I am now a student of the world and continue to learn from books, people, and experiences that surround me. I used my formal education to help me navigate the world of hard knocks and have lived to tell the tale. I quite literally have this great big world at my feet.

Everyone has been asking me about my plans. Thus far, I have had none. I have had ideas. I may teach. I do not feel like teaching right now. I enjoy my job and am enjoying the newfound freedom that I have now that I am not in school. I have joined both a book club and a writing club so that I am still engaged in intelligent conversation on a regular basis with people who are stimulating and authentic.

In addition to my vague notions of potentially teaching on the collegiate level sometime in the future, I also have dreams of travel. I have a passport that has never been stamped. I ran a marathon in Canada shortly after a passport was required for Canada, before the introduction of “enhanced driver’s licenses” for those residents in border states, yet Canada does not stamp the passport. I have a desire to see the world beyond my own country. We only get one life and it is very short. I want to make the most of it while I am here.

My dreams of travel have also been vague. I keep saying that I want to backpack through Europe. I do. It also seems unattainable to a small town girl who never thought to survive childhood and finish school.

I have decided to come up with a three-year plan and to choose a specific destination and start making plans for travel. I figure that if I can put my dreams down on paper and start crunching numbers, then I have a more concrete goal of the amount of money I need to save to fund my trip, as well as a destination, and an anticipated travel year.

I have chosen a three-year plan instead of a five-year plan because that is when I turn 40, and I want to do it big. I am starting to think of how I really want to retire in life in 30 or 40 years after I am done working and not just done being a college student. I am thinking of all the things that I want to see and do and trying to come up with a concrete way to make that happen. I am now planning for a future that I never thought I would have.

School may be done for me. I have finished all of my degrees. I will never stop learning. I love to learn and I know that travel will only help to broaden my horizons. While I look to and build the future, I am enjoying my present. I now have time to read all the books I wanted to read but did not have time to read when I was in school. I now have time to do all the things that I want to do and did not have time to do in school because I was always rushing from home to work to class and trying to fit in all my housework and other obligations between homework and paying bills.

School may be out forever, but I am now building a future. While I have a bunch of fancy degrees, perhaps the greatest thing I have learned in my 30 years of education is that I have a future and it is mine for the choosing. It seems like it took an awful lot of education to learn one simple thing, but I am grateful. I would not change a thing or want it any other way.

KonMari is the new Carpe Diem

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It all started with the wish for freedom and a desire to travel. While it seems like only yesterday, five years ago I finally completed my bachelor’s degree after a 15-year marathon quest to acquire an education. The best-laid plans are always those fate chooses to detour the unsuspecting into some unforeseen fulfillment. The original plan was that I would complete my master’s degree in New York, providing me with the employment leverage to be able to pull in an income that would allow me to finally move out of state in pursuit of the PhD.

Although I have finally achieved the master’s degree and it was completed in New York, I no longer have the desire either to move or to pursue the PhD. However, part of that original plot was the seed that also started my journey into minimalism. In anticipation of a large inter-state move, my purpose was to decrease all my possessions that were duplicates or frivolous. I did not want to take everything I owned on such a journey.

In 2011, I closed my storage unit. Everything that was in the unit I moved into my house so that I could begin the process of downsizing to be able to move. That means that literally everything I own is currently in my house. This includes all photos, mementos, and other paraphernalia from growing up; there is nothing in storage at any relatives’ house. While closing the storage unit and moving everything into my house provided me with much anxiety over the increase in the amount of clutter, the immediate gratification was that I was no longer wasting money to store items that were not in every day use.

Not only are storage units a huge waste of money, but also according to some studies, there is currently enough storage spaces and storage units in this country to be able to provide every homeless person with housing. If only we would close our storage units and find a way to keep all of our belongings within the walls of our housing abode.

I have always viewed my minimalist journey as a work-in-progress. While the goal was freedom and travel, I did not anticipate what life would be like at the end of the minimalist journey. I fully embraced minimalism as a lifestyle change, and have been surprised and delighted at some of the unintended consequences in my feelings and psyche that this journey has brought to my life.

I have voraciously read about minimalism, and picked and chose which tenets are helpful for me and those that are not, as I have forged my own individual journey. These past few months, I have, in fact, begun to wonder: “when does it end,” and “what happens when it does.”

The past five months I have been on the waiting list for Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and it was finally my turn this week to read the novel. I was a little skeptical at first. Some of the bestsellers I have read recently, I found to be extremely disappointing and do not understand their widespread popularity. Also, I consider myself to be rather well read on the topic of minimalism and was skeptical if Kondo would be able to add anything to what I already know.

I was wrong. I completely understand why this book is so popular. Kondo offers a fresh perspective with a unique point-of-view when it comes to minimalism. So fresh, that the novel reminds me of why I started on this journey and has helped me to see the end and the end result.

I plan to go all KonMari on my own ass.

While I have to return the book back to the library in a few weeks, I will definitely be re-reading the book before I do so and may even purchase it to serve as my guide over the next several months. My goal is now to KonMari my life for 2016 and for my minimalist journey to reach a destination so that I am able to life the life I envision.

Over the past five years, I have grown stagnant in my minimalist journey. I have lost sight of my goals of freedom and travel. It is time to realign with my goals and to work to achieve them. Kondo reminded me of the purpose for my minimalist journey, and to that I say: KonMari is the new Carpe Diem.

The concept that struck me the most was that if one looks at minimalism as a journey, one will never arrive. Yet, broad, sweeping, widespread changes will enact a butterfly effect that touches every aspect of our lives. I am hoping to put her premises into effect in my life over the coming months so that I may experience joy on a daily basis and start living the life I envision.

Sometimes we become stuck in our ways of doing and our ways of being and it takes some sort of wake up call for us to see that we have become mired in gunk. Kondo’s book was just the type of shot in the arm that I needed to be able to redefine my life and kick-start my goals.

I have always had the goal of being able to travel to Europe and to backpack through the various countries. Now that school does not tie me down, I am able to move forward making life changes that will help me to realize my goal. Once we put our house in order, everything else comes into order as well.

How will you carpe diem?

Baggage Check

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One of the great things about trying something new is the ability to experiment. Minimalism has been an experiment for me in being able to find balance in my life and focus more on experiences and people than on things. One of the more drastic ways in which I engage in this experiment is through travel.

The origin of the word vacation means to break away. Vacations are appealing because they are a respite from our everyday life. When we go on vacation, we have a break from our everyday responsibilities, which includes all our stuff. You only take what you need to survive and you leave all your other belongings at home without having to worry about cleaning or transporting them.

The past few times I have traveled, I have made a conscious effort to reduce the amount of luggage I take with me. To illustrate, perhaps the most extreme example of my tendency to over pack comes when I run a full marathon. I remember a race, maybe 5 or 6 years ago, to which I traveled and had 9 pieces of luggage.

Nine pieces of luggage.

My reasoning in this was: “26.2 miles – what could possibly go wrong?” I packed all the things. Every single bit of running gear I owned I took with me, because I was uncertain of the challenge I was facing and wanted to be prepared. It was like an episode of preppers for the insecure athlete.

I am happy to report that since that time of packing nine pieces of luggage for a full marathon, I have been able to pare down significantly. I flew to Chicago a few years ago for a 4-day trip and took only a backpack and my purse. I had no checked luggage. Given some of the transfers I had to make in certain airports, I was thanking my lucky stars I had no checked baggage to keep track of as well.

Not only did I take only one backpack, but also that bag had room to spare. I was able to take a few gifts for my hosts in that bag along with the essentials I needed for the trip. Before you gasp in shock and exclaim that this is an exercise in self-deprivation, it was nothing of the sort. I did not repeat a single outfit the whole 4 days I was there and even had an outfit for a more formal outing.

Back to running. Carrying nine pieces of luggage is challenging and problematic. It is even harder trying to deal with so much luggage when you have just ran 26.2 miles and your legs are oscillating between feelings of warm Jell-O and leaden concrete. Sometimes, your legs give out, other times they lock stubbornly, but either way, having to contend with nine pieces of luggage in this state is not happening.

I am happy to report that the last time I ran a half marathon; I was able to decrease my luggage count significantly. The last time I ran a half marathon, I had one backpack (the same one I had taken on the Chicago trip), and one cooler on wheels. I always have a cooler on wheels when running a race as I have multiple food allergies and it is helpful for me to have food and snacks on hand in case I have trouble finding food I can eat that won’t kill me right away.

The more challenging concern than packing for a half marathon was packing for a full marathon. The race I just completed I had two pieces of luggage plus the cooler on wheels. I had the same backpack, plus one additional small size boat and tote bag. I consider this to be a significant improvement from nine pieces of luggage. I was able to take everything from the car to the hotel in one trip and had fewer belongings to keep track of. How many times have you left something in a hotel room because you simply had too many things to remember to repack?

I am happy to report that with a backpack, boat & tote, plus the requisite cooler for food allergies, that I had everything I needed to not only be out of town for 3 days but also to run a full marathon. 26.2 miles what can possibly go wrong indeed? I learned that all I can do is prepare the best that I can. In 26.2 miles there are many things out of my control such as weather and course conditions. The only thing I can do is pack for what is reasonably expected and hope for the best.

In streamlining my packing, I have learned to be more mindful of what I am packing. Rolling clothes instead of folding them allows me to fit more. Rolling underclothes and putting them in large Ziploc bags keep them organized, easy to find, and dry. I say dry because I also used this packing method on my last two camping trips, and when you are camping in the middle of nowhere, dry underclothes are tops on the priority list.

I have learned to pack more tops than bottoms. The jeans I wear to travel someplace can be worn again on the trip back. If you do wear the same pair of pants two days in a row, no one is going to care. Even if I do spill something on myself, most places have laundry facilities onsite or nearby. Plus, there is always the old spot clean in the sink method.

When I would pack for a race with nine pieces of luggage, I learned that I was so focused on what could potentially go wrong and ensuring that I was prepared for every scenario that I failed to enjoy the actual experience I was there to have. The best memories are not often the ones where you arrive impeccably dressed and have a mediocre time. The best stories often come from the times when you were so connected with your experience you were having that it didn’t matter what you were wearing or those times when things went so wrong that it was hilarious.

I consider my new methodology of packing to be trial runs for my ultimate dream of being able to backpack through Europe. I have a passport that has never been stamped, and if I ever get the opportunity (read: have the funds) to cross the Atlantic, I want to be sure that I am fully engaged in the experience and not worrying about the luggage I am dragging with me across a continent.

My new method of traveling with simply a backpack (and sometimes the food allergy cooler depending on the scenario) has given me more freedom to be more present in my experiences, more freedom to actually explore new locations, and has gotten me asking harder questions about the state of belongings in my home.

If I can survive for 3 or 4 days with only a backpack, what items in my home are really necessary? What could I get rid of or live without if that magical moment ever came where I had the opportunity to do a large inter-state or cross country move?

Traveling with less is a safe way in which to experiment with living with less in general but also with having a smaller wardrobe specifically. Having a smaller wardrobe means less laundry, less decision fatigue, and less stress in the mornings as I no longer stand in front of a closet with “nothing to wear.”

If you are looking for ways to experiment with simplicity in your life without making a full commitment, then travel may be the option. Think about how much luggage you typically have on a trip and think of ways in which you can cut it down.

I did not go from nine piece of luggage to one backpack overnight. It was a gradual process over the past few years (and marathons) that I worked to cut it down. I went from nine piece of luggage to seven, to five, and on down. At one point, I fit everything into a medium size duffel as my one piece of luggage. Then, I reduced the medium size duffel to a small size duffel, and finally a backpack.

How much freedom would you have while traveling if you could transfer planes or simply come off the plane without having to wait for baggage claim? You just grab your bag and explore the new place where you have landed. There is a lot of freedom in that. You can explore your surroundings immediately without having to check in to a hotel right away or trying to find someplace to store your luggage while you wait for it to be check in time at the hotel.

Let your next trip be an experiment in living with less. This is not about self-deprivation. This is about freedom. What do you really need to survive?