Reimagining a False Life
In April 2000 when I embarked on my solo trip around the world, I didn’t arrange to return to my corporate job at the trip’s conclusion that September. Doing so would have caused me to settle into a familiar pattern. I chose to cut off as an option what I perceived to be secure employment. This would incent me to focus on the path I was already pursuing.
I wanted to be a professional writer. I was nearly 40 years old before I acted on that dream. It took that long for me to be more uncomfortable with an inauthentic life than fumbling through the sketchy terrain of creating one for which I had no map. As scary as it was, not going for it and approaching middle age felt scarier.
Having already leapt, I chose to remain in flight. Though with only $50 in my checking account I was quickly dropping altitude. I had drained my retirement fund to finance the trip, and with money earned from writing during the trip, paid bills back home.
No matter. I was single, childfree, a handful of plants and at 39, young enough to regroup. If I hit ground before I finished building my wings, I would not take anyone with me.
It took a long time for me to be more uncomfortable with an inauthentic life than fumbling through the sketchy terrain of creating one for which I had no map.
I took a 20-hour-per-week data entry job. The idea: provide myself with predictable income that left me enough time and mental energy (no staff, organizational politics or loin girding) to generate ideas, develop content, learn the industry and market my writing to media outlets. The job paid $10.50 an hour, a colossal decrease from my full-time salary as Director of Strategic Planning for The Hartford Courant, a Connecticut newspaper. I knew I could always earn money from a job. What I didn’t know was could I extend the dream of writing beyond my trip?
I knew I could always earn money from a job. What I didn’t know was could I extend the dream of writing beyond my trip?
Putting the dream in motion involved significant personal downsizing, moving three times to trim housing expenses and continuing to freelance. I sold one piece to The New York Times Magazine, many more to The Courant, and another to The St. Petersburg Times.
My freelance income was miniscule. For the first time in my adult working life I had no discretionary income. I sluggishly paid bills to invest in my new career – writer’s association dues, local conferences, postage for query letters and submissions. Because travel was an area of my life where I felt most vital, I wanted to continue to invest in that, too. I had quit a full-time job, drained my retirement account to invest in a long-held dream, and used the realization of that dream to enter a void with no guarantees. I didn’t want financial struggle to be the sole outgrowth of the risks I had taken. More than money, I had put my belief systems on the line.
I didn’t want financial struggle to be the sole outgrowth of the risks I had taken. More than money, I had put my belief systems on the line.
A year and a day after I returned home, nearly 3,000 Americans and over 300 global nationals lost their lives when planes flew into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and when United Flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania. Also during this period a close friend, divesting herself of portions of her estate for tax purposes, sent me a five-figure gift. I used some to book a trip to Nepal as respite from immense life change. By the time I boarded the plane in December 2001, Nepal’s civil war that had begun in 1996 intensified and its government declared a state of emergency.
In the aftermath of the attacks on the United States – that included chaotic overall of airline security – and the exploding tensions in Nepal, friends thought it ill-advised for me to board a flight to Kathmandu. Yet my existence at home felt so tenuous and unpredictable that political unrest in Asia barely registered. Also, it seemed more important than ever for me to keep going, not only overseas but also in the direction of a more satisfying life. Somehow the two felt connected.
It seemed more important than ever for me to keep going, not only overseas but also in the direction of a more satisfying life. Somehow the two felt connected.
In April 2002 I returned to Peru to visit Machu Picchu. December that same year I finally touched ground in Morocco for two weeks. And in 2004 I flew to Ecuador’s varied climates, from the Amazon rain forest to the mountain capital of Quito and tropical islands of Galapagos.
In 2003, my data entry employer laid me off. A blessing. I intended that job to fill cracks in my freelance income and foster psychic space to work toward my next level of writing career. But three years had passed and, again, I had become too comfortable in a job that ceased to serve my long-term goals.
The Power of Time Off
Those three sabbatical years – 2000 to 2003 – when I leapt from familiarity to the unknown, were a period of exponential growth. I practiced my craft and learned the industry; my skin thickened as my writing encountered the marketplace; I traded stale beliefs about money and work for those that spoke to my heart and expanded my vision of the possible.
Those three sabbatical years during which I leapt from familiarity to the unknown, were a period of exponential growth.
Also during those years, print-on-demand publishing technology emerged as an author-friendly, low-cost entry into the marketplace. This catalyzed my decision to self-publish and I needed extra cash to do it. That meant earning a level of income commensurate with my corporate years.
Vowing it would be the last time, in 2003 I returned to the corporate world, heaviness in my heart offset by buoyancy in my checking account. This time I brought huge energetic shifts in my relationship to work and money, cultivated during my three-year sabbatical after my world tour.
The jobs I’d held before my trip around the world offered little inspiration beyond occasional projects I embraced because they touched a deep value of wanting to make a difference. They paid well, though. Still, I was perpetually anxious about “not having enough.” The truth? I had plenty of money. What I lacked was satisfaction, passion for how I spent 40, 50, sometimes 60 hours a week. For all the time at the office, I felt like I was running up a down escalator, exhausting energy with no value gained from the expenditure. Still, my yearning for Something More was wistful not concrete, shadows absent color and texture. So I used discretionary income in an attempt to fill a vacuum of meaning.
The truth? I had plenty of money. What I lacked was satisfaction, passion for how I spent 40, 50, sometimes 60 hours a week.
My solo world tour and my three-year sabbatical from corporate life changed all that. Stirring the murk of a life ill-fitting, Something More was perceptible though without name or form. Something More was the genesis of a map, not one handed to me but rendered with each step taken, a skill seasoned by a cruise gone bad.
Now I knew where to devote my money. This time I would truly use discretion with income, not dispose of it. I wanted to continue to travel; I wanted to invest money and learn to make it grow; I wanted time freedom to seize serendipitous opportunities. I would seek out writing workshops with quality teachers to learn how to deepen my craft. I would write books.
With this clarity and newfound focus I would harness a well-paying job to serve my work.
With clarity and newfound focus I would harness a well-paying job to serve my work.
A Buoyant Spirit
The job was full time in Corporate Communications of a financial services company in Hartford, Connecticut. The good news: I was writing. I also project managed the company’s Web properties. This exposed me to new media. As publishing became increasingly digital, this steeled my comfort with technology critical to advancing my work. It gave me, an independent author, unprecedented access to the marketplace with ease and locus of control.
I also continued as a freelance columnist for The Courant, the Connecticut newspaper for which I wrote the weekly online column (which we now call blogs) during my world trip. In many ways writing a newspaper column was the bridge between job and work. I learned much during those column-writing years. The pay was pedestrian but to my spirit worth more than most of my corporate jobs combined. It taught me craft, how to work with editors, accept feedback and negotiate changes. It organically trained me in rhythms of idea generation and copy deadlines. It provided writers’ community and affirmed a vision held since 1965, the year I learned to read and also knew I wanted to write. And on days when the job depleted me and the full-time writing dream had yet to kick in, my column filled me up. My spirit, more balanced and erect, now held amplitude to transform gossamer muse into material books. I published my first in 2005.
The pay was pedestrian but to my spirit worth more than most of my corporate jobs combined.
I love how the Universe works. In April 2008 the financial services company laid me off. In 2006 I had begun the discernment process for identifying and relocating to what I call my Rightful Geographic Home. By the time my corporate pink slip arrived I had spent two years researching and taking recon trips to five different cities in southern California. Having crossed them off my list, in February 2008 I visited Sarasota, Florida, at the urging of a friend who winters in a neighboring town. Though Florida had never been on my radar, only minutes in Sarasota I knew I’d found home.
In July that year, I relocated my belongings, severance package and unemployment benefits from Connecticut to Florida where I live and work today as a writer.
Art in Life, Life as Art
The doomed cruise was the conduit for what would become my third book. While I was traveling and writing for The Hartford Courant, women across the United States and from the Caribbean emailed not to ask about my geographic journey but my existential one. “How do you find the courage to travel on your own?” they wondered. “How do you keep from getting lonely? Don’t you feel self-conscious eating out alone?” After the first 30 emails like these I thought, There’s a book here. It would be eight years before I published Postcards and Pearls: Life Lessons from Solo Moments on the Road. But the inspiration for publication came during the cruise.
My post-world tour sabbatical would spark the idea for my first book, Cheaper Than Therapy: How to Keep Life’s Small Problems from Becoming Big Ones – The Lesson of the Paper Clips.
In my data entry job all I did for 20 hours a week was paper clip printouts of computer screens. For three years.
I loved it.
The job required five percent of my brain’s power. A refreshing blast of psychic freedom, it’s as if I were a beagle riding shotgun in a minivan, my snout pointed through the open window, tongue dangling, ears flapping against the wind. The other 95 percent of my brain listened to nutritious books on tape borrowed from a neighboring library, wrote draft freelance columns, generated new column ideas and wandered.
Wandering is not limited to geography. Also an altered state of consciousness, it allows a disembodied self to drift on currents of collective awareness with minimal attachment to the physical world. This state of wander tapped imaginative faculties that opened me to a freedom of being only previously experienced through travel.
This state of wander tapped imaginative faculties that opened me to a freedom of being only previously experienced through travel.
In this state I noticed how I interacted with paper clips. I tended to toss aside in frustration the tangled ones until, at the end of each week, I wound up with piles of knotted clips. In this modest dynamic I recognized a pattern that mirrored substantial areas of my life. I saw my actions as metaphors and wondered, If I change how I relate to these clips, could that be practice for changing my life? With that, I launched the Cheaper Than Therapy series of gift books.
The Spirit of the Traveler
How can I live like I’m on vacation all the time? During those days of whirling about the globe, I had an epiphany: travel was the only area of my life where I had no expectations. I anticipated nothing while fully engaging each moment. What bred adventure, surprise and deep experience was not knowing, surrendering to now and letting go of control. Neither was my routine ruled by measures. So attuned to the present I didn’t regard passing time. There was no time – the marking of days where I’d live between past laments and future anxieties. I flowed through moments and chose through wholesome attention – to body, spirit, and the life force of those around me – not flipping through scripts from the past or cruising on the auto pilot of comfort zone.
With no connection to a calendar whose days I was always anticipating, too often dreading and so proud of managing, I loved being free of predicting, attempting to control or anticipate the future.
How can I live like I’m on vacation all the time?
Then I’d go home, return to a pattern of worry, unable to tap the surrender core to travel’s inspiration. What was different?
What would happen if, once back home, I stayed open to possibilities rather than attach to specific outcomes? What if I dreaded no potential storms? Ruminated over no past transgression? I knew how. For decades the reflex kicked in with each plane ride. The more I pondered these questions – How could I cultivate the habit of taking life as it comes? How can I immerse myself in living, like I’m on vacation on all the time, without boarding a plane or crossing a border? – the more I recognized the arbitrariness of the dichotomy between life and travel.
Once back home I would adjust my lens to the resolution through which I perceived the people and provinces of the globe. My daily commute, the supermarket checkout line and neighborhood walks would inspire me as much as the stir of white linen canopies in Venice’s Piazza San Marco; the velvety dunes of the eastern Sahara; Bali’s kaleidoscope of color; my Vietnamese sisters.
My last international trip was in 2006, the same year my spirit called to search for rightful geographic home. Though I hadn’t planned six years of globetrotting hiatus, the fruit of this convergence has answered the question I posed 12 years ago about how to fashion a life I could feel but not see.
The answer is neither job nor paycheck; it is authentic, holistic work born from states of awareness and being. Through the coalescence of joy, wonder, enthusiasm, appreciation, experimentation, perpetual curiosity, exploring new avenues, welcoming surprise and wandering, I had begun the next leg of my journey; I had brought the spirit of the traveler home.