Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Vacation Tools and The Mystery of Now

First, an acknowledgement: I understand the story to follow is too long to include,and too long to read. But I can't help posting it anyway. It is the product of my recent vacation. I'm thinking about submitting it to a magazine of some kind in my active quest to "become" a writer. Of course the counselor in me can't help but add her two cents as well.....

Vacation Tools

One two inch white candle
2 black pilot pens
An unopened travel sized set of Winsor and Newton water colours
Two different sized water color sketch books
A little packet of incense
Fancy matches
A new bathing suit
15 year old spa quality flip-flops
2 books on writing: William Kinsser’s ”On Writing Well”; Julia Cameron’s “The Right to Write”
2 books by Margaret Wheatley: Turning to One Another and A Simpler Way
1 best seller: My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult
1 pound of Italian Roast Coffee
A digital camera
An unopened calligraphy set
My in-process book proposal and a sample of someone else’s

These are the tools of my vacation.

I’m currently staring across the street at a dozen or so mamouth pine trees, their stature reduced only slightly by the orange background and icy glimmer of dusk awash on Sebago Lake. JB and I are here through the kind offer of friends: one week in their just refurbished condo-house in Windham, Maine. There are two quaint lakeside houses between us and the water, but they fit nicely into the larger picture of a gorgeous lake just across the street, surrounded by gorgeous pines.

We arrived last night ready to unwind. I am hobbling with a fragile back these days but despite that I managed to pack my vacation toolbox with how I want to spend my time.

Years ago, a colleague introduced me to the idea of tools and toolboxes. He happily described his work tools as a car, calculator, map, and cigarettes, He was a self employed counselor who saw people in their homes.

That’s when I first started thinking about my own tools. At the time, mine were an umbrella (I like having a plan B), appointment book with phone numbers, also a calculator, car, and maps. (I too was a counselor who saw people in their homes). I also threw in my three “C’s”—caring, creativity and competence--because I’ve always believed that combination is what makes me and anybody else extra good at their work.

I’ve since eliminated maps and umbrellas and added a notepad and pen, books on writing, a cell phone, and fruit when I travel, My appointment book and calculator are still high on my list.

I like the idea of specialized toolboxes. A few years ago I trained Insurance Specialists and included a presentation where I handed out pictures of a toolbox and together we filled it with the skills and tools they needed for their jobs. It was an easy concept and well received. I think that’s because there’s not a situation or circumstance in life where tools of some kind or another are either necessary or helpful to have around.

It took me less than an hour to pack my vacation toolbox. This is one time that I decide who I want to be and pack accordingly. I’ve been fairly consistent over the years: always the candle, watercolors I only use once or twice a year, a generous supply of books I may or may not read. Sometimes I’ve packed interesting ideas or projects that have languished in the regular course of life, but that is not necessary this summer.

JB has packed her own tools: books on collage, art paper and materials, a scrapbook, a small vinyl 60-‘s flowered note book with little compartments for filing papers, her new nano ipod. And today we’ve added our version of “food tools”: 4 chocolate macaroons and 2 two pound lobsters.

My vacation toolbox is overstocked with more than I need or could ever get to in the 7 days we are here. But there’s a comfort in knowing how I am caring for myself. I like that I have packed choices that encourage my mind to let go and move out of the way so I can spontaneously dabble and play.

Planning in advance like this is not something I normally do. Usually I follow the demands and opportunities of daily life, doing my best to carve in personal time, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. But when I’m vacationing, I am able to pause, step back, and see all the stress I’ve been lugging around--and that weight doesn’t disappear just because the chores of life are temporarily suspended. It takes me a good week to untie that knot: when I’ve been lucky enough to have two weeks of uninterrupted vacation, the second week is often sheer joy.

Vacations allow me to change the rhythm of time, more to my own liking and to my own pace. But that doesn’t happen all at once.

It’s the end of our first day and I’d say JB and I are doing pretty well: we’ve swum 2 times in the little lake a footpath away. We’ve bought our favorite foods for the week, we shared a double lobster roll at a cozy little café,we gallivanted by car a little along Route 302, and we took our sweet shelter dog Stella for three walks--all three of us still thrilled that yesterday, despite her advancing age, injured spine, and/or lack of experience, she mastered stairs for the first time.

Tonight we had our two pound lobsters for dinner. Now I am writing, JB is reading, Stella is sleeping. Cheryl Wheeler is singing a song about New England in the background. We know that we will wake up tomorrow morning whenever we want, forego our underwear (all week!) for bathing suits, eat cinnamon bread and lowfat yogurt with fresh fruit and granola for breakfast out on the deck, poke around this three-street little lakeside community where Stella can prance off her leash, and most likely have our first swim by 10 am. If this sounds stress-free, of course it is. But it also isn’t, not yet.

It takes my mind a little time to let go. As that happens, thankfully, I will become more anchored in the present moment, less connected to the past, and less worried about the future. Virginia Woolf called these “streams of consciousness” moments. For me they’re rare glimpses into the life I would have—could have—do have--if—when I live full and real. Of course I’d rather be swimming on steamy hot days than shopping for groceries or putting in time at work, but whatever I’m doing, when I accept and stay with whatever is in front of me, I move more and think less. That sounds so new-age, but living this way is actually an increasing quandrum in modern life. I know I’m absolutely, positively not alone in acknowledging that it is remarkably, surprisingly, shockingly difficult to live in the moment. That could perhaps be a minor problem instead of a major one if it weren’t true that I only exist in this moment. I can only be-here-now. I can only do what I do and not do what I don’t do. Vacation helps me understand this. It turns the volume down and that helps my five senses more easily experience the world. “Time off” helps immensely, but I think the rhythm comes back mostly because I decide how I want it to be. I outlined the bones of that decision when I packed my vacation toolbox.

There is no TV here. No internet service. No washer/dryer. If history proves true, I know already that by the end of the week I will have added another tool in my toolbox: a new timepiece that moves as slowly and consciously as I want it to. It will be in rhythm with my body, and it will quiet my mind. It will help me move through space with greater ease.

I also know that once I return home to western Massachusetts and the land of vacuum cleaners and unpaid bills, my new timepiece will run down and acquiesce to action and activity.

And then comes the really hard part--I know this because I’ve been there before: I will be overwhelmed by the chores and demands that have waited for me. My stress will expand and my capacity to handle it will constrict. But I will also find myself at a junction where I can make a clean choice. I can’t change my circumstance and chores, but thanks to a relaxing vacation, I’ve had the chance to get reacquainted with my favorite self--with my natural self. I definitely overstocked my vacation toolbox, as usual, but it worked great. I pulled out the paints, read some books, wrote as I wished. And I swam in the cool water and hot air first and last thing everyday. I’m arriving home in balance. But I know this too: very soon my day-to-day circumstance and chores will overtake me, especially if I don’t take some thoughtful measure against them.

If I were to add some protective “life-tools” to my toolbox, what they would look like? What I would use them for? What maintenance would they require?

I wonder what it will take to restock my toolbox next week, and the week after that, and after that, with tools that will chisel away stress, sculpt support, provide anchors. Tools that will help me be and stay myself and keep me centered in some core way when the world around me goes to hell and back. I’m wonder what a specially made “kj tool” would look and feel like. Maybe it would cut away unnecessary weeds, prune back overwhelming expectations, drill though bullshit, ring an alarm when I’m at risk of going overboard. Maybe I could order the smaller size—the one with a compass attached, so it could fit in my pocket and I could take it everywhere.

If my kj tool had multiple parts, I could take my time and read the instruction book. If it were very costly, I could put it on layaway. If it were fragile, I could treat it with great care and protection. If it were very heavy or needed batteries, I could conserve it for special occasions. Maybe I could come to count on it to find my way and stay there.

A lot of life tools are already in place for me these days. And yet, my footing slip-slides too easily. I can’t imagine what it would be like to feel solid, centered, secure, for longer than vacations and stream of consciousness moments. I can’t swim 2 or 3 times a day in my non-vacation life, but I can see the sunset, smell the garden basil, touch the soil, hear my daughter’s voice, feel the warmth of friendship.

I want at least some of my vacation tools to become life tools. I want to know that my toolbox will cover most occasions. Then I can more confidently live my interesting life. My week at Sebago Lake guides me to who I am when I live like this. I want to be this Me. Here. Now.


  1. You're right, I didn't read the whole thing (though I want to and will come back when I have a chance). I just wanted to say I love your vacation kit! Mine would be very similar with a few minor changes. It reminds me, too, that those of us who are lucky enough to do what we love never need to take holidays but take our work with us! :)

  2. Wow! What a vacation. I was salivating reading your dinner and enjoyed the after dinner scene. Also loved the wardrobe and again all the good food. That would be a vacation that I want - truly relaxing.

    About the toolboxes, hey that is another great idea of yours. I think we all have it but we never really think of them as such. When I was a clinical nurse, I especially had my tools of the trade: stethoscope, trauma scissors, comfortable tennis or running shoes, pens, tubex injector, etc. Now my tools are different. Yes I love tool boxes. I have to organize mine. I have several (Work, art, travel and of course my kitchen!). Thanks for sharing your vacation.

    KJ, do try to see if you can get it published. I told you I do not like long entries but I love reading your blog. You did not even post a photo, imagine that, and I read it!

  3. KJ,

    Streaks of brilliance...your kit allows you, a spiritual being, to live a human existance and this my friend is quite a difficult task but the reward is pure and so very worth it.

    It smiles me to see someone taking the time to do for the self with such passion.