Monday, July 09, 2007


I wrote this last summer and posted it last year. Today as I am preparing to send it to a few magazines for their consideration, here it is again on my blog.

How about you? What are the tools of your vacation?

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
My laptop computer

These are the tools of my vacation.

I’m currently staring across the street at a dozen or so mammoth 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 as 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 fix-it toolbox at home is overstocked with a wide assortment of hammers and picture hooks and wrenches and screwdrivers. Likewise, my vacation toolbox is also 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 low fat 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 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-today 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 they would 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 it 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 my kj tool 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 conscience 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. Really interesting article KJ. I like the idea of specialized toolboxes too.

    My field bag (a very small leather shoulder bag) goes everywhere I go. It contains a mini digi-camera and mini digi-recorder, cell phone, a quad-pen (3 different colored inks & pencil), pocket-size hard-cover notebook from England, wallet, gum, and lipstick! Without my field bag, I feel naked.

  2. me too, vicki. my pen is the most important.

    thanks for sharing the contents of your field bag--i enjoyed it.

  3. Hey, have a good vacation!
    My tools?
    3 digital cameras
    3 to 6 memory cards
    4 lenses
    1 flash
    cleaning material for the latter
    a portable hard disk
    swimming shorts
    3 good books
    portable phone/organiser
    1 good CD
    baseball cap
    sunclip for glasses

    I forgot the tripod on my last trip.

    Hope your back doesn't play up, enjoy, relax, have fun!

  4. I really enjoyed reading your article too KJ! PLEASE take some time to photograph ... something :) I am comforted by the fact I really only need one thing to survive, and that's a warmer top which might not even be needed during a Summer Vacation. That isn't a tool box for a great vacation though :)

  5. Scuse' me but where's da Cheehtos and the curly fries? I ain't calling it a vaycaytion without them goodies.

    You sure use too many fancy words and them long pargraphs, lyke a story. Are you a story writer of some kind?

    My vaycaytion tools would also include a can of chewing tobacco and them very important band-aids for the little uns booboos.

  6. hello pieterbie, how fun to read about your tools! i like the baseball cap best. men all over the world love their caps.

    anon, i'm not on vacation (i wrote this last summer when i was) but i will take photos--i promise. buy hey, what's this about a warmer top? are you always cold? (me too if you are--i have to carry long sleeves with me, esp in restaurants with air conditioning)

    bobo, vaycaytion? are you french?
    how many little boo-boo's do you have? did you read my post? you seem like a very nice person, bobo. are you?

  7. I love the idea of making vacation tools into life tools. I always pack waaaaay more than I can possibly get to in one little vacation...and I'm the same way in life, too. Maybe it's time I simplify and bring with me only the most important items.

    Thanks for this post KJ. It made me think!

  8. "And then comes the really hard part......overwhelmed by the chores and demands"
    I call that PVSS - Post Vacation Stress Syndrome, and its just one reason I dont much like having vacations away from home. (Im such a party-pooper!)

  9. NOT on vacation now? That's is a relief, I thought you were spending too much time looking at virtual birds instead of ones at the lake ... especially when there wasn't internet connection :) YES! I am an ice-berg too, nice to meet another one. Low blood pressure in my case plus not enough fat. Wouldn't survive where there is air-conditioning :)

  10. jessie, i am delighted if i made you think. because you make me think (and slow down and appreciate) also. i can still "see" louis on the dock. what a beautiful photograph.

    lavender, i love stay-at-home vacations. nothing better than letting time unfold as it wishes in your own space.

    iceberg, geez, i wish my brrr factor was about not enough fat. not even. boo hoo

  11. Just reading about your vacation is giving me relaxing vibes.

    My vacation tools are:
    - books (i pack minimum of 6 books for a three day trip)
    - flipflops
    - chocolate
    - my ipod

    that's pretty much it. when i'm on vacation, i also forget i have a cell phone with me. Looking at my tools, apart from the flipflops, I realize i take a lot of mini-vacations during the week as I have three of my four tools with me all the time.

  12. I take similar stuff on holiday except for the incense and coffee.
    Matches aren't allowed on flights...
    Great read!

  13. Yes, very new age :-) (just kidding :-) because really, these are good ideas. Mammoth pine trees : what a coincidence that they are in this text because I just saw some (well, I don't know exactly what species it is) ... in Flanders !

  14. My family has tool boxes alright. Once we had a checked-in luggage just full of shoes - 12 pairs in all, minus the ones we were wearing and books and magazines. For me a lipstick, SP15 facial moisturizer, a pearl necklace, Chanel No.5 perfume for the evening, Le Caleche perfume for the day, My Moleskine notebook(s), my waterman blue ink signature pen, tripple antibiotic and 1% hydrocortizone cream, band aid strips, portable manicure set(for the family), oral OTC analgesics and health insurance cards. I have not even mentioned half of what I cannot be without.

  15. That was interesting. My tool kit is simple: bathings suits, towel and sunblock, a good book or a stack of old New Yorkers, my cameras, wine, my own pillow, money.

  16. The baseball cap is a very practical thing to me.
    Since I have been on the bad side of 40 my hair has started to thin. A couple of years ago I was surprised by the sun in a bad way, one year I really got sick through a overdose of sun on the scalp.
    Another problem is that I don't tolerate sharp sunrays in my eyes when I'm reading or taking pictures, so the beak of a baseball cap can be very comforting.