Remember that part in The Matrix when Neo talks to the bald, little monk boy who’s bending spoons with his mind? He tells Neo that the secret is not to try to bend the spoon, but to realize that…there is no spoon. Riiiight, little monk boy. But in hearing accounts of family sabbaticals, you’ll often hear that the moment of decision for a family was not the end of a rational assessment of the money, or job situation, or of education options; rather, the decision was the realization. The obstacles to your sabbatical are as real as you make them. Susan Pohlman, our guest contributor this week and author of Halfway to Each Other; How a Year in Italy Brought Our Family Home, makes the case for stepping out into the direction of your dreams…before you even know how you’ll get there. So go ahead, take the red pill…
Traveler, there is no path
Paths are made by walking.
-Antonio Machado, Cantores
A Decision on the Beach
by Susan Pohlman
In May of 2003, on a business trip to Italy, my husband Tim and I took a break from entertaining clients and walked along the Ligurian sea where Christopher Columbus had learned to sail as a boy. The elegant beauty of Santa Margherita lulled us into silence as we ambled along, lost in our own thoughts. We had been married sixteen years, had two beautiful children, and a cozy home on the outskirts of Los Angeles.
From the outside, our lives were idyllic, but on the inside we were painfully disconnected and confused. Neither one of us could figure out why we were so miserable, but we both agreed that we were tired of trying. I knew that our days were numbered, since I had quietly hired a lawyer prior to our trip. What I did not know was that a mere five minutes in the future my husband would utter the phrase that would change our lives forever. He stopped, asked me to move my empty gaze from the blue of the sea to the blue of his tear filled eyes and said, “I could live here.”
These four simple words began an unexpected, heart wrenching, two-day conversation that ultimately ended with our signatures on a year’s lease to an apartment in Genoa-Nervi. Tim and I made an unexpected decision to quit our jobs, sell our house, and move our family to Italy. It was irrational, ridiculous, reckless and the best decision of our lives. It saved our marriage.
Two months later we were living there. Our children, Katie (14) and Matt (11) were doubtful and fearful at first, but as we slowly slipped out of the constraints of our fast-paced Los Angeles lifestyle, we found something far sweeter. We traded in the American Dream for a dream of our own as we slowly realized that our lifestyle in Los Angeles had started, at some unknown point, to work in opposition to the values we held dear. A fine line that we had failed to notice as we ran across it, to-do lists in clenched fists.
By drastically simplifying our lives, struggling to learn a foreign language and navigating our new Italian village lifestyle, we learned what it felt like to be a family again. The challenge put us all back on the same side of the fence. Teamwork and active problem solving in a new culture provided opportunities for intimacy and abundant humor. It was both therapeutic and exhilarating. Without the constant pull of each individual in four different directions, we developed a stronger sense of family identity.
We also realized that over-planning our family’s life had stifled the excitement of discovery. Dawn to midnight schedules that filled the day extinguished any possibility of happenstance. Letting go of shoulds and musts and adopting an attitude of “let’s see where this takes us” allowed for the rebirth of enchantment and delight, two important elements that feed one’s soul. Adventure became a surprisingly powerful and restorative way of life. It forced us to live in the moment and be present for each other.
Though we moved to Italy without knowing where our life would lead us, we returned to the U.S. after one year. The lessons learned traveled back with us and enable us to maintain our sense of balance. Our change of lifestyle required a paradigm shift, and though it involved much sacrifice at first, I would do it again in a minute.
The greatest lesson learned was stunning in its simplicity: we needed to extract things from our life in order to create the emotional space needed to nurture spiritual and emotional connection. There is a fragile balance between owning something and it owning you.
When we returned from Italy and ultimately settled in Phoenix, we started saying no to things we loved in order to maintain our peaceful hearts. No to meetings, no to social engagements, no to spending money we did not have. No to more than we needed, no to clutter, no to mindless…no, no, and more no. Our yeses were reserved for those people and occasions that directly supported our family values. Though that is not easy at times, it is a small price to pay for harmony and contentedness.
Though our story is extreme, couples do not have to relocate in order to foster a stronger sense of unity. The relaxed lifestyle of Arizona already supports the family and encourages adventure in the great outdoors. The challenge is to make the commitment, with our spouses, to remain aware of the hidden downfalls of living in a culture with so many wonderful choices. There is a point at which our abundance starts to work against us. Though most of the things that fill our lives can be argued as good in and of themselves, too much is still too much. Give yourself the permission to step out of the norm and do what is best to maintain balance and emotional health. It is the doing together rather than the owning together that creates family culture and a treasure box of memories. Live and laugh in the present and embrace the moments that matter.
[Ed. Note: Susan Pohlman is a freelance writer and author of Halfway to Each Other; How a Year in Italy Brought Our Family Home. Besides her family sabbatical, you might also consider being jealous of her Power of Story retreats. And you can see the stories of others’ she shares on ExpatChat.