Monday Zen: Simplification & Leaving Spaces

Cultivating a less-complicated life and living the cast iron philosophy shouldn’t need to be an active, busy pursuit towards simplification. How would that even make sense, after all?

I opened up my email inbox this morning to a corporate reminder that I had excess vacation to use up. Somewhere in a human resources database I not only have a number that represents a full year’s worth of unused vacation days but there is a second number that is reminding me of the days I neglected to spend last year.

That second number represents nearly three weeks of time off.

Combined with the first number, I could theoretically take the entire summer off.

I say “theoretically” because realistically my work schedule and project due list is not so forgiving as to let me vanish for two whole months without consequence.

I write this if only to note that as much as I evangelise here about that aforementioned less-complicated life and living the cast iron philosophy, it is a daily effort even for me to draw a clear line between the professional self that I so often am and my personal self whom I aspire to be.

Working from home has blurred that line even more, eroding the old barrier between being at work and at home, on and off.

How then does one seek to cultivate that philosophy, pushing against the momentum of a work-a-day lifestyle that comes with being a modern suburbanite and needing to pay the bills and save for retirement?

It is like attempting to stop a boulder already rolling down the hill, and instead just following the routine and letting it roll.

Apart from scheduling breaks, the existential mindset that seems to be necessitated by a carefree approach to simplification doesn’t jive with daily video chats at exactly 9am and thirty minute lunch breaks and commuting through jostling traffic.

And as much as I have nearly two months of overdue vacation hours pending some confluence of opportunity and action and approval from a higher authority (in other words my boss) even setting aside larger chunks of time to be less “at work” doesn’t really shift anyone into a permanently new mindset.

Actively thinking about it helps.

As does planning to unplan. Preparing your world and your space and your mind to be ready when a bit of clear space opens up, for when an opportunity arises.  True spontaneity is rare, and almost impossible in the type of structured life that is required to hold down a forty hour office job.

But a plan that leaves unfilled gaps is ready to help cultivate adventure.

A simple analogy might be to think about the choices made when doing something as simple as parking your car or riding the bus. 

Often we’re inclined to reduce the gap and park close or hop off transit as near as possible to our destination. Choosing a parking spot or a bus stop with a larger gap to where you need to be leaves a space, a space that might be filled by a meandering walk through a trail, neighbourhood or a park, and through where you never really planned to go.

Cultivating a less-complicated life and living the cast iron philosophy comes from the same kind of planned lack of a plan “gap” and in leaving spaces between those more structured moments.

I look at my weeks of unspent vacation and ponder how I can best make use of it.  Sure, I should travel (and I will) and sure I could take off a big chunk of time and do something useful.  

On the other hand, those hundreds of hours of unplanned time could make for dozens of meaningful gaps in my life, gaps to be filled with spontaneity and simplification.

Cooking. Campfires. Hikes. Runs. Or even just sitting somewhere and sketching a while. 

Who can say? And that’s the point.

Travel: Disney in the Time of COVID

My wife has been waking up at three thirty in the morning lately. Deliberately. Her alarm goes off, she activates her phone, logs into the Disneyworld website, and queues up her virtual reservation system trying to get us a dinner seating at a reasonable time and place … for some time next year.

I’m not a planner.

For example, when a couple years back I ditched the official tour group, our dance studio travelling companions, for a couple days to head off in advance to Ireland leaving them behind in Scotland, I arrived in Dublin, checked into my hotel and then, simply, went for a walk.

No real destination planned. No expectations. No reservations. Not even a proper bus ticket to get me back to the start. Just me and my feet, wandering.

I plan vacations, of course. But more often than not when I get there I like to explore, take things as they come, and see what the trip presents me.

It’s great.

But here’s the thing …

We’re planning a trip to Florida for the new year.

We’re even crossing an international border, no less.

And I assumed the planning part, including booking flights, hotels, and a car rental was complete. (In fact I assumed it was complete almost two years ago when we booked it the first time but then it got cancelled and we had all these travel credits and … deep breath!)

I was wrong. In 2022 a trip to the magical magic kingdom is rife with a less-than-cavalier planning problem. You can’t just show up. You can’t “wing it.” You can’t arrive without a charged phone with the Disney app, nor lacking a catalog of ride times, neither walking in out of the parking lot hoping for anything but a day of disappointment and disaster … which brings me back to three-thirty this morning, when my wife’s alarm went off.

See, between crowd limits and general popularity, it seems as though Disneyworld has its own planning problem: tens of thousands of people arrive each and every day into their parks and all those people want to enter, play, ride, shop, eat, and exit to go back to their hotels. Rinse. Repeat.

In order to get a meal that isn’t served at a kiosk from a paper plate, we need a reservation, and reservations open so many days in advance at six in the morning Florida time, fill up in literal minutes, and we’re not on Florida time. So, if she waits until the morning … hello quick serve pizza slices for supper.

See, guys like me throw off the flow.

Disney can’t just have everyone … or really anyone … showing up and wandering, no plans, no structure, lacking expectations or reservations.

In fact, those literal reservations need to be made months in advance, setting up plans about which rides you plan to be riding on which days and which meals you intend to eat at what time and when and where … and perhaps even why…

All that spontaneous family fun, it turns out, needs to be carefully orchestrated months before the suitcases come out of storage. I already know what days and times we’ll be standing in line for that Star Wars ride or It’s a Small World, or just Starbucks to keep my eyes open with a venti coffee to help keep me alert as I reach the point of exhaustion from the meticulously planned vacation.

Partly I blame COVID. The need to organize people flow around health rules has exacerbated the drive towards app-driven, technology-backed, ultra-planned everything.

Partly it is also a symptom of going somewhere nearly universally popular.

And partly, I take the blame as someone who doesn’t thrive in this type of vacation … and taking one for the “team” so that the family can have a long-planned trip.

Next time, though, I’m just going to leave my phone at home and go get lost in the woods.