A New Season, A New Way

This time last year, we were flying from LA to Buenos Aires and pondering the coincidence, which felt more like fate than happenstance, that Morgan and I were starting our adventure abroad 25 years to the day after he first reached over to touch my hand and I leaned in for a kiss. (That was October 5, 1984, the fall semester of his senior and my junior year in high school.)

I’m always doing that: thinking of what we were doing this time last year. I’m also looking ahead and feeling anxious — excited, but nervous — about what we’ll be doing one year from now.

People ask all the time, “How are you doing? All settled back in?” That’s tough to answer. I usually say, “We’re doing well but still transitioning. We’re back home but not exactly settled.”

I wish I could either blog about new destinations or write a nice, tidy epilogue to the story of our trip. But we don’t have any noteworthy travel planned, and the story of what the trip meant and how it changed us is still developing.

So I want to share what we’re up to these days, and then, with some sadness and until further notice, mothball this blog. I hope the day will come when I have reason to give it a makeover and launch an encore edition.

Still having fun: Last week, Morgan and I got into the spirit of an '80s-prom theme party.

Morgan and I are working from home together (“work” broadly defined). I love having him here during the day; my concern that we’d clash while trying to be productive under the same roof proved unfounded. He’s in the process of developing ideas and networking with others to secure independent work that combines legal strategy and case preparation with design and multimedia. He’s also more involved in the community and found himself stuffing envelopes the other day for a fundraiser, the only dad in a cluster of moms. I hope he can arrive at something professionally that engages both his intellectual and artistic talents, and that also preserves the flexibility and work-life balance he appreciates so much.

I’m dividing my time writing, volunteering, running and, of course, parenting. I miss homeschooling the kids — not day in and day out, but frequently — and I get inordinately excited when they ask for help with homework, or when I spy an opportunity to enhance their regular lessons in some way. I’m doing a variety of satisfying things volunteering as a parent and an alumna, and I recently began donating time as an editor to help a cool group of women on a project to chronicle working life in America. I’m running a lot and excited about my first 50-mile race this weekend (details in my running blog).

But the main thing I’m working on — the biggest, scariest thing — is a book. A travelogue or a practical guide to long-term family travel would feel fairly manageable to produce, but I’m attempting something more personal (and hence way more difficult): a memoir about adopting a stripped-down, nomadic lifestyle and running around the globe to try to find the peace of mind and passion that kept eluding us back home. It’s about what happened and how we all changed when we took quality time to the extreme and used travel as an extension of therapy to shore up our marriage, bond as a family and re-evaluate our direction in life. Please wish me luck — I’ll need it. I’ve barely started and am hitting the wall in Mile 2 of this marathon.

Morgan and I have “no regrets,” as the tagline to this blog says. We need only look at the photos from the trip, or recognize how we work as equal partners with the kids and function as a foursome in a way we never did before 2009, to say with conviction that the year away changed us for good.

But it’s not easy to give up the status and stability that went with the law firm partnership Morgan relinquished, or to dive naked into the ocean of a book project with no buoy of confidence that it’s a story I can adequately tell — or even if I could, that it would get published. The structure, salary and built-in social network of a regular job tempt us at times, as when we bump into each other in the kitchen midday, dressed as though it were the weekend, and wonder out loud, “What exactly are we doing today — and with the rest of our lives?” But for now we’d rather feel unsettled, in all senses of the word — lacking stability, worried and uneasy, liable to change, not yet paid — than settled back in a routine that was slowly extinguishing him and spoiling me. “Gotta try new things,” as Morgan said repeatedly on the trip.

And how are the kids settling in?

Kyle and Colly, with our dog Teddy, leaving home for the first day of school.

I was so worried about how Colly would manage the transition to 7th grade, given the middle school’s heavy academic load and melodramatic social scene. Imagine going from 6th grade on the road — having one-on-one instruction, no homework, a flexible schedule, a pass-fail grading system, the world as the classroom — to 7th grade at the big middle school, where she sits in classes as one of 25 to 40, has two hours of homework nightly, tests with letter grades weekly, and hundreds of peers who got to know each other during the past year when she was away. Then, imagine having two kneecap dislocations over the summer, which necessitated a complicated surgery during the second week of school. That’s what Colly faced last month — and she responded like a world traveler. She is rising to meet the academic challenges and handling her load with more independence and aplomb than I could have hoped. She’s fitting in socially and developing hobbies, like cooking and film editing, to make up for the fact she’s hobbled by crutches. The love of reading that blossomed during the trip is still blooming — we have to enforce lights-out or she’ll stay up until midnight to finish more chapters.

I wasn’t worried about Kyle’s transition because he loved school in grades K-2 and gets along well with almost anyone, but he had a surprisingly hard time adapting to 4th grade. On a couple of occasions he teared up and his chin quivered with emotion when he asked if I could please homeschool him again. The classroom’s size (27 students), the teacher’s necessary emphasis on rules, and a relentless schedule of back-to-back assignments all combined to shock a boy who grew accustomed to learning at his own pace with individualized instruction and to following his curiosity down paths that deviated from a schedule. So much of his learning last year involved going places and experiencing things, it’s not surprising that he’s happiest with school subjects based on doing and touching: PE, science and instrumental music. He’s adjusting, but it saddens me that he now views school as something to endure. We’re trying to help by giving him a lot of free time at home. Whereas most of his peers do soccer, swim team or flag football nearly every afternoon and their weekends revolve around team games, Kyle does nothing after school but skateboarding, guitar, reading and homework.

As a family, we’re not as close as we were during the ten months on the road, but we’re communicating and getting along better than before the trip. We’re cooking a lot more and spending a lot less. The four of us eat together for breakfast and dinner, and we huddle around the TV to watch the shows we’re collectively hooked on (Master Chef, Glee, Project Runway and Modern Family). Morgan is just as likely as I am to pick up the kids, go to the grocery store, and deal with annoying things like plumbing repairs and insurance paperwork — the kinds of things he rarely used to do. I am still the one to pick up the dog’s piles on the lawn, but he mows it with a hand-push mower. (Getting rid of the mow-and-blow crew was one of the things we did to save a bit of money and help the environment.)

I was startled to see pumpkins at a pumpkin patch yesterday because we skipped the autumn season last year; we left Colorado right after the equinox and hit South America at the start of spring. I’m looking forward to buying some pumpkins to decorate our front porch, and to raking the liquid amber’s crimson leaves from our front garden. I’ll look for a pumpkin recipe to bake with Colly during our weekly cooking date. For these reasons and lots more, it’s good to be home — but I nonetheless feel pangs of longing when I flash back to that grocery store in Patagonia, on a day when a surprise spring snowstorm in the Andes foothills frosted blossoms with white. I searched the aisles in vain for canned zapallo to make a pumpkin pie and resorted to dulce de leche instead. This week, on second thought, I think I’ll find a recipe for empanadas.

“Away Together” was about going away together, and about finding a way together as a couple and as a family. Many, many thanks to all of you who were regular readers of this blog. I sometimes felt as if I were writing into a black hole and became convinced that our stories didn’t pass the “who cares?” test, but then your supportive comments came back and boosted my spirits tremendously. So long for now!

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