Like many of you, I’m taking two weeks vacation, without being quite sure what that means anymore. Summers have always meant packing and planes, departures and family. But this summer will have none of those. My kids, my mom and me are spread across four continents, various phases of Covid lockdowns and an ever-shifting set of quarantine rules. So I’m giving up, settling in, and parking myself in the same small converted cow barn I’ve spent the last four months in. Instead of travelling physically, I’ll travel mentally. And spend this holiday visiting with a few of my favourite things. It started with coffee mugs. Now, it’s boots.
First though, I’ll need to slow down – and stop what I have been doing. Being busy. From baking bread to building businesses. (You are too, I know. There’s still no rye flour to be found anywhere). The countryside, I’ve discovered, is as much the centre of the world as any other place with a good broadband connection. Disconnection is today’s version of vacation, where it used to be all about locomotion. I want a break from learning new things, meeting new people and exploring the world. After spending months focused on lots of big stuff (democracy, pandemics and US-China relations come to mind), compulsively reading five different newspapers, and spending entire days on Zoom calls, I’m dreaming of pulling the plug. Instead, I’ll zoom in on the tiny, the personal, and the small.
This will take discipline. It’s not just social media that’s a drug. It’s connecting and being connected. Knowing what’s going on. Caring for your kid’s mood, your mom’s prescription and what the Chinese are doing in Hong Kong. Especially when my only visible sign of change is the unchanging chewing of the imperturbable sheep.
So here’s to one little outing a day. Join me, if you like. Tweet me a pic of your favourite things (@A_WittenbergCox), and where they take you. I’ll start with this charming pair of boots. Actually, it’s a bright red plastic toothbrush holder. But to me, it’s a powerful symbol of a big move we made a couple of years back. We decided to get a little barn in the Somerset countryside. A pair of committed urbanites, we’ve lived all our lives in various global megalopolises. Most recently, in the heart of central London, a city block from a busy tube stop. This station usually sees some eight million people emerge daily, like a massive human wave crashing through the turnstiles, washing past our front door towards important, industrious pursuits. Now, I’m surrounded by sheep who watch me walk by on my daily constitutional looking puzzled at the need for so much… movement.
Boots are the most important part of country kit since walking is the major (OK, the only) entertainment out here. There aren’t many (as in hardly any) people around, but miles of green fields spread out as far as the eye can see. I haven’t donned a pair of heels in months, which, being of rather diminutive stature, were my daily enhancers of authority. The sheep are more obedient to my miniature spaniel Daisy than any roomful of managers has ever been to my gentle, if persistent, barking about gender balance. My closet-full of chic, professional office wear, part of every consultant’s brand and armour, has been rendered (temporarily?) obsolete by an invisible bug that has little appreciation for what you’re wearing, unless you look like an astronaut. My pretty dresses are a limp memory, hanging empty over a row of heels that seem absurdly irrelevant. My webcam has been trained to zoom strategically in – to the neck up. Scarves are the invisibility cloak of the modern workplace, covering the reality of my country bumpkin boots with a slither of colourful silk.
We will all emerge changed in unknowable ways from this strange, collective human hike through a pandemic. I feel the shift in myself. From heels to boots, from crowds to herds, from town to country. The boots that got me here in life aren’t going to get me to where I need to go next. Transformations are afoot, for you, me and the world. David Whyte, in his poem, Finistere, lists what every pilgrim has to do to reach their destination:
“to empty your bags; to sort this and to leave that;/ to promise what you needed to promise all along,/ and to abandon the shoes that had brought you here/ right at the water’s edge, not because you had given up/ but because now, you would find a different way to tread.”
My little red boots remind me of my newly favourite way of figuring out the future: walking towards it. I have spent hours these past few months tramping the hills around the barn, digesting a life now more than half lived. I’ll turn sixty next summer, and having spent much of life wandering the world, I find myself ageing into a contented, daily repetition of a few ritual walks. Insights abound. They emerge, unexpectedly, at the sight of the lake in the evening mist, a field full of wildflowers, or the heron’s lift off.
Herminia Ibarra, a career-transition expert, says that people over-focus on looking inwards when they are preparing for change. She recommends adding ‘outsight’ to ‘insight.’ It’s a balance any staycation should be able to embrace. My husband leans her way. He prefers variety in his walks and loves to see new sights and hear new sounds. His curiosity and delight in the new, the British, and the local are endless and communicative. He would love to drag me out further afield. Having written this, I’m gifting him further ammunition.
But having pulled the plug and laced up my boots, I have no excuse to stay put. This staycation, my boots and I will walk a balance between the barn and the future. Where are you walking?