Simply as a cause of there being so much out there, the vast majority of everything on the internet is going to be non-applicable to any given person. Maybe one out of every 1,000 web pages is of even minor interest to me, and once you eliminate the riveting and developing Caitlyn Jenner saga, you may as well make that one in every 10,000. As if it were a Matryoshka Doll, within that tiny subset lies a much smaller group of content. These are the handful of articles, videos, or posts that seem to span the digital divide. The message is so remarkably relatable to me that it would otherwise seem to be an exclusive composition–like Michelangelo communicating to Cavalieri through canvas and brush; everyone sees paint, but his lover sees art.
This happened to me last week with this video. Please, watch it. The story is of Jedidiah Jenkins, a 30-something free spirit who, when he was around my age, recognized the dangers of routine living. In his words:
Back in California, I had this fear of building this routine in my thirties and suddenly the decade is gone. And so I promised myself that I would do something radically different.
I was hooked, and if the video were six hours long rather than four minutes, I’d still have watched with bated breath until credits rolled. It led me to think, to recollect, and to write to you today.
Life: A Composition of Memories
A life is nothing more than a composition of memories. Only memories live forever. During the frightfully short set of earth revolutions when a single human life is occurring, then a life is temporarily also a collection of material possessions–but that context of life is fleeting and superficial. In the end…of each day, of each year, or of each chapter in history, we have only thoughts, memories, and stories of what once was.
Two weeks ago, the family and I went to pick grandma up from the airport for a short stay with us. When her flight was delayed, we had a two hour void in our Saturday afternoon. We were past the airport pickup point of no return, and were already north of D.C. on our way to BWI. To pass the time, we ventured off the highway onto our old stomping grounds, where we used to live in Severn, Maryland. The memories, albeit only five or so years ago, flowed ethereally from our minds: Remember going for that bike ride to Dairy Queen? Or the time we sat on the roof of the car watching planes land? Or those countless trips to Michaels getting ready for the wedding?
Over the hour we spent driving around the old haunts, the memories echoed between the car windows until they lay so thickly that we may as well have traveled back in time to our childless dating years where our only responsibilities were to work and pay rent. Simpler times.
Despite the fact that the house we lived in was but 100 yards from our driving path, neither of us mentioned going past it. Maybe it was because we simply had enough to remember already, but equally likely was that the home itself, now, is just a structure. It belongs to another family. It is facilitating their own memory-making activities of getting ice cream and watching planes land. For them, that house is a place to rest between unassuming moments that will be remembered years henceforth. The house, for them now and for us then, will not define their tenure in Severn. Rather, commonplace activities that seem so…ordinary…will grow and endure into great fish tales that become another patch in their quilt of life.
A Slow Year
I’ve met a lot of older people. Grandparents, teachers, who give me the spiel of, “ah, my life went by so fast, just yesterday I was 19, or 25, and now…I don’t know where all that time went. I just blinked and I was 80.” And, I think about that and I’m like, what a strange way to be alive.
Our baby is almost 17 months old now. That means she’s also almost halfway to three. At three, she’ll be halfway to six, and at six, she’ll be a third of the way from going to college.
People have often told me, unsolicited, that raising children goes by so fast. They speak of their own babies, now in their twenties, thirties, or forties, and recall the years that we’re now in as mere minutes in the hours of life. I look at them with curiosity, thinking this has been the longest 17 months of my life! I believe part of slowing down life, as Jedidiah says in the video, comes from actively engaging your mind by removing routine. If you look at the first 17 months of Baby29’s life, no two days have been alike.
Her first two months were spent somewhat normally: up at crazy hours, learning new things, mommy and I learning to be new parents. Then, last May, our world turned upside down. The next year was spent in and out of hotels and apartments. Living in perpetual movement. Every two weeks was a bus trip up or down the east coast. A summer of experiences in and around New York City was followed by a winter of brick cold weather in and around a 386-square-foot New York City apartment. My days were spent interning and trying to find my place in the world. Retire29 was born. My wife learned how to homemake and cook dinner within my insane budget constraints and within the collective insanity of four walls that could be touched simultaneously by one person performing a solid stretch.
The baby grew, but each level of growth was so deliberate and difficult given our existence in this strange world. Without any support system and with financial stresses weighing heavily on my soul, I longed for a more stable future for me and my family.
A silver lining in all of this, though, was that first year of parenting took forever. I feel like we’ve had Baby29 for five years. The hardships we endured as a family created countless memories. Our struggle will soon be entirely forgotten as we exit our lease next month, but the thousands of moments that we created will live on forever. We had no routine that first year. Every day was unique. It kept my tired brain in the moment, constantly ready for change and adaptation.
A Lesson From Children
When you’re a kid everything is astonishing. Everything is new. So, your brain is awake and turned on, so every passing second your brain is learning something new, learning how the world works. So, the muscle of your brain is activated. As you get older, and your brain figures out the pattern of how the world works…the alertness goes away.
July 2nd, 2003 was a pretty crazy day. It was my first day in the U.S. Army. The day began at about 3:30 a.m. in Fort Snelling, Minnesota. It ended at about 4 a.m. the following morning at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. In the 24 hours in between, I was poked and prodded, I signed hundreds of documents, I initialed thousands more. I took a flight, I took a shuttle, I took a bus. I was sworn into service. I packed bags, I unpacked bags. I ran, I walked, I hurried-up-and-waited. I chose the top bunk. I remember this clearly: as I laid in bed on the eve of a nine-week basic training, I thought to myself, Oh my God. Nine weeks?!
As an 18-year-old, nine weeks seemed like a lifetime. That was like a whole semester in school. A nine-week high school relationship was considered “serious.” After nine weeks at a high school job, people started looking to you for career advice. High school football season? Nine weeks. Golf season? Nine weeks. Summer vacation? Maybe a bit over nine weeks, but not by much.
As a kid, nothing was longer than nine weeks. Contrast that with adulthood, and what is nine weeks? If I put nine weeks on a project plan, people will start asking if I’m crazy. You can’t put together that slideshow in nine weeks! As an adult, nine weeks is nothing! Nine weeks is the time spent between trips to the gym. Nine weeks is the time spent between days off. As adults we write off nine weeks of our life like a 2% threshold tax deduction. Ask yourself, what are you doing in the next nine weeks?
Now, nine weeks is arbitrary, but it lends itself to a bigger point. So much of our lives is on autopilot. We wake up, we eat, we commute, we work. After work we’ll play with the kids, eat again, watch some TV, and go to sleep. For two days each week, we’ll do some yardwork, fix a leaky pipe, maybe go out to dinner, head to church, or go fishing. For all intents and purposes, you’ve become disengaged from your life–even much of our leisure is autopilot.
This is a dangerous phenomenon, and one that is entirely reinforced by corporate life. U.S. companies are of the mind that work is best structured in five consecutive 8-hour blocks. Pay no mind that many people probably would work for more aggressively and efficiently under entirely different schedules (I’d love three, 13-hour days, for instance). This work routine is embedded in our lives, it blocks out in our life calendars a huge chunk of time; it is unmovable. What occurs before and after “work” yields to its demands. As a result, we create this unending routine. As a result of this routine, nine weeks goes by and we say, “What the heck happened? It’s August already?”
Stop the Routine
Look no further than, “to eliminate routine from my life” as a primary drive toward my early retirement. I don’t mind working, but working with such unbending structure is the enemy to being fully engaged in each and every day.
I think back to my story of visiting Severn, Maryland last week, and I realize that the way I’ll live my fullest life is to create as many small memories as possible. Those memories build into stories. Those stories build into a life that I exit from exhausted. My mental photo album overfloweth with stories of struggle and success. I talk often of my retirementality, and all the things I’d love to do in retirement. The list grows each day. By the time I’m in my 50’s, I want to be like the Dos Equis guy; he is the most interesting man in the world.
However, I would rather not “write off” the next four (corporate working) years of my life, either. For all of us, structured working is inevitable. The length of time you must work is highly differentiated, but we all must work at some point. So, I ask you today, make the most of your working years, avoid routine in your life. Make each year feel like five. I’m trying to do this, and this is how.
Shamed Husband and Burned Feet
As I’ve said, life is but a collection of our memories and stories. And we can most readily make memorable stories by doing things outside of our routine. When you go back to a place you used to live and work, you’ll never say, “remember that hour long commute each way and listening to the radio the whole time,” or, “remember those times we would sit around the house and watch shows and commercials,” or, “remember when we would go to the gym every once in a while and cook the same types of meals at home?”
Nobody ever will say those things because those “memories” (if you can even call them that) are just routine. Your brain is disengaged from those activities and you will fail to remember them.
Seeing this, I’m trying to take more effort in avoiding routine.
Two weeks ago the remnants of Tropical Storm Bill headed over the central Atlantic seaboard. We were hit with a band of extremely bad thunderstorms for about 45 minutes. I stood at our front door watching the mayhem. It was about 7 p.m. but it looked much darker. I love watching the rain. My wife was with the baby over in the living room when I yelled to her, “Honey, come look out the front door in 30 seconds. Exactly 30 seconds.”
Thirty seconds later, my wife peered out our window to see her husband running down the street, barefoot, wearing nothing but briefs, battling 50 mph winds and torrential rain. Thunder clapped overhead and lightning was touching ground close enough to feel the heat. Outside, I ran around the whole block, scared to death, heart racing. When I came back home, my wife–bless her heart–locked me out of the house. She was playing around, of course, and came out a few minutes later with a towel and rescued her soaked, naked husband from the ridicule of judgmental prying neighbors. Man, what a story! And to think, had I just stayed inside, I would’ve had nothing to say on the matter.
The following day, I went for a run. I often go for short runs, and sometimes even for the occasional 30-miler. This time, I decided, “hey Eric, let’s run without shoes!” So, checking my common sense at the door, I took off running barefoot. I’ve done this before, and I love it. You work out new muscles, and running feels more effortless. There’s usually a bit of discomfort as your feet acclimate to the pavement and concrete, however, this time, that pain just never went away. After a quarter mile or so, I started wondering, “hmmm, something’s different.” I realized, “oh my God, my feet are burning.” Like I said, no common sense that day, and the sun had heated the pavement to maybe 150 degrees. My feet were dying. I quickly ran home and put shoes on my now-blistering feet. Rather than call it quits and go inside, I said, “nah, let’s keep running!” So I went back out. After a mile or so, I was like, “hmmm, this is bad. My feet are really hurting.” I needed to cool them off to stop the blistering. So, I left the road and trudged through 30 yards or so of tall grass that opens up into a nice flowing creek. I sat on the banks and soaked my weary feet until I could again get up and walk without too much pain.
As I sat there, the pain subsided and I found myself relaxing on a secluded little embankment far removed from the hustle and bustle. My hurt feet was a small price to pay for a small piece of tranquility. Could I have gone to this place without the burning feet? Sure…but I wouldn’t have. I certainly will next time. Now, I have a story to tell, not only about my feet, but also I can bring the family to this creek in the future, and we can have more stories from it.
This might sound a bit like saying, “go hurt yourself, because the healing will make you feel alive!” I’m not saying that. I’m only saying that by taking yourself out of your routine, memories will come naturally–they have to. By removing yourself from your routine, your brain becomes engaged, you will find new things, experience new places, and stories will then be byproducts of your existence.
I’m not stopping at burned feet, either. Even though I have something like 300 credit hours, I’m still enrolled in college, trying to get my CPA in the next year. In August, I’m doing a 5k open water swim in D.C.’s National Harbor. And hey, maybe when I get home tonight and water our tomato plant, I’ll go ahead and drink from the garden hose—I’m full of surprises, baby!
I’m readily assuming that you, my dear reader, also have things like this going on in your own life–or at least I hope that you do. And that is great, that is exactly what I’m talking about. My advice to you today, then, is to keep it up! Don’t for a second think that you need a flight and a week’s vacation to make memories and live a fuller life. Make each day into a memorable one. Do something that scares you. Take a different path home. Step out into the rain. Cook a different dinner. There are countless way to spice up life, but each one begins when you leave the beaten path of your routine and venture into the unknown.
Thanks so much for reading!