Mapping what's next: Questions to ask

Lately I feel a bit like I'm sitting at the far edge of the map I've created for the last 20+ years of my life. The old map and globe makers supposedly used to say (or not) about the mysteries beyond the border "here be dragons." For me, there aren't dragons, really, just a few unknown seas and a considerable amount of horizon. As Dante said at the beginning of his masterpiece Inferno "Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself within a forest dark, For the straight forward pathway had been lost."  

Until now, the life I've pieced together has been filled with my own projects and pursuits and, at the same time, considerably oriented in time and energy around the raising of a family. Two things happen this year that will rock that geography : (1) Sam will finish high school and set off, ending my stint as a resident in-house mother, and (2) we will move back to the states to a place yet to be determined. 

[Watch me get all themey with this map metaphor: For years I've navigated the Cape of Good Naps, weathered the tantrum tempests, the Sea of Puberty, and the Straits of Discipline. I've helped build new boats, furnished them with the anchors and navigation systems that have worked for us, and launched our small fleet.]  So: fresh start. Clean slate. Edge of the map. The question that's been on my mind lately is what's next? who do I want to be for the rest of (or at least next part of) my life?

It's a theme I hear frequently from my friends and our readers; whether or not they have been working full time, part time, or staying at home, this transition is fascinating and altering and opens up possibilities with whole new landscapes to navigate. I'm not just talking vocation here--though that could certainly be part of it--also pursuits and hobbies, things to learn, places to visit, projects to take on, contributions to make.  

Here's one step I recently took toward figuring these things out, an exercise at the intersection of first, know thyself and when in doubt, make a list. Earlier this year on a night when G and Sam were on a camping trip, I sat down with my notebooks spread out on the bed and started to sort out my thoughts on this whole what's next situation. I made long lists answering a host of questions to start a conversation with myself (planning + lists = my happy place).

Maybe you know exactly what's next for you. If so, high five and enjoy your fantastic map!  If, like me, you're also starting to dream/scheme/imagine/anticipate what might be next for you, here's your gentle, borderland-dwelling assignment: Answer these questions for yourself, with compassion and honesty about who you are and who you want to be. Don't stop too long to analyze as you write, just nudge all of those ideas to go mingle together on the lists.  (Bonus: These could work for helping older kids and young adults figure out what's next for them, too): 

What do I love doing?

What do I love thinking about/talking about? 

What/whom do I envy? (This can be an illuminating insight. If you feel jealous of what someone does, it's probably because it's something you wish you could do!)

What am I good at/do people say I do well? 

In what kinds of settings would those things be useful, fun, or welcome?

What would I like to still improve?

What will I let go trying to improve and just accept/embrace/learn to love about myself? 

What do I typically avoid or try to delay doing?

What might I love (given some experience/time/mentoring)?

What do I want my life to include more of/be known for?

Who are my heroes, mentors + cool people to emulate? What do they have in common?

What attributes and dreams did I used to have that I'd like to recapture (i.e., will the original version of Annie please stand up?) 

What do you think--any questions you'd add to these? I'd love to hear from any of you who are mulling over the what's next question--feel free to chime in here or email me.  I'll be back to chat about further what's next steps in future posts.

Fail to plan . . .

I know that I shouldn't rush right past Thanksgiving. And I'm not; I promise. In fact, our second born is arriving home THIS SATURDAY from college, and after a three-month absence, I'm all a-twitter and chock-full of thanks. Sterling and I are firming up our Thanksgiving menu, so there will be more on that later.

For better or worse, Thanksgiving prep and Christmas planning must inevitably coincide, at least at my house. Cards need to be ordered. The shopping needs to be done. Decorations need installing. And then there are the thousand other miscellaneous Christmas THINGS that need a slot on the calendar: like gingerbread decorating, caroling and hot cocoa, school and church parties (that require small gifts -- so many small gifts), visiting, remembering, all manner of celebrating. 

I'm thinking of putting together a Christmas planner this year -- one that I can reuse or duplicate (in some way) for subsequent years.

The eighteen25 girls do a pretty nifty planner. Each year they update the tags with the new year. The instructions for assembly are here. And new 2013 tags are here. [Edited to add: Ha! Just saw that eighteen25 posted TODAY about 2013 Christmas planners. I'm so IN SYNC. Check it out here.

Nora from JustMakeStuff is a master of organization. I'd like to hire her to run my life, and if she'd consider working for absolutely free -- I think we could make things work. She even has an entire wrapping center at her house. (Last year, it should be noted, I put up a long table in my bedroom and stocked it with wrapping supplies. I left the table up for about two weeks, and was fairly successful at corralling my Christmas mess into that one location. Three cheers!) Nora's planner incorporates a Christmas section into an existing organizational binder. See here (click on links for all of the downloads and instructions). Also, she has an entire Christmas category (along the right side of her blog) that is super fun and instructional.

If you are more of a virtual planner, Real Simple has an "Ultimate Christmas countdown Checklist" that breaks tasks down for you by date . . . and you do get to virtually tick the boxes . . . which everyone knows is exceedingly satisfying.

There is an app (of course) called The Christmas List, which is primarily a shopping app -- tracking items to be purchased, wrapped, mailed, etc. The app also includes a budget feature which allows you track the amount spent on each person on your list. (But I hate budgeting . . . so THERE.]

Whatever organizational method I end up utilizing, I'm dead set on simplifying. Manageable -- that's going to be my mantra this year.

And guess what? Jordan's Christmas is already making it's way to France. ONE DOWN . . .

What about you guys? How do you keep Christmas simple? How do you focus your big kids on the real joy of the season?


And there is the headlight, shining far down the track, glinting off the steel rails that,
ike all parallel lines, will meet in infinity, which is after all where this train is going
- Bruce Catton

(Posters by MIchael Schwab and Arnold Worldwide Partners)

(Posters by MIchael Schwab and Arnold Worldwide Partners)

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the memorable cross-country train trip I took with my son Sam when he was 11.  (See this post for more about that trip.) Together we became train converts on that adventure and it looks like we're not alone in our fandom: train ridership is at record levels this year in the US. If you're considering a trip, here are some of the nitty-gritty details of train travel with kids and teens.

When you book online with Amtrak, you can choose either coach seats or sleeping "roomettes" that have comfy recliners by day and fold-down bunks by night. When we went, we opted for the cheaper coach seats for the first night on the Lakeshore Limited (Boston-->Chicago) and beds for the next two nights on the Southwest Chief (Chicago-->LA). 

The coach seats are wide recliners with a nice stretch of leg room. I found it to be more comfortable than a red-eye plane flight but I'm not sure I would have wanted to do more than one night that way. "Recliner" might be a little generous. More like "slight-tilters."

Amtrak coach seats

Amtrak coach seats

Though booking a room (Amtrak calls them "roomettes") on the sleeping car is more expensive, roomettes also include three meals a day in the dining car, access to showers, fresh towel and linens, and personal attendant service (turn-down, newspapers, coffee/bottled water, make-up bed).  There are limited roomettes on each train, though, so be sure to book early if you know that's the way you want to go.

Playing games in the roomette

Playing games in the roomette

What does that look like, pricewise? If we were doing this same trip next month (one night in coach seats, two nights in a roomette) it looks like the cost for the two of us combined would be $656 one way (and doing the whole trip in coach seats would only be $327 for both of us).  Compared to driving that distance (including gas, lodging, food) it's definitely a bargain. While it's true that compared to flying it's not really much cheaper, we were really in it for the adventure factor as well as the transportation so it was still worth it for us. 

The dining car

The dining car

If you have a little more time or want to see more of the country, Amtrak has a fantastic rail passes program, much like the Eurail passes in Europe. You can get unlimited Amtrak coach seat tickets for 15 days/8 segments for $439 for adult, $220 for kids. (They also have 30-day and 45-day options.) Wouldn't that be a fun backpacking adventure for a graduation present?!


What to take (besides the usual):

- a pillow and an extra blanket, especially if you're in seats overnight (they're provided in the sleeping cars).
- games and decks of cards. It's fun to go to the observation car and strike up a game with another family, too.
- books galore (my Kindle really came in handy that trip so I didn't have to lug lots of books).
- a map to trace your trek, or you could stitch your route on a map as you go like this.
- I recommend this book, which gives a nice overview of what you're seeing out the window all along the way.
- comfortable clothes for lounging in (and remember pajamas/robe suitable for dashing down the hall to the restroom if you're in a roomette).
- you can bring electronics--and there are plugs available for charging--but there's no wi-fi, at least when we went. I found it to be a great excuse to take a break from all that connectivity for a few days. (You can hop off and access wi-fi at stations along the way.)
- stamps to mail home postcards from each station (You can even make a book of them when you get back home if you're so inclined.)
- a willingness to go with the flow and enjoy the journey. Really, that's the whole point, right?

Intrigued by the idea? Here's some more information to get you started:

Check out Amtrak's America by Rail blog.

If you just know you want a train adventure but don't know where, here are five best train trips in the US.

If you're not sure about a longer train adventure, here are some of the best "starter" train route suggestions.

Things to do on train layovers. Plus, those beautiful train stations are all worth a look themselves!

LA's Union Station

LA's Union Station

Finally, a few tunes to get you in the train state of mind:
Feist & Ben Gibbard : Train Song
Johnny Cash : Folsom Prison Blues
Simon & Garfunkel: Homeward Bound (did you know it was written in a train station?)

Chicago's Union Station

Chicago's Union Station