In 2019, the world was living its best life. That was before the stay-home orders, quarantine, social distancing, and pandemic of 2020.
I find myself rolling my eyes as profusely over the worn-out “unprecedented times” and #stayhome as I did upon seeing #livingmybestlife in countless social media captions. But #essential? That has sparked something in me.
Since 2014, I’ve been searching for a word to describe the lifestyle I am trying to cultivate. At that time, I was working full-time, training for the Boston Marathon and Ironman Lake Placid simultaneously, leaving me little to no time for laundry, a phone call to my parents, or sleep among other priorities.
Living in a constant state of rushing and depriving myself of sleep to cram as much into my day as everyone around me did left me asking: Is this really the healthiest way to live? Could it be that living in this state of unrelenting stress is a sign that I own too much and am doing to much?
In my heart, or my na’au – that place in your gut where you perceive things without needing proof – I knew the answers.
No. A life of big productions, a big house full of belongings, closets full of clothes, and a calendar so full that my life became one big juggling act was robbing me of health, not contributing to it. And yes. The stress was a sign.
But in the midst of all the clutter and an overstuffed schedule, I found a place where the pace was slower and sweeter.
I first visited the Big Island of Hawai’i in 2004, an encounter that would change my life forever. The scent of plumeria drifting on a warm breeze as I walked across the tarmac of the Kona Airport cast a spell on my heart that I never could break.
Most years, I was blessed to simply live aloha for a week or two. If I woke up and felt like running on Ali’i Drive, I did. How far I ran was a mystery, because I didn’t own a watch with GPS and I was too mesmerized by the whales breaching offshore to look at the watch I did own.
Every day was simple and unstructured. I took a hula lesson one day, walked to the farmer’s market the next, laughed as waves pummelled me at Kekaha Kai Beach Park, hiked through lava fields and into rain forests, or chose to perfect the art of doing less and simply basking in the glow of an ethereal Kona sunset.
When I boarded the plane to fly back to Upstate New York two short weeks later, I would cry. A piece of my heart remained on Hawai’i Island. Putting a “Live Aloha” sticker on my Subaru’s bumper was not enough. Wearing a fabric plumeria clipped to my running hat when I raced was not enough. Even visiting every year or two was never enough to dull the homesickness I had for Hawai’i. The Spirit of Aloha would forever haunt me.
The Spirit of Aloha
Experiencing the Spirit of Aloha set me on a mission to simplify my life, albeit in cold, cluttered New York. But life in the North East was complicated.
I was intent on living a lifestyle that I had yet to define, and it continued to elude me. Aloha literally means “the presence of life’s breath” and I just couldn’t seem to catch mine!
After the shocking sting of a divorce, a dire MRI image, and losing my job, something odd occurred. With all that I once believed to matter stripped away, I could finally breathe! Some people have to lose it all to uncover what truly matters.
I knew what I was after and in 2017, a beautiful man came into my life who was after the same simple life I craved. In April of 2018 (exactly two years ago) I bought a one-way ticket and flew to the Big Island with my then-fiance, now-husband Patrick. A small ohana (studio apartment) was plenty of room for the three full suitcases and one backpack that I’d whittled my belongings down to.
And then I lived aloha happily ever after! Except that this proved more challenging than I’d anticipated.
Moving to Hawai’i didn’t automatically usher me into living my version of minimalism (if that was in fact what I was after).
I chose to move to an island that is part of the most geographically-isolated island chain on the planet. If you think social distancing from your next-door neighbor is difficult, try being physically distanced from your family by an ocean and a continent!
It was equally as challenging to untangle the stuff, ideas, and relationships that I had accumulated for the wrong reasons in my life. I brought my addiction to production and complication with me, and it wasn’t long before I settled back into my mainland ways. It’s hard to undo 40 years of mainland materialism and overcommitment!
Within 10 months, Patrick and I were married and moving into a condo on Ali’i Drive, the Main Street of Kona as it were. Interestingly enough, our condo was in Ali’i Villas, where I’d stayed in 2004 during that first serendipitous visit. As we unpacked, I daydreamed about how I would walk to the farmer’s market once a week, and take hula lessons again, and stroll down Ali’i Drive, marveling at a humpback whale blowing a plume of water into the salty air.
And I did. A few times. But living in a condo on Ali’i Drive was full of all the conveniences of the mainland and it cost us. In 2019, I worked at a dog kennel and a high school. I was a doctor’s personal assistant and wrote for eight different publications and online platforms. Patrick worked at the Four Seasons full-time. And we both coached cross-country at the high school.
We were so busy hustling to make enough money to live in our poolside Ali’i Drive condo with its dishwasher, washing machine, dryer, air conditioner, garbage service, landscapers, shoreline access, and patio complete with barbeque grills that we began skipping those Ali’i Drive runs.
We skimped on sleep. We both got incredibly sick. In fact, Patrick got pneumonia. We didn’t have time to enjoy sunsets with our friends, and we probably jumped in that pool three times over the course of 12 months.
I mindlessly bought unnecessary gadgets and outfits I only wore once with money that I didn’t have. I didn’t have time to walk to the farmer’s market, and so settled for food that was more convenient even though it was less affordable and less nutritious.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with Ali’i Drive or those condos (or gadgets or working at a dog kennel). But for Patrick and I, being trapped on this treadmill of working our lives away to afford to live in a place we couldn’t even enjoy clashed with everything we valued. And the worst part was that we more or less dreaded the jobs we were dragging ourselves to every day!
As endurance athletes, neither of us mind working hard at something we can pour our hearts into. But the jobs and the life we had in 2019 were draining our souls, and no amount of money could counter that effect. Then we received a phone call from C.J. Kimberly Real Estate that set a shift in motion.
Our landlord, who we had never met, would be selling the condo when our lease was up in December. This was inconvenient at first, but our way out at last.
We were finally closing the gap between the non-essential and the essential.
By the end of 2019, the transition was complete. We moved to a smaller, more affordable place (a little over 500 square-feet) on the outskirts of town. Most days, we wake up to roosters calling to the rising sun and our neighbor’s cat meowing outside the window.
I awake excited about harnessing the power of the written word to share stories worth telling from a spot where I can actually hear myself think. A few months ago, Patrick left his job at the Four Seasons to take a job at Bike Works, where he shares his passion for sport and the outdoors with all the athletes that walk into the shop! All because of a phone call from C.J. Kimberly.
Before that call, Patrick and I were so intent on escaping “the excess” that we would lay in bed at night, scheming how we could run away to Na’alehu. There at the southernmost point in the U.S., we would thrive far away from the appointments and dinner reservations and expectations. We would run and write. I would plant a garden and Patrick would play the ukulele, and we would watch the sun set into the tranquil mass of blue distancing us from everyone and every pressure of the old normal.
As it turns out, we didn’t have to move that far. We just had to answer a phone call that left us no choice but to pack up. I regard that call as divine intervention, pushing us back onto a path that enables a life of health and purpose.
Perhaps they have all been interventions of the divine:
The divorce, the labral tear, the lost job, and yes, even the stay-at-home proclamations issued to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, and the subsequent orders requiring that nonessential businesses shut down and nonessential travel be restricted.
Yes, it’s uncomfortable and we may think we want life to go back to normal. I do miss my farmer’s market strolls and I would have enjoyed our trip to Honolulu last weekend that had to be canceled.
Financial uncertainty isn’t fun. Using our vacation fund to pay bills and wondering if we’ll have enough paying work to scrape together a rent check isn’t the highlight of the year. Neither is taking Patrick’s car off insurance and sharing the Subaru. He drives off to town every morning, leaving me on the lanai with my laptop and the neighbor’s cat, surrounded by a garden’s worth of plants.
From where I write, I can see the ocean. The horizon is clearer than I can ever recall, likely a result of the decrease in carbon emissions. From here, I can see how the shut down of all that is non-essential has removed that distance between myself and this lifestyle I’ve been after.
This is a season of the essential.
Only the essential businesses, workers, travel. Leaving the house only for the essential errands and buying only the essentials because we’re living on a shoestring.
There is a lot that filled my life before this pandemic that I don’t even miss. When it comes to the non-essential, most were hardly serving me. In the case of the essential, filling my day and my heart and my home with only those is monumentally freeing!
Stay-home orders and social distancing still tire me to read, but I accept these phrases as words that sparked a divine intervention, teaching me the difference between what I assumed was essential, and what truly is. And transporting me fully and finally into essentialism.
When all this is over and the orders are lifted, what if we don’t go back to our old normal? What if we don’t abandon the gardens we planted or puzzle we started or bread we made with our family, and rush back out to the mall and the errands and the obligations?
What if we embrace the essential rather than the excess? And what if we realize how little we need to be entirely in love with life?