Lake Tahoe from lake level, with mountains in the backgroundwe've learned

The Value of a Long Break

Today is one full year since I last set foot in a business, nearly nine months since I last posted here on the blog, and a little more than two years since Work Optional was published. Since I last posted here, I wrote my next book (official title WALLET ACTIVISM: How to Use Every Dollar You Spend, Earn, and Save as a Force for Good – lots more info coming soon), I lost an uncle and we lost a dog (we miss you, Oly), we got a new dog (that’s Milo below), I learned how to cut Mark’s hair, and I dove headfirst into establishing a garden (I’ll also talk more about that soon). In Work Optional, I talk about the concept of a “career intermission,” and though I didn’t intend it, I accidentally took a career intermission from writing here at Our Next Life.

Small gray dog curled up on a couch

The more time passes since the last post, the more it feels like the thing I say first must be important. And for most of the last year, I haven’t felt like I had anything important to say that I hadn’t already said in my last two posts (here and here), or wasn’t putting into the new book. Most of all, I didn’t want to talk about the extreme privilege of early retirement at a time of record unemployment, a massive growth in inequality, and abject hardship experienced by so many. I still don’t.

But as the world is slowly beginning to creep back toward normal, as vaccinations pick up steam, we are all going to have the experience of returning to something from which we’ve been away a while. That’s universal. And it’s something I can speak to.

Though we’re still very much isolating here in Tahoe (if I ever meet a genie who grants me three wishes, one will definitely be for a functioning immune system), this is the value I’ve found so far from taking a break from both the world and the blog.

Tanja in 2021: double masked and blue haired

My 2021 look: blue hair, double masks

More Appreciation for the Collective

I’ve never been more grateful for having a yard than I have been in the last year. I’ve never been more grateful for grocery delivery, for the folks willing to risk their health so we don’t have to risk ours. (If you use delivery, please tip as extravagantly as you can.) But there’s one thing I’m especially grateful for.

The last year has been a mire of politicized discussions, with masks and public health measures getting twisted into a political statement rather than common sense, so much so that it’s easy to focus on all the things not happening, all the things people you don’t agree with are doing. That’s valid. But it distracts us from the bigger and far more important point:

For the better part of a year, almost the entire planet has committed a massive act of collective love.

People have stayed home. People have distanced. People have masked up. Not everyone, but most of the folks doing the right thing are the ones you never see.

That’s amazing.

And science delivered us multiple excellent vaccines in under a year, something that’s never been done. Though there’s plenty of bad news to go around, this year has actually done a lot to restore my faith in humanity, or at least parts of it. The collective action and the vaccine development speed have made me believe that we could actually address the climate emergency if we all just start taking it as seriously as we should.

Not that it’s all rainbows and lollipops. I’ll probably never forget being yelled at by some people on Instagram when I posted masked selfies in March and April of 2020, back when the public health messaging was mealy mouthed, and before mask mandates were in place. I’ll certainly never forget the stories I’ve heard and video I’ve seen of people refusing to wear masks and, worse, demanding that others remove theirs. (Proclaiming “Freedom!” but then expecting others to bend to your will seems like it’s missing the point entirely.) I’ll never forget that a big chunk of the country believes the lie that the election was stolen, and that some of them led an insurrection against the Capitol.

We can and should be angry. We can and should be sad. As of right now, we’ve lost more than half a million Americans to the pandemic, enough to fill my home town of Green Bay five times over. That loss is real, and we haven’t fully reckoned with it.

But we shouldn’t let all of the bad stuff make us miss the huge act of collective love that happened and is still happening. Billions of us have done our best to protect one another, and that’s real, too.

Group of people hugging at music festival, with one person wearing a mask

A friend sent me this, calling me a trailblazer for rocking masks at Coachella before all of this

Clearer Perspective on What’s Important

The pandemic lockdown started days before Mark and I were supposed to fly to Mexico City for a week to see Tame Impala and MGMT play at the Foro Sol. I was already packed when lockdown started, and the truth is that I’m still packed. There was never a reason to unpack, because we haven’t yet had anywhere else to go. As it became clear that this was a long-term thing, we watched our other travel plans fall, too, and the lost travel was the thing I focused on most of all.

“I can’t wait to travel again,” I’d say, over and over. Mark and I would talk about where we want to go first when things open back up, where we’d go if we can travel by winter, or by summer, or by the next winter. But that quickly changed, too.

“I can’t wait until I can grocery shop for myself,” I’d say, the goalpost moving closer. “I can’t wait until I can hang out at Tahoe without worrying about crowds, or ride a chairlift without fear. I can’t wait until I can do normal stuff.”

But now, I don’t even focus on those things. “I can’t wait until I can go back to physical therapy. I can’t wait until we can hang out with all of our friends. I can’t wait until I can hug my dad.” That’s it. That’s my focus.

Of course I’d love to travel again. Of course I’m excited to shop for myself instead of having to be okay with all the single-use grocery bags and excess packaging that arrive now that I can’t do anything about. I’d be lying if I said I won’t be stoked whenever Coachella comes back. But I don’t need any of those things. The things I can’t wait for are simple: health, friends, family.

All of our lives are complicated. Most of us are overscheduled and under-rested. And when we’re moving quickly from one thing to the next, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. It’s easy to confuse wants and needs. And wants are fine. People who write about money and tell you to cut out all the wants are robots, not actual humans who experience joy. (That is obviously hyperbole, but that advice is insensitive at best, cruel at worst.)

I do look forward to a time when I can focus on the wants again. But I’ve learned what actually matters most.

Clearer Perspective on What’s Worth Leaving Behind

I do not wish to talk about “silver linings.” There’s no upside to half a million dead Americans and 2.5 million deaths worldwide. It is a tragedy, period. None of what I’m talking about here is a silver lining or an upside or a “but at least…”. We owe it to those we’ve lost and to those who will carry the trauma of this experience with us for a long time not to put that toxic positivity on this experience. The only thing to talk about is what we’ve learned from it.

Just as I’ve learned what my true needs are, I’ve learned a ton about the things that I thought were important to me, but aren’t. So while the last year has been stripped down to the essentials out of necessity, there are so many things that won’t come back once that necessity is gone, and that’s a good thing.

I’ve learned to care a lot less about the approval of others, and I don’t think that’ll ever go back. For example, I’ve wanted to mask up while traveling for years, like people have routinely done in Asia ever since the SARS pandemic, but I didn’t want to stand out. I’m done caring about that. Same for shaking hands. I never liked doing it, but wanted to be polite. (Remember: no functional immune system over here.) From now on (or soon anyway), it’s hugs or nothing. I’m never again going to wear uncomfortable pants or shoes, or worry if my hair color is too bright for whatever I’m doing, or tone down what I really want to say because I’m afraid of seeming too opinionated. (If you notice a difference between this post and my older ones, it’s because I’m done pretending that money is apolitical.)

When I used to teach yoga, I’d sometimes parrot back the ubiquitous language of “letting go of what no longer serves you.” The phrase always felt off to me, but I couldn’t explain why. Now I can. It’s the idea of serving you. The self-centeredness of it. The idea that things should serve you, rather than you serving them, or considering what best serves all of us. And it’s the last part that I’ve learned the most about this year. Not getting rid of the things that don’t serve me, but rather the things that don’t serve anyone. That’s what we should be leaving behind most of all.

Small dog looking up at a snow bank taller than him

What’s Next

I don’t know yet when I’ll be able to get vaccinated, or whether California considers me “high risk enough” to be in the next group. We have even less idea about when Mark might be eligible as a healthy person in his 40s. The future is still a great blank. I know that I’ll be planting a garden again this summer, and that’s about as much certainty as I have about anything right now.

Likewise, I don’t know how often I’ll be posting here now that the book is done, but I know that I’m back. There’s a lot I want to say, it’s still money related, some will apply to early retirement, and some won’t. This year has taught me a lot about what’s actually important, and that also means what’s worth fighting for.

People are worth fighting for. The planet is worth fighting for.

And we as individuals have more power than we think to engage in that fight.

If that sounds good to you, then stick around. We’ll talk more soon.

P.S. I’m disabling comments on the blog moving forward, not because I don’t want to hear from you, but because they’ve tended to get more spammy and adversarial. If you want to chat, I’m on Twitter and Instagram most days, and love engaging with folks there. I also do a Q&A on Instagram on Saturdays, so come join in for that. If you want to be sure you never miss a post, sign up for email alerts.

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