We were in our sixties and faced with the reality that we couldn’t have both. We didn’t see it with such clarity at the time. All we knew was that we couldn’t afford for Don to retire and the stress was making him sick.
We had a mortgage. We also had a large outstanding debt from a bad investment. On the plus side we had some retirement savings but it was abundantly clear that it was nothing like enough money for us to maintain our somewhat ordinary middle class life, even with small government pensions. Don became both obsessed and stressed about money, largely without telling me.
He was working full-time as a neuropsychologist in private practice. His work involved assessment of people with head and brain injuries, for legal cases. He still had many outstanding cases and at any point could be called to court to give expert witness testimony. He was 68.
Prompted by a therapist he began writing every day. Three hand-written pages every morning for twelve weeks. The answer came on the third day of the first week: sell the apartment, pay off all our debts, and go travel the world on the remaining proceeds. He suggested it to me and I had no objections. None. However I tried to be ‘adult’ about making such a momentous decision and said that it was one solution, a seed, let’s see if it will grow or not. Who was I kidding? Pretty much by the next day we knew that it was what we were going to do. Within the week we had called a realtor to put our apartment on the market.
What followed was one of the most exciting, stressful, overwhelming and heart wrenching four months of our lives. That’s how long it took for our lives to change from going in one direction to going in a completely different direction.
Miracles. The time was full of miracles. Don worked in association with an injury rehabilitation company. He didn’t want to leave them stranded. Two years earlier he had thought about retiring and had tried to find a replacement for himself without success. Now suddenly there was a neuropsychologist in Ontario who wanted to move to Vancouver. We had mountains of ordinary household items and some furniture to give away – someone in our building knew a family who had just lost everything in a house fire. Our apartment sold at the peak of the housing market. As far as I know no apartment of comparable size in that building has ever sold for as much. There’s no way we could have foreseen that, let alone planned it.
When you are following the will of the Universe, when you are following your heart’s true desire, even if it looks and feels like jumping off a cliff into the unknown, all the doors will open.
From Don’s journal: 26 May 2011. It’s time – everything in my little universe has conspired to push me into letting go of everything – work, home, life-style (such as it is) and moving on to whatever The Mystery wants of me. My enthusiasm for my work has almost gone, my bookings have diminished to zero as of the end of June, my health has deteriorated to the point that I went to Emergency yesterday to get checked out for my potential risk of a heart attack, and I’m going for an MRI of my brain Friday morning because of attention and memory problems. I get it – stop working, stop working, stop working and let the Creative Force of The Universe carry me wherever it wants me to go. I clearly can’t go on as I have been – a few more months, even a couple more years, is not going to make any difference to my financial circumstances.
From Alison’ journal: 26 May 2011. Our world has been turned upside down. And so now comes the big letting go. Of everything. It all feels so inevitable. We are being swept along on a wave of creativity. We have stepped out of the old stuck place into the open space of a whole new forward movement. It feels huge and scary and inevitable. Already done. We talked for a long time last night about what we were both thinking and feeling about selling the apartment, paying off debts, and going travelling. This morning Don said that we have to commit to it completely. There are no half measures. I agree. Half measures would only create suffering and chaos. It feels as if it is already done and all that remains is for us to put the externals in place. Don wants a realtor here asap. I start today with readying the apartment for sale, and travel research. What do we do with all the furniture? All the stuff?! So much to do. Feeling completely wired. Didn’t sleep at all last night. Trust trust trust. All will fall into place in perfect timing. Trust. All is well. Let each moment tell you what to do.
Four months of Don closing a twenty-year practice, four months of clearing out every cupboard in the apartment, of choosing what to keep, what to sell, what to give away. It seems incredible now to think that we put the apartment on the market June 10th and less than three weeks later it was sold. We had to vacate by August 30th.
The apartment building where we lived has two guest suites, each an ensuite bedroom, and we arranged to move into one of them because we knew we’d not be ready to leave by the end of August. Apart from anything else Don was still dealing with outstanding business issues.
From Alison’s journal: 2 August 2011. Went to bed afraid last night. Just a mild fear of the huge move and stepping into the unknown with only the packs on our backs so to speak. So we’ll find out what it is to live with little in possessions but much in our hearts. I understand there’s nothing to be afraid of, and yet the fear arises anyway.
I’ve been resisting the process of sorting through all our stuff, deciding what to do with it, pricing it for the sale, advertising the sale, and on and on and on, facing what felt like a mountain, and full of fear that we’d never find buyers for it all. Yesterday I talked with Don about it and could see, finally, how it was just a big mind story that had coloured the whole process for me over the past few weeks – fear I’d never get it done, or done in time, or things wouldn’t sell, or we’d charge too much, or too little. Always coming from a place of fear, and so hating the process and resisting it and feeling overwhelmed by it and having it make me tired and sick. In talking to Don about it, I finally got to see it with some clarity, see it for the mind story that it is, and in the seeing let go of it. Finally. So maybe the next few days as I move towards the “Big Sale” I’ll start to enjoy myself, start to lighten up, start to have fun with the process of preparation instead of being burdened by it. This morning, at last, I feel as if there’s plenty of time, and all will get done easily and smoothly, and on the 29th we’ll move into the guest suite all set to go.
All set to go. Not so much. First there was the issue of one of Don’s outstanding cases, which was due to go to court. These cases can hang on for years and then suddenly there will be a court date. Don had been given a date when he would have to appear. Meetings with lawyers. Hoping the case will settle. Sometimes they settle in the courthouse right before going into court. Nothing to be done, but we cannot leave until it is resolved.
And then there was the issue with taxes. A red flag leapt up when a box that had always been ticked went accidently unticked on the last tax return. A phone call from a tax agent wanting to discuss this. A call to our accountant to handle the matter. Our accountant is on vacation. When she returns we send her a letter of explanation. Then the tax agent is on vacation. We are completely helpless but one thing we do know is this: if the matter is not settled in our favour we could lose everything. With back taxes, interest on unpaid back taxes, and penalties we could lose all our savings and all the proceeds from the sale of the apartment. No home, no money. We were being called upon to let go of everything. Everything.
It went on for weeks. I don’t think I can begin to express the feelings of helplessness and grief that we went through during those weeks. No money and no home. Devastated. Deep gut wrenching sobs day after day as I slowly came to terms with the idea that we could be left with nothing. Where would we live? How would we live? Our dream could be taken from us. Let go of everything. Let go. Not intellectually, but emotionally where the real clinging to desire resides. Let go. Surrender the dream, the vision, the desire, the life. Surrender it all.
Of course during this time there was no thought of making any travel plans. We were not free to leave the country. The tax issue had to be settled, and the court case had to be settled. We carried on, day by day, putting one foot in front of the other, grieving a possible loss of everything, hoping for freedom, helpless to do anything about it.
Then one day it was over. We collected our mail. There was a letter about our taxes. It said this matter is finalized. Or something similar. It had been decided. In our favour. That’s it? we asked ourselves. That’s it? It’s over? That same afternoon Don received a phone call to say the case had settled and he was no longer needed in court. September 13th 2011. On that day we were suddenly free.
I was 61 and Don was 69 and we were about to become homeless world nomads. On September 21st we boarded a flight for Italy. Four years later we are still travelling. It was the best decision we ever made. Life is full of wonder.
Photo of the day: Sunset at Tallow Beach. NSW, Australia.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.