Sabbatical 2022: Scotland

When I started planning my sabbatical, I knew I wanted to include a long distance walk in the United Kingdom. Walking provides a unique perspective of the landscape that you cannot gain any other way; and long distance walking is an integral part of the culture in the UK, especially in England and Scotland. The freedom to roam, or “everyman’s right”, is the right to access publicly and privately owned land, lakes, and rivers for recreation and exercise. Due to this legal right, people having been exploring the land here for hundreds of years; and there is a significant tourism industry built up around it.

A few friends recommended walking a portion of the West Highland Way with my daughter. As she is thirteen, I needed to pick something suitable for her age and ability, so I booked us a three-day trek through a local travel company, Macs Adventure. They coordinate the B&Bs and luggage transportation, as well as provide guidance and support. I love to walk, and I also prefer to end a long day with a hot meal, a warm shower, and a comfortable bed. This company specializes in coordinating the details so you can have both.

The West Highland Way was originally created by the British to move troops around the interior of Scotland in order to suppress rebellion. After the Jacobite uprisings, the British government significantly invested in building roads and bridges over the length and breadth of the Highlands: over 1200 miles of military roads and 700 bridges were built between 1725 and 1767. Until then, routes had existed to move cattle to the lowland markets, but most travel took place by boat, and settlements hugged coasts or major rivers.

On our first day, we arrived in late afternoon by train from Glasgow to the Bridge of Orchy. When we pulled into the station, I did a double take to ensure that we were in the right place, as the station consists only of a solitary gravel platform dominated by rolling tan and green hills. A handful of houses cluster around the lone business in town, the Bridge of Orchy Hotel, where we were staying. There is no where else to go. We checked in and enjoyed a quiet evening, but as the wind blew forcefully against our hotel window that night, and the rain lashed outside, I started to wonder if I had gotten us in over our heads.

The next morning we set out early to embark on the 19.5 km walk from the Bridge of Orchy to Kingshouse. The travel company provided me with an interactive map for my cel phone. It estimated a walk time of six hours. Although my daughter and I regularly walk for two to three hours at home with friends, six hours suddenly started to feel very ambitious, but there was no turning back now. Thankfully the weather was decent. It was cool and overcast but there was no wind or rain. We followed a steep climb as we left the Bridge of Orchy and it provided us with stunning views over Loch Tulla and the Black Mount hills.

As we passed by the isolated Inveroran Hotel, we joined the military road as it crossed Rannoch Moor: a beautiful and lonely place. It was once covered in a giant icecap and today it is covered in a bog. It takes a few hours to traverse, and provides no shelter, so it is very exposed in bad weather. I was concerned that we would get caught out, but thankfully it remained mild throughout the day, and we were able to focus our attention on enjoying the experience.

The hours spent walking with my daughter provided me with a unique opportunity to connect more deeply with her. Our conversations ebbed and flowed and it was wonderful to learn new things about her life. My daughter linked arms with me most of the way and it brought a physical closeness to the journey. We also had time to be silly, and sing fun songs, like Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance, as well as eat lots of chocolate to keep our energy levels up. We kept up a decent pace, and made good time, at 4.5 hours: arriving at the 17th century Kingshouse Hotel in Glencoe by late afternoon.

The Kingshouse Hotel is a lovely and comfortable hotel, with a decent on-site bar and restaurant. Situated in a remote valley, it provides unrivalled views of Buchaille Etive Mor, Scotland’s most photographed mountain. There are stunning vistas in every direction. Although our feet were sore, and we we tired from a full day, we were happy with its success, and we slept well that evening.

Day two started off with a celebration of my daughter’s thirteenth birthday. She opened some small gifts and ate breakfast in bed. Once she enjoyed the festivities, we set out walking. Our planned route took us from Kingshouse to Kinlochlevan. At 14.4 km, it was our shortest walk of the trip, at an estimated five hours. We began by following the old military road to Altnafeadh, which provided views of the famous ‘weeping glen’ and site of the Glencoe Massacre in 1692. This led us to the Devil’s Staircase, a highpoint of the West Highland Way at 548m. It was a challenge to climb, and it took us an hour or so to complete, but it was well worth the effort. We were rewarded with stunning views of Ben Nevis: the highest mountain in the British Isles.

Although our packed lunch was a bust, as the hotel mixed it up with another order (check out the haggis crisps), we made do with water and chocolate. To pass the time, we sang silly birthday songs, and took turns making up stories and jokes. I do not think I have laughed as much in a long while. A leisurely few hours were spent winding our way down towards the picturesque village of Kinlochleven. Situated at the eastern end of a sea loch, Loch Leven, it is surrounded by imposing mountains, and it acts as a centre for outdoor tourism and mountain sports in the region. Our walk time for the day was once again shorter than anticipated, and we checked into the lovely Allt-na-Leevan B&B by early afternoon. I cannot recommend this accommodation more highly; it was very comfortable, clean and the hosts were welcoming. Our day was topped off with a birthday dinner at a local pub, with sticky toffee pudding for dessert, a family favourite.

Our final day took us from Kinlochleven to Fort William; with 24.2 km, and an estimated walk time of seven hours, it was our longest day. The steep climb out of Kinlochlevan brought us into a remote valley and past deserted shielings historically used for tending sheep. The tenor of our day was less upbeat, as my daughter’s knee was starting to feel sore. This portion of the walk is also more desolate. We walked for a long stretch of time through flat land and grazing sheep until we eventually entered the forests of Glen Nevis with views of Ben Nevis. The Cut Wood lies around 5 km south of Fort William at the foot of the Mamore mountain range close to Lundavra. The trees were felled between 2003-2008 by a private owner and the current landscape value of the woodland is poor. It is difficult to walk through the area without feeling a deep sense of sadness due to the distressing impacts of clear-cutting.

Our final day of walking was long and we finished our descent into Fort William at close to seven hours. We were both tired and relieved to arrive into our B&B that afternoon. It felt great to successfully finish our journey. We were contented to take hot showers, order in Chinese food, and watch silly television for the rest of the evening. The next morning, we caught our train back to Glasgow, where we headed to the airport, to catch our plane to Ireland. Our Scottish adventure was filled with great memories and we will definitely be back to explore other routes.

Something to Inspire

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“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” ~ Robert F. Kennedy

My Joy Journal

I previously posted about my social media project, #JoyBlogging, in which I visually capture little moments throughout the day that give me joy. For the last few years, I have also been privately keeping a joy journal that captures more in depth personal experiences, big and small, that are particularly special to me.

I find it really useful to have a record to look back upon, and it is amazing how many of these experiences I would forget about, if I did not write them down. Every entry reflects a lovely moment, and together, they form a powerful tool; it fills me with happiness every time that I read through them.

I would like to start sharing some of these entries with you, with the hope that it will inspire you to start your own joy journal. Here is my first one:

Joy Journal #1: May 9, 2022

My dear friend Elise arrived in to Aix yesterday. We met almost twenty-eight years ago when we attended art school in Lacoste together. Provence will always be an important part of our friendship, as this is where we met, and we both maintain a special connection with the region. Elise is a painter and I am a writer. Part of our commitment on this visit is to spend time each day being creative and making work.

Today, we wandered in the old part of the city, where we came upon a little café in Place Richleme, and found a table in the shade. It sounds funny but I had never thought to go to a café to work; and I have been staying in the apartment most of the day to write. It turns out the French have a lovely café culture. You can order a coffee, and stay put for several hours, watching people, enjoying the sun on your face, and working. We had a really nice waiter who brought us each a “décaf allongé” with a little almond cookie on the side. We worked quietly, across from one another, for some time. It was a really lovely experience. It is definitely going to become a part of my daily practice from now on.

Sabbatical 2022: England

The first stop on our sabbatical trip was London, England. I rented us an Airbnb apartment in Belsize Park, as it is located close to the centre of town, and near Hampstead. I generally like to rent an apartment, rather than stay in a hotel, as it gives you the option to eat in, and a comfortable place to come back and relax. After arriving in mid-day, our first job was to stay awake until the evening to combat jet-lag.

We spent our first afternoon exploring Hamstead, a quaint residential area long loved by academics, artists and media personalities. The high street offers a range of shops and places to eat. We particularly enjoyed exploring Mary’s Living & Giving Shop, a small boutique that offers quality, upcycled clothing and furnishings. We then continued onto Hamstead Heath. It is a large park that sprawls over 800 acres, offering some of the most spectacular views in the city. The site inspired C.S. Lewis to write The Chronicles of Narnia.

The next morning, we caught a double decker bus for a tour of the sites. Whenever I travel to a big city, I find it useful to take one. It offers you a great overview of the key cultural sites, all within an hour or so, with the option to hop-on and hop-off, so you can stop and visit any attraction. I personally like to take the full tour of the city before disembarking, as it helps to orient you at the start of the trip. In the afternoon, we made our way to the V & A Museum, which is focussed on art, design and fashion. We caught the Fashioning Masculinities and Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature exhibitions, followed with tea and scones in the museum’s magnificent glass-ceilinged cafe.

On our third day, I took my daughter to visit of the Harry Potter set tour, as we are big fans of the books and films. The Warner Brother’s set is located half an hour from the city centre: easily reached by train. Although I do not generally love to visit theme parks, I had heard a lot of good things about this one, and we were not disappointed. The visit takes several hours, as you make your way through the sets, special effects and costumes. It was fun to walk through the Great Hall at Hogwarts, Gringotts bank and Diagon Alley; but what particularly struck me was the section featuring the artists who successfully translated the page to screen. It showcases their intricate drawings and models: revealing the inner workings of their vivid imaginations. It was the most inspiring part of the visit for me.

On our last day in the city, we visited Camden Market. With over 1000 shops and stalls selling fashion, music, art and food, it is a massive undertaking. We only experienced a small part of it but it was fun to explore. I ate the best falafel pita sandwich of my life at Magic Falafel. If you love middle eastern food, make sure to go there! I also discovered Celtic Dawn, London’s specialist shop in Celtic jewellery. It offers a lovely selection of pieces designed in the UK and Ireland: both my daughter and I left with something special.

We then headed over to the West End to catch a show of Moulin Rouge. The quality of theatre experience in both London and New York is unparalleled in the English speaking world. I wanted to share it with my daughter and this particular show did not disappoint. It was a sumptuous display of music, costumery and sets, featuring incredible singers and dancers. We were on the edge of our seats throughout and it received a standing ovation at the end. I felt deep gratitude to be able to return to the theatre, after two years of pandemic, and experience it live.

The next day, we caught the train north to the Lake District, where we were booked into stay at a beautiful little hotel in Grasmere located on a working farm. Twenty year ago, I lived in the north of England. I attended the University of Lancaster for my junior year abroad, I returned to complete a Masters degree, and I stayed to work at an art gallery, for a total of six years. When I started to plan my sabbatical, I knew that I wanted to return to this special place.

The Lake District is a region and a national park located in Cumbria. It is famous for its glacial lakes, rugged mountains and historic literary associations (e.g. Wordsworth, Beatrix Potter). People travel from all over the world to walk their hills. We were fortunate to have lovely weather during out three-day stay and we spent a lot of time outside exploring.

In my time living in England, I met some wonderful people; and during this visit, I reconnected with a handful of my friends that still live locally. It was incredibly special to see them again. I am always amazed how, even after long periods of time, it is possible to pick up with a good friend where you last left off. This was definitely the case on this visit and we had a lot of fun catching up. Some highlights included walking the Grasmere and Rydall Loop, and the Helm Crag Loop, as well visiting Hill Top, the farm previously owned by Beatrix Potter. The time flew by, and before we knew it, we were headed on the train up to Scotland for the second part of our sabbatical adventure.

Something to Inspire

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If I could find the right words to soothe you, 

to calm you and comfort you,

I would blanket them around you 

with blessings and prayers

And remind you that you will make it through

No matter how dim and narrow and harrowing it looks

A golden thread extends forward into eternity

pulling you forth 

A cord of light from your heart 

that connects you to the great sea of Being 

that is the whole of us

yes invisible 

but do not doubt it,

for it is the very fabric of our Being

the hidden secret 

that wells our eyes with tears

as we recognize ourselves 

in each other.

~ Mijanou (Mystic Mama)

Sabbatical 2022: And so it begins…

― Erin Hanson

Six years ago, when my marriage fell apart, I decided to do something special for myself. It had always been a dream of mine to go on a sabbatical. I had previously been waiting for my husband to take the leap with me; and when I realized that this was never going to happen, I decided to sign up for the deferred salary leave program through my work, and do it for myself. This program allows for an employee to save a portion of their salary, over a period of time, and take a temporary leave from their position at the end (between six to twelve months).

When I first joined the program, I did not really believe that I would make it to the finish line. It seemed like such a long way off and I had a hard time imagining that I could sustain the savings over such a long period of time; but it felt good to join the program and dream big for myself. I began telling people about my plan to travel with my daughter. I figured that the more I talked about it, the more likely I would follow through; and although it is hard to believe, six years flew by, and here I am about to embark on my grand adventure.

I am taking eight months off from work, with three of them spent in Europe. My thirteen year old daughter is accompanying me. Our travel itinerary includes a month travelling around the United Kingdom and Ireland and two months in France. We fly into England, continue up to Scotland, move onto Ireland, and finish up in France.

I have always been a heavy packer, so I made a concerted effort to pack light for this trip. As we are moving around so much for the first month, it makes sense to try to limit our luggage to carry on items; and I set myself a personal goal to keep things simple. It was a bit of a challenge as we needed to pack for all kinds of weather, including hiking boots and rain gear for the West Highland Way, and warm weather clothes for the south of France. Miraculously, we managed to squeeze all of our belongings into two small roll-on suitcases and backpacks.

After two years of living through a pandemic, I am finding it hard to believe that we can travel safely again. I feel nervous and excited about stepping out into the big, wide world. We begin our trip by flying from Vancouver to London, England. I am really happy to be returning there after almost twenty years, as it holds a special place in my heart. This whole experience so far feels very surreal but I am ready to be brave and take the leap. One. Two. Three. Here we go!

Something to Inspire

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“Status quo is not very helpful for spiritual growth, for using this short interval between birth and death. On the other hand, expanding our ability to feel comfortable in our own skin and in the world, so that we can be there as much as possible for other people, is a very worthy way to spend a human life.”
Excerpted from:

Welcoming the Unwelcome: Wholehearted Living in a Brokenhearted World
by Pema Chödrön

“If you make happiness your primary goal, you might miss out on the challenges that give life meaning. ..Bringing good things into your life, whether love, career success, or something else, usually involves risk. Risk doesn’t necessarily make us happy, and a risky life is going to bring disappointment. But it can also bring bigger rewards than a life played safe, as the study of happiness, academic achievement, and income suggests. Those with the highest performance at work and school made decisions that were probably unpleasant at times, and even scary…

As with everything in life, happiness has its trade-offs. Pursuing happiness to the exclusion of other goals–known as psychological hedonism–is not only an exercise in futility. It may also give you a life that you find you don’t want, one in which you don’t reach your full potential, you’re reluctant to take risks, and you choose fleeting pleasures over challenging experiences that give life meaning.”

How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. 

The full article can be read in the Atlantic:

A Fresh Slate

For the last twenty years, my garage has been overflowing with other people’s possessions: boxes, paintings and frames, dishes and china, photo albums, clothing, furniture, art work, paper work. You name it. I have stored it. Most of these items never get picked back up again. People move or they forget that they have put them there. People pass away. It has become the land of forgotten things.

This week, I spent four full days cleaning out my garage and getting rid of everything that is not mine or in active use. The junk guys had to do three pick ups from my house. It was epic and exhausting but I feel a great sense of accomplishment, ease and joy now that it is done. I have reclaimed this space. It is no longer cluttered, clogged and impossible to walk in. It is spacious and open.

It is interesting how physical spaces are often a reflection of our internal lives. I have only recently learned how to set boundaries and to say no. I was never taught this skill as a child, and if anything, I was actively taught that I should always say yes to others. No matter my own needs, the needs of others always came first.

I have since learned that this is neither healthy or sustainable. As Brené Brown says, “the most compassionate people have the most well-defined and well-respected boundaries.” This is because when they say yes, they mean it, and when they say no, they mean it. There is no hidden anger or resentment. A yes is an authentic yes. So moving forward, I am going to say no when anyone asks to store something in my garage: it is not theirs to fill up. This will leave me with the space to say yes to the things that I truly want to.

Something to Inspire

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“People often say, ‘Meditation is all very well, but what does it have to do with my life?’ What it has to do with your life is that perhaps through this simple practice of paying attention—giving loving-kindness to your speech and your actions and the movements of your mind—you begin to realize that you’re always standing in the middle of a sacred circle, and that’s your whole life. This room is not the sacred circle. Gampo Abbey is not the sacred circle. Wherever you go for the rest of your life, you’re always in the middle of the universe and the circle is always around you. Everyone who walks up to you has entered that sacred space, and it’s not an accident. Whatever comes into the space is there to teach you.”

Excerpted from:

Awakening Loving-Kindness
by Pema Chödrön, page 54

Cultivating Hope

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I really enjoyed the Netflix series, The Good Place. It follows the story of four characters who enter the afterlife and undergo a series of adventures together: Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani and Jason. It is funny, silly and smart, providing the perfect combination for a great comedy. Although full of laughs, it also has a deeply reflective undertone, commenting on how hard it is to truly be a “good” human being in our current world, even with the best of intentions.

“Life now is so complicated, it’s impossible for anyone to be good enough for the Good Place,” Michael explains to the Judge (Maya Rudolph), the overseer of the afterlife. “These days, just buying a tomato at a grocery store means that you are unwittingly supporting toxic pesticides, exploiting labor, contributing to global warming. Humans think that they’re making one choice, but they’re actually making dozens of choices they don’t even know they’re making!”

According to Roger Gottlieb, a philosophy professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, these dilemmas are unavoidable in contemporary society: “Morally, we are caught in a system we did not design, faced with unpleasant choices we would rather skip over, torn between wanting a little more ease and a nagging conscience that suggests that such ease is not worth the moral cost, and sometimes compelled to choose what we would think is the least bad of two distressing alternatives.”

Although this is a hard reality to face, the truth is that we just have to keep doing our best: moment by moment, day by day. As Glennon Doyle advises in her book, Love Warrior: “Just do the next right thing, one thing at a time. That’ll take you all the way home.” I cannot tell you much more about this tv series without giving it away. All I can say is that it is definitely worth watching. It will make you laugh, cry and reflect upon the meaning of life; and the ending is one of the best that I have ever seen. Make sure to watch it right to the final episode. You will be happy that you did. Check it out and let me know what you think!