Our Decision to Simplify Life in the Name of Wellness
When I was a kid growing up in the countryside on the outskirts of Madison, Wisconsin, my family had a spot that we visited for long weekends two - three times per year called Serendipity Farm. This little farmette, operated by an older couple Susan and Garrett, was nestled along the Kickapoo River in a beautiful valley in the driftless region of Wisconsin. It was in the middle of nowhere, so much so that I remember going to the corner store once with my dad to pick up milk that had expired over a year prior! We stayed in a cabin, the only accommodation, next to the farm house.
Upon arriving, us kids would burst into the old, simply-furnished house, charging up the creaky stairs to the second floor attic-like bedroom with an uncomfortably low-sloped ceiling and quickly claim which bed was ours! before bounding out the front door and down the slope to where the animals were. For the next two days, my sister and I in particular would chase chickens, feed horses, love on Ernie the obese potbellied pig, and name the innumerable farm kittens that would eventually follow us back to the house, hoping we’d take them in. We’d swing for hours in the hay loft and try our luck at maneuvering a small raft across the Kickapoo. We’d try to outrun the small, vicious rooster, appropriately named “killer,” as he’d charge our ankles if we ever crossed his path.
I have no idea what my parent’s did during the day on those weekends. Us kids were totally free - to run, create, imagine, explore, appreciate nature and animals, and of course, be totally disconnected from (in those days TV) and any other distractions or stressors we might have had back home. What I do remember is that we’d all meet up in the cabin at dusk, usually have watermelon seed spitting contests off the balcony and end the night with a few rounds of yahtzee before tucking into bed. Each morning, we’d awake to the “mew” of one of our beloved farm kitties and freshly baked pastries on our front step from Susan.
I grew up in a life privileged enough to incorporate quite a bit of travel, both locally and abroad. But of all the adventures I took, both alone and with my family, Serendipity is the one that is always front of mind. When I met Johel whose background was, on the surface, entirely different from my own many years later, we connected very quickly over deeper shared values of family, love of nature and freedom to explore, and connection with people.
Zoom ahead to sometime in early 2019, where we now had three kids, jobs, a house and were in our 30s. I was sitting in traffic. Stuck in traffic to be specific. On the Madison, Wisconsin beltline. In winter. Chugging along, taking my then five and eight year olds to school 25 minutes away. It was waaay longer than 25 minutes on that particular day due to rush hour and winter weather. It wasn’t a memorably miserable drive in any way, but it was mundane enough that my mind started to wander (or maybe focus?) just a bit on how routine this was for us.
Every morning, five days a week, my family of five awoke (several months of the year in the dark - thanks winter!) to slug around the house getting ready for school. I was always the first up - the ring leader, you might say - prepping lunches, laying out breakfast plates, getting myself ready for work first, eventually nudging groggy children and husband out of bed to get ready for school and work. Once everyone kicked into gear, things turned into a bit of a scramble to make sure everyone had what they needed and that we departed on time to make it to school across town. I knew every back road and side street necessary to be able to sidestep traffic jams, accidents, and snow-covered roads. I knew which bridges I could go over to catch a glimpse of what was ahead in order to make a last minute decision to exit to plan B or not in order to try to get to school on time.
After we made it, I’d drop off the kiddos, drive to work, scramble to find open street parking (I couldn’t justify paying thousands for on-site university parking), work a part-time shift, drive to the East side of Madison (read: opposite direction of my two older kiddos) to pick up my youngest at daycare (right behind my own house) to then drive back (in the opposite direction again) to pick up my older kiddos before embarking on an evening of either running to the gym, a frantic dinner before running to the gym, trying to get outside if it was nice (or even if it wasn’t) and getting everyone in bed at a quasi-reasonable hour. And those were the easy days. Once a week, the kids went to my parents’ house after school, a great experience for them, but a good 30-45 minutes from our home one way, depending on traffic. Those days involved even later nights, schlepping lunch bags, changes of clothes, and backpacks all over town, bathing them at gramma and grandpa’s house, and driving back in the dark to slip them into bed, usually much to late to be considered good parenting.
Johel had his own schedule of child-wrangling, getting three of us out the door before cleaning up the disaster we left behind, heading to the gym with little Leo in the morning before getting back in time for a quick early lunch and off to drop him at home daycare for the few hours of parental work overlap we could afford before heading off to work til about 8:30 or 9 p.m. Most days, he crossed paths with his older two kids for 30 hectic minutes in the morning and then kissed their sleeping heads at night when he got home.
Then the next day, it started all over again. Tired. Driving. Pick up. Drop off. Schedules. Rushed meals. Meals in the car. And we weren’t even a family with kids involved in all that much (violin and periodic swimming lessons). But my desire to get my kids active, outdoor time each day (after hours of sitting at school) plus my own need for some physical activity and fresh air in a life of shuttling and screen-time plus the general running around required for one mom with three kids was just crazy. And our kids didn’t even have screens. I am one of those parents who feared the screen-addiction and subsequent battles so much that we didn’t even give it the chance to propagate in our house in the first place.
And on top of the daily schedule, there were all the other pressures, societal or just in our heads, I’m not sure. Take learning, for example. I once read that kids are born with curiosity and a love of learning. Unfortunately, we teach it out of them. And it’s true. Our kids were growing up in a world where they were in a bubble of families whose (wonderful!) kids were in every activity under the sun: instruments, language, dance, and sports. That doesn’t include all the academic projects like robotics, debate, science olympiad, summer camps, and more. It was this never-ending list of activities, clubs, events, and sports that felt that, if by choosing to not be involved, we were somehow failing our children and if we chose too be involved, we were subject to endless shuttling and minimal free time. We recently watched an old Modern Family episode that hits this right on the head: Mitch and Cam panic when they find out all of 1.5 year old Lily’s playmates are getting enrolled in preschool and they fear she will fall behind. It’s laughable because it’s real. And it feels ugly. The joy and process of learning felt less like the focus, being instead replaced with achievement. More activities. More performances. More skills. More competition. More. More. More.
Then there was medical stuff. While minor, I can’t tell you how many times my kids got sick and I was hesitant to take them into the clinic (for a variety of reasons: 1. If they were officially classified as sick, then they’d stay home from school and that was a battle in and of itself, 2. Most times, couldn’t their bodies just mend themselves, I wondered? and 3. How much out of pocket, co-pay, deductible, etc. would I need to be paying for this - probably benign - issue?) It was just too messy. I’d usually cave into going when someone judged me enough that I’d schedule an appointment and then end up not even picking up whatever prescription the doctor wrote up anyways. In my heart, I knew it wasn’t necessary. But the pressure to be on top of everything and intervene and be unaware or mistrusting of our own body’s ability to heal ourselves with rest and maybe a little TLC was always present.
Which brings us back to that fateful day stuck in traffic on the beltline when I realized Oh. My. God. I have three kids. One isn’t even in school yet. I love their school. They love their school. But man, it’s far. And it’s K-8. That means….quick math…I’ll be doing this drive, usually 2 times per day, for the next 12 years.
Of course, there are many reactions to this, right? We could move closer. We could. But we liked where we lived (and I secretly balked at people who are willing to move from where they love just for their kids' primary school education). We could change schools (but we wouldn’t, because this place was a good fit). Plus there were many other factors beyond this school, this
drive, this routine that contributed to this somewhat “ah, ha!” moment. Things like:
We liked our jobs. But they wouldn’t make us rich. So from a financial point of view, not a lot was going to change and as a result, lots of new opportunities probably wouldn’t present themselves.
Our lives were too busy. I regularly discussed this rat race with friends. I mean, Johel literally got quality time with his kids two days a week. I got it a bit more than that, but really, were our school nights quality time? Hardly. We were around each other, usually sharing stressful space, I guess.
I had that nagging question looming: what if? What if we just left? Tried something new? Went somewhere totally different? Slowed down? What’s the worst that could happen? Couldn’t we just move back?
We had a small, budding business and Johel’s family abroad. Could we focus on that and make things work, choosing to go to a place where we’d have a built-in support system and a chance to refocus our lives?
Skip ahead several months after many long, what-if conversations over this simple question: could we leave this, all of it, to move backwards to a simpler life that would give us a chance to refocus on what we really valued? Ultimately, we arrived at yes. Yes, we could. And so we decided to give it a try. We would move to La Flor, Costa Rica, Johel’s hometown, a 300-person, dirt road community in the middle of pineapple country and see what happened.
The minute the decision was made, we didn’t look back, despite what seemed like endless hiccups, concerns, and challenges. It took awhile, but we were convinced that the way to really refocus our family on what we really valued: experiencing the world, being near family (even though it meant having to leave my half behind for awhile), giving our kids a bigger world view outside of their own (beloved) community, developing their language skills, spending more quality time together, and working toward our own (however small) goals for our career paths. Basically, doing what my mom once so perfectly described as “so you want your kids to have the childhood you had?” Exactly. I wanted their lives to be Serendipitous.
A life without needing to schedule in outdoor time. The one where there wasn’t this constant battle over screen time. The one where we had loads of time as kids to just be kids - wild, creative, inventive, bored, frustrated, rested, connected, heard, present, innocent.
The endless concerns were always present: naysayers whose first question was “well, what about your kids? How will they learn?” (this, to me, was always laughable. Um, from life? Instead of the internet/a text?) “What about your house?” (it was surprisingly easy to end up viewing it as just that….a house. Rent it. And if COVID hits and strands your renters in Europe? Ok, sell it.) “What about your jobs?” (We’ll figure that out.) “What if you hate it?” (Then we just come back?) We were full of “we’ll sees” and “not sure yet”, which left many people confused. But you don’t have a super-solid plan? You haven’t crossed every “t” and dotted every “i”. Nope. But isn't that what life is? We can’t plan everything, so we just need to focus on what we truly value and build our life around that, which, in our case, involved more time in nature, quality family time, a greater world view, and the chance to try out building our own small business. The rest, somehow, will fall into place if we take some basic steps to mitigate any sort of a crisis.
So zoom ahead again to 2022, 1.5 years after hunkering down in La Flor de Rio Cuarto, as I sit overlooking the evergreen of my front yard, fresh coconuts sitting in a chair beside me that Johel cut down this morning. Our lives are incredibly different from what we had in the states: there is endless fresh air here, our kids are outside daily without much nudge, we conclude every night of the week with a family meal and most nights with a game or Modern Family snuggle session. Weekend evenings are spent experimenting to make quality food with what limited options we find locally plus the bounty that simply grows all around us (Mango! Avocado! Kale! Bananas! Cilantro!) Each weekend involves a lot of physical work to maintain and start up our rural cabins and soon-to-open cafe. The kids help, too (but I’m not going to lie and say they love it!) But they are learning to get their hands-literally-dirty and learn that no work is beneath them, and trying something new and taking a chance involves a lot of work that doesn’t also pay off in the most immediate and obvious of ways.
We go on outings absolutely every weekend, hiking, swimming, and exploring the wildness that
is around our area. We crack jokes when a rowdy backyard toucan wakes us up in the morning that we can’t believe we are complaining about a rowdy backyard toucan waking us up in the morning.
Are there things we miss? Of course! Not a week goes past that I don’t fantasize about international cuisine or deep-fried cheese curds or a rhubarb bar. When my US family is getting together and something tugs at my heart strings that we’re missing it. Do I wish I could bike commute to the grocery store without getting flattened by a pineapple-hauling semi swerving to avoid a pothole like we used to do in Madison? Absolutely. Are our kids ravenous for libraries each time we set foot in the states because Costa Rica is not much of a book-centric culture? Oh, my goodness, yes! But even on the worst days, the ones where we start sweating as we roll out of bed from the heat (which isn’t too often) or I step in an ant hill that sends insects to maul my ankles or my kids come home shoulders-slumping because they are still trying to find their ways socially at school, there is something deep down that makes us not willing to throw in that proverbial towel yet. Even our kids aren’t willing (there have been times when we’ve asked, point-blank, if they have an idea of when they’d like to head back to the states. The answer is always - “not for a few years”).
I believe it’s because, no matter where we are on Earth, people have challenges and struggles. Time struggles. Money struggles. Adolescent struggles. Friend struggles. Family struggles. But being present in those struggles, being aware enough to see them for what they are, having your support system of siblings, parents, aunts, and cousins being present in your life, and knowing you are a part of something larger than those struggles - which, for us, is that of a tight-knit community, of taking time to appreciate and immerse yourself in the awesomeness that is nature, and having the chance to truly slow-down and connect to the people and things you really, really care about at the end of the day is what really matters. It matters for our whole-self health: physically, emotionally, and mentally. And that connection for us is here, in this small community, in the heart of Costa Rica and what we hope to share with those who we connect through Go Tico!
So that brings us to now, full circle, where we were here working to nurture our family through an - albeit imperfect - but Serendipitous childhood while nurturing a dream of bringing that Serendipity Farm experience to anyone who dreams to experience it. One where there are cozy cabins in a small, rural community that provide peace and space for connecting with others through conversation, board games, reading, exploring nature, making and enjoying good, local food, and sharing culture and language. One where there are travel experiences that let you feel that freedom and rush of being in places so untrampled that you can truly enjoy and be present in what you are a part of.