Life leaks away unless we stake our territory. And some of us, with newfound time on our hands after leaving full-time work, wonder how we will fill it. Actionless wondering is also a life leak.
One way I plug the leaks and take action is with “stakes in the ground,” the metaphor I use to describe booking things in advance.
About 15 years ago, I met a woman at a dinner party. She was between relationships. She said, and it impressed me at the time, “I counter the monotony of living alone by making sure I always have things to look forward to.” She booked dinners with friends, cultural outings, and trips on her own, most recently to Machu Picchu. She was driving stakes into the ground to fight loneliness and enrich her life before the inevitable involvement with a man and its compromises. She was taking affirmative action.
My wife and I have always staked the ground ahead with trips. Travel that we imagine for ourselves starts getting real the moment we drive in the first stake. A credit card number to the travel company. Airline tickets when the prices slide downward. A deposit on the right Airbnb in the right neighborhood in a city we’ve never visited. They all add up to a big stake in the ground, usually several months in the future, called “London” or “Chiang Mai” or “Namibia.”
Then we sit back. It’s staked. It will almost certainly happen. It’s no longer just a possibility. It’s the first bold step in the materialization of a dream. The stake vaults us out of our armchairs.
And the weeks pass. And we glimpse the stake up ahead, distant at first, then closer and larger as we start researching additional experiences we might want on the trip. And then, just like that, we are driving to the airport, again, not quite believing that it’s happening, again.
We all like to look forward to something. Staking the ground with experiences — be they long-distance travel or educational holidays or a week on a lake — is a way to ensure that we don’t miss out by default. Or that we don’t talk ourselves out of investments that might seem imprudent in the abstract but almost invariably prove to be magnificently rewarding in the flesh.
(Is it me, or do we become equivocators as we get older? I’m seeing it in my former resolute self. For most of my life, I’ve jumped at life-changing opportunities. I don’t jump as much these days. I’m also seeing it in my friends. It feels epidemic. I think there’s a post in there.)
Stakes are also a minor act of defiance. Time runs out. Health takes unexpected turns. Doors close. Inclinations shift. Stakes acknowledge those facts. They say: now or, perhaps, never.
It’s always important to acknowledge that it’s a privilege to be able to drive stakes in the ground if they involve the expense of travel. They might not. They might be close-to-home experiences we’ve been daydreaming about for years, like jumping out of an airplane (not me, thanks) or doing a week-long meditation retreat, or attending theatrical productions in a nearby city.
Some people are just naturally good at studding their calendar with stakes, even in the midst of busy work lives. Post-work people can drive more stakes, and not merely fit them into the remaining cracks in the calendar. We can form our calendars around them.
How many stakes?
For the big ones, I like three at any given time. A small-group tour here. A hiking week there. A month or more in a cheap, warm, spiritually uplifting part of the world over there. Perhaps throw in a week or two at a cottage on a lake where you can swim naked.
When I have three big stakes in the ground, it feels like money in the bank (although it’s actually money out of the bank).
That’s why, at the moment, having recently reverse-downsized into a larger house, we have no stakes in the ground and I’m feeling the barrenness of the un-staked horizon. I fear that time will speed up, unrestrained by the “holiday effect” of novelty and intrigue. I fear that the bucket list (a silly but effective metaphor) is beginning to rust. I wonder how many years of bountiful energy I have left to endure the inconveniences of travel to attain its rewards.
I’m edgy without stakes.
Anchors are my other trusty metaphor. They are more foundational. They are regular. Once a year. Once a month. Once a week. Most days. In a life no longer metered by full-time work, anchors prevent drift. (Taoists might ask, “What’s wrong with drifting?” and I tend to think they are right, but I find it better to have anchors that can flex. They are there like touchstones but portable, should something worthwhile come along.)
Again, lots of people anchor themselves routinely. As far as I can see, women of my age and stage are pretty good at anchoring their calendars around social engagements. Men, not as much.
What kind of anchors?
Once a year, I attend a weekend gathering of up to two dozen male friends on the shore of Georgian Bay at the cottage property of one exceedingly generous friend. We’ve been doing it for almost 25 years. We laugh, converse, drink, eat, play washer toss, play music, smoke more than the occasional joint, and enjoy a kind of Camaraderie Christmas in September. Because of that anchor, that commitment, our friendships have not drifted apart. They have remained anchored.
A monthly anchor, for me, is a book club (started eight or nine years ago) with another bunch of male friends. We gather more than many of us do in most years with friends we’ve known for years — because the club is an anchor.
Weekly, I see two of my grandchildren (and their parents) and attend three exercise classes. In warm weather, I golf twice a week, in love with walking the lushly groomed parklands that are golf courses and wrestling with my inner perfectionist who mourns like a fool when he fails, which he does with agonizing frequency. This summer, I’m vowing to send him away forever by not keeping score, a golf sacrilege I plan to commit so that the anchor of golf doesn’t become the millstone of golf.
On most days, my wife and I have coffee together in the morning and tea before dinner — bookend anchors. On many days, I meditate before breakfast and walk with a friend in the late afternoon — anchors of existence.
Of course, these are also called “routines.” But “anchor” has a more appealing connotation than ”routine,” which sounds mundane. Not to undervalue routines, mind you. We get big things done over time in small increments through routine. We maintain things with routine, ourselves foremost.
Anchors are like good friends. Regular. Consistent. Supportive. Stakes are exotic encounters, like a satisfying conversation with wise person, or an emancipating dance with an intoxicating stranger, or maybe a lavish meal you couldn’t tolerate as a steady diet but should, for the sake of the soul, eat several times a year with utter abandon. Fleeting. Glorious.
The art is to stake and anchor just enough to feel a reassuring rhythm and to relish the right degree of anticipation without living too much in the future.
The mistake (mis-stake?) is to stake and anchor ourselves to an agenda that inhibits improvisation, which is, after all, one of the most exhilarating gifts of the work-free life.
Okay. What stakes can you drive into the ground up ahead.? Try it. Then marvel at the affirmation in that simple act.