Gap year? Sabbatical?
I think this is yet another opportunity wasted on young people who cannot possibly appreciate the decadence of time off from routines and responsibilities. Midlife is when a gap year has the greatest impact and the most valuable rewards.
Elizabeth Martin and I talk about her decision to take a break and how she spent that time.
Her story begins with her first big Experience 50 Moment when after two years of knowing that she needed to dissolve her marriage, she finally found the gumption. Having set the wheels of her new single life in motion, she established a new home, finished raising her two youngest children and was then faced with the loss of her job. Great.
Elizabeth had always worked, loved work, and prided herself on being “the responsible one”. Responsible Elizabeth would find a new job to keep the boat afloat. But this new version of Elizabeth wasn’t so inclined to maintain the status quo. She sold her house on a handshake while walking her dog. Yep.
Say “goodbye” to the responsible Elizabeth who put a priority on thread count and cushions.
And so began her 18-month journey of “living in the void”. She walked goats in Italy. She played. She celebrated her birthday in Iceland. She reduced her possessions to what could fit in her car and learned to live a full life on the cheap.
I think you may find her story dangerously inspiring.
Episode Resources and Links
Learn more about Joseph Campbell’s framework of The Hero’s Journey
Another story of taking time to refresh, renew, and reinvent:
You are listening to The Experience 50 podcast for midlife. I am your host Mary Rogers. And this is episode 183
Our Guest today is Elizabeth Martin. We’re going to get to her in just a moment, a really great show, terrific conversation touching on a number of topics that pop up in so many of your stories throughout the 183 episodes of The Experience 50 podcast for midlife.
There are definite themes of having a nagging feeling of a call to action and we fight it and we fight it and then we might take some baby steps and ultimately for many of us, we do find that we need to make a really big change. That’s what we are talking about today.
I want to welcome a new sponsor. We have Power Swabs. You’ll be hearing about them a bit later. I can tell you my teeth are very white right now. And we also have another sponsor, Plexaderm and want to thank both of them.
And so let’s talk about Elizabeth Martin and her story that she is going to share with you today. Elizabeth is 60 years old and when she first contacted me about sharing her story, she was a little worried that she had like, you know, I already met her expiration date and wouldn’t be allowed on the Experience 50 Podcast, but I love her story and it starts when she is 50 and she goes through one big challenge makes a big decision which in some cases that could be an entire episode that decision that she made but it was only the beginning of oh, so many other changes to come and the most significant move that she made which is the reason I wanted her to come on the show and share her story is that she took time to do nothing.
Well, not really nothing. But as we refer to in our conversation, she kind of stepped into a void. She took what we consider something that young people do, took a gap year, a gap year like a sabbatical and her story is really very interesting, very inspiring.
Let’s jump in. Joining us from Fort Collins, Colorado. Elizabeth Martin.
Thank you, Mary. I am so excited to be here and meet you and talk to you the listeners about my journey and what I had wish I had known then.
You didn’t just have one thing that happened you went you would have a major transformation. So let’s go back to that point in your life where everything was just dandy, you know one day looked like the next. What did that life looking like?
So, Mary, I had five children and they had a 16-year age stand and I had a full-time job. I was an assistant director at a library. I also taught at night at Northwestern University.
So in between carpools and of course all five children ended up being true to three-sport athletes a year. My ordinary life was typical of a suburban mother today managing the carpool, managing a children’s schedules and trying in between to grade papers and do good work at work. Making sure that everybody else is fine. And also trying to fit two jobs and in between I was married I lived in the suburbs of Chicago. I had a wonderful community of friends and support. It looks pretty perfect. I was what I thought was happily married.
At the time I was married. It wasn’t perfect. And I knew what the flaws were.
So, you assumed that this was the man you would live your life with?
You’re 50 at this point in the story.
Okay, what happened?
The marriage wasn’t perfect. But you know when I was balancing everybody’s life alcohol was involved and I had actually grown up as a child of an alcoholic. I had been married to an alcoholic previously and so alcohol is coming into the picture again, and I just didn’t think I could manage that in my life anymore. I don’t want to dwell on that too much. But what happened was mysteriously a dark and stormy night. It was February 2009 at 2 a.m. In the morning on February 8th. And the reason I know all that it was the night. My first grandson came home from the hospital.
And it was an ice storm and I was having trouble sleeping and I just got up at 2 and I began reading an Oprah Magazine and came across this article interviewing Mary Oliver and I’m not a fan of poetry either but I read this poem The Journey and it shook me to my core and I tore it out and I put it aside. The last line in the poem is about the only life you can save is your own.
And I was like well, the hero’s journey. There’s always a call to action and that was my first call to action. But if you study Joseph Campbell hero’s journey, the next step is to say nothing don’t want that! That looks really hard. I’ll just stay in ordinary life and I tried staying in ordinary life and two years later had another call to action, another grandchild being born this time of hot and steamy night August in Chicago and Adele is born 2 months early.
And wasn’t given much chance of living through the day and then in that waiting room, my life flashed before my eyes. It had not occurred to me that my children might die because you spend so much time putting them in the bubble wrap and they were all very very healthy, but realizing a grandchild could die before me was pretty profound and what that could mean to me.
And so again, there was just this call to action but the next three months were about saving her life and supporting my son and his wife and I was actually dealing with another person in crisis in the family. And so everybody else is like first, which is I think pretty typical of women. She should not be the central character of their story and to your point earlier about the forties.
We are still not the central character and as the children leave, we stepped into a new story. Awkward and difficult to be the central character and to own that space and be given that permission and I think that’s what you’re talking about. Like what I wish someone told me this phase was going to open and how I can step into it fully and how I could be the central character right?
So let me ask you something. You’ve said that twice you felt a call to action. What would the action have been?
To start a divorce. which in any Journey when you’re taking a toll road you pay a lot and I’ve been divorced before and it was the last thing I wanted to happen, the very last thing, and I know what the tolls are they are not just my own. They would be tolls for my children, tolls on my friendships, tolls on ending one life and beginning another is very very difficult. And I know exactly which is why I kept pushing that back and clearly, eventually, something happened.
When I didn’t have other people’s lives to worry about I could start to focus on my own and things dramatically changed yet very quickly,
What I’d like to have you do is kind of fast forward and show my listener where you ended up, the significant changes that happened to your life. So we kind of know where you were you were early stages of grandmothering you had a divorce you were living outside of Chicago and you had been working at the library and also teaching at Northwestern. So how far do we have to fast forward?
To sort of day that I got through the divorce. I had my two youngest that I still had to raise. I bought a beautiful home that was just right and felt safe and secure and so I felt to stay safe and secure, and I realized if they all left the nest- and it was empty then I was empty.
And so what I didn’t foresee happening is buying and selling a house and then becoming what I call Home Free and this kind of thought experiments that could I if I went to my finances and I didn’t have a house I could travel. I could not work full-time anymore. I could make major changes. Back to those deferred dreams of my 20s and travel through Europe and then on a whim almost, moving to Colorado, but I now live in somebody else’s and I couldn’t have foreseen that. I loved my bed. I loved my stuff. I loved my throw pillows my cozy little blankets. I stayed best for my family and now I’m a consultant for nonprofit leadership.
So I I never would have seen myself happily living in someone else’s house in Colorado staring at the mountains every day and you have a new career now you say yes.
So here’s the part of your story that I would love for you to share with my listeners because it’s a part of my story and it’s an option that more and more midlifers both men and women are finding to be necessary as they make this transition. And that is you refer to it as a sabbatical which is the more academic term for this.
And what I’m hearing and I love this idea is essentially a gap here just like are high schoolers take before going to college or maybe for their junior year and I believe that when life is throwing so many things at you, like a divorce or being skipped over for a promotion or one of your parents dies or an illness, something big happens, and you realize you’re left with different priorities different dreams, but so much has been happening. You can’t even think straight.
I believe it is so helpful, if not essential, to just shut down the party for a while because you cannot think, you cannot be creative. You can’t feel your own reactions to life’s events to make a plan for the future when you have so much… just garbage in your head.
And so you did this. You gave yourself more than a year and you’re still kind of in it. Let’s talk about your Gap Year or sabbatical and when you made the decision to do it and how you designed it or did it just kind of evolved?
I would love to share that with you because I did call it a gap year and I had been dreaming about it for a year-and-a-half and I definitely know when I go back and look at my notes, I realized I had actually been planning it but I kept again pushing it away like well, that’s kind of crazy. I have children in college still, I have my father. He has lung cancer and I had all these reasons not to do it which were very logical reasons.
Without that gap year, I never would have really lived an authentic life and established priorities for the next 30 to 40 years. You know, how do you live as much time as you spent raising your children without your children? How do you stop playing the role of mother and grandmother into being a role model?
So what happened for me is my job. They announced there was a merger. My father passed away two months later. There was a merger ending my position and in April, and this was January and I had sold my house on a dog walk literally on a handshake. And so all of these things came together and then what did I do? I set up a new mission statement, started applying for a new job as a responsible person doesn’t take a gap year and I had the blessing of having a friend who is an executive CEO coach at Amazon who gave me a couple of minutes of her time and she said I’m taking off the coach hat, I’m just going to tell you you’re scared and your father dying is an excuse and your children in college good excuse and you know what, I just think you’ll always find excuses because I know what you dream of.
Two days later my daughter comes with “what are you going to do Mom? It’s six weeks until the house closes and you don’t have a job and you don’t know where you’re living” and Suzanne says I’m scared and she said “you ARE scared and I would love you to live with me this summer and be a part-time nanny for the children. And now what are you going to do between April and June” and I was like well and later that day I texted her and I said is that for real? And she said yes. The best job offer I ever got I’ll take it.
Let me ask you something. So the idea of being told that you were scared… was it that you were scared to take a gap year and not to have your identity defined by what you were doing or was it being scared of the next thing you truly wanted to be or do, what was it that scared you?
Yes, okay, the void scared me, traveling alone scared me, but I had found this amazing resource that works with gaps. …college kids and high school kids now also works with people our age and so I had that resource. I’ve been talking to her. She places you and trusted locations gives you directions to the place you’re staying so makes it so easy.
But, I was the responsible child. That was my role in the family, and responsible people don’t walk away from their life and put themselves first.
Ray Bradbury used to say jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down. And he said he did that every day. And I thought yes.
I want to know, were you thinking that after you gave yourself the gift of freedom to just, you know travel or do whatever you wanted to do, would you then have to return to a career?
Yeah, but here was the thing. I also did I hired a sabbatical coach, who knew there is such a thing, and I hired her because she said to me you can take this break. But if you come back and re-enter your ordinary life, what was the point?
How do you use the experience to change your future moving forward and the other part of it was when you talked about the boy when you charge me real The Listener is thinking about why can’t I can’t do that because of money this or that I had to sit in it. I had to process it and if it were up to me, I always would have gone back to what was comfortable and that is a job 40 hours a week working for somebody else as soon as possible and to have someone kind of holding my hand and saying it’s okay.
To think about nothing. It’s okay to reflect upon your life and not have a purpose tomorrow. And what I came up with is it’s okay for now to live in the present moment instead of worrying about the future all the time.
It’s something I’ve never done.
So tell us what you did during that time.
Well, what from the time the decision was made, I had six weeks to pack my house, put everything in storage and come up with a plan. But of course the following Monday the universe provided a plan and the woman who runs the Center for Interim Programs called me and she had me in Italy as an intern by the end of high noon that day and it was so funny because he sent me this long email and he said you may be the most overqualified intern we’ve ever had here because your job is walking goats and watering plants.
I was like really, cuz I do those things anyway all day everyday except walking goats, that was new and so I spent the first 5 weeks in Italy. So I thought well, I’ll be like a gap-year student and if somebody says you want to go here, I’ll go I’ll say yes, so I ended up going to Venice with an Italian who showed me Venice from the Italian point of view, and I ended up going to another city with her friends must rally who just spent a week here, and I had only met her days before. And I spent a lot of time traveling around the country with my boss. So I did and I spent two weeks there and it was so funny because I landed in Iceland on my birthday and I knew a friend I didn’t have a goodbye party for me. So I knew she was planning a welcome home party and I got stuck in Iceland on my birthday. And at first, I kind of threw this fit because I know my friend had a party waiting for me and then I was like wait, I’m in Iceland for my birthday! I said, yes.
And so I was gone and then I came back and did this RV trip with my daughter and her family across the country and spent time in Wisconsin until I realized you didn’t want to do winter in Wisconsin.
And the coach came in and said, why don’t you try Fort Collins short-term. And after I was here six weeks, I said to the woman who I’m renting with -we call ourselves flatmates- so grown up- and I said, I don’t want to leave and she’s like ok., so I’ve been here a year almost 3 months now.
At this point how long has your gap year been?
From when I initially left Chicago, it has been just about a year-and-a-half total. I have been to Spain. I’ve been to the Bahamas before they were wiped out and I got to see what it was like to live there. I’ve been to Florida and experienced red tide. So I understand it when I read it now. I’ve been to Mexico and the modern Elder Academy and graduated from my sabbatical. I have been so blessed because I keep saying yes now and I’ve had the most amazing profound experiences.
I took up skiing again with my son been taking. So profound and re-energizing.
So how do you end the sabbatical? Is it a fuzzy thing or is there a hard stop? When I did what I did, I had an end date and a few dates that I kept in my mind that were either milestones along the way or hard deadlines.
I had those deadlines also, I started off building a nonprofit leadership Consulting business in the last year, since January of last year, and I got my first nonprofit contract in town.
That’s a significant thing. You have a client now. So do you do think your sabbatical experience, your Gap year experience, is now wrapping up?
Yeah. And so now you start shaping the new life and yes, but what I learned by being in the void and allowing myself to feel the feelings and spend the time is that the ability to go hiking or skiing that we could just you know … the ability to own my time yet earn income. I need balance. It would be so easy for me to go back to work. Well, it isn’t easy.
How long can you really sustain the 40 hour week job as opposed to building a new career and new ways to make money passive income active income streams, multiple income streams, the way you reinvented yourself married from what I understand you can do that longer. So you may end up making the same amount of money in the long run, but you balance your freedom. So is the gap you’re over I will still say. Yes. I will still travel. I will still go hiking in the spur of the moment. I can’t let those things go. Those have become. priorities to being a central character my life.
Elizabeth, for someone who has decided. Yes. I need a gap year. I need time to have experiences, which is what Experience 50 is all about, how do you suggest that people stay focused on what they are experiencing and not worrying about that deadline.
For instance, I think that we as especially Americans are very outcome-focused and you know, I am doing this because I’m trying to achieve that and it’s very difficult for people to be mindful of the experience they’re having at the time especially if that experience is months-long to just stay in the moment. So how did you, while you were walking goats?
Do you have advice for people of how you push decision-making for the future out of your brain?
Yes, I think adding meditation, journaling and reading books that are in this space helps. It helps me to have that coach that I talk to every two weeks who would give me an assignment that was like “who were you before the world told you who to be” so I was exploring my own self and so doing an exercise like that rather than What’s my job going to be when I get back? On my God, I don’t know what I’m going to do.
So I did keep trying to go there and someone there to hold my hand along. The journey was really was the best decision.
Did you have a mission statement in your mind during that time, like like I would imagine having a mantra or a slogan or a tagline for my time so that when my brain started getting nervous or thinky, I could remind myself of my purpose during that time.
Did you have a definition of your purpose?
You know, I recently wrote my first poem and the title of the poem was For Now and I think if I settled in, this is okay for now, that would be the Mantra just be in the For Now. I think my mission purpose, where’s my granddaughter was born realizing that stuff no longer matters, only experience is and that I wanted to gather experiences. How do I say… to gather experiences like currency for a rich life?
That was my mission statement. So whether I give myself a year to do that, or I can myself the rest of my life to do that. That is how I will measure my outcomes at the end of my life.
It sounds to me as though the experience that you had, of valuing these experiences, saying yes to things, it isn’t as though at the end of this particular time that you know, like Get Smart walking through the tunnel of the walls coming down, that it’s over now. What seems next… you really are carrying that the lessons of all those experiences into how you fashion your life now.
Absolutely, and each of those experiences, if you will allow them, make you richer, make you understand the value, make you realize that I want more of this rather than less. So, how can I do that? What can I let go up? Right? I mean you have to go through a whole exercise of what am I willing to let go cuz if you’re not willing to let go of the comfortable income the comfortable life the throw pillows in the cozy blanket will then you might be okay playing a role of mother or father or grandfather whoever it is, corporate employee. But if you’re willing to let go of things, to experience a different role for yourself that you may have hidden from yourself.
And you want to explore that a little bit even 6 months or 4 months or 2 weeks, as long as you’re purposeful about it. When I did this, it was a six-week promise to myself after leaving my job that I would not think about the future. It was the hardest 6 weeks ever. Ever. So, everybody wanted to know, everyone asked “what are you doing?” You know, it was unheard of to quit a high-level job without something to fall back on and men especially looked at me like “what did you just do?”
Here’s been my experience when so many people say what about money? What are you doing for money? What about your retirement? If I let the conversation play out. I find they’re the ones worried about retirement. They’re the ones worried about money.
I have spoken to several people who have gone through this sabbatical this Gap year. One of the most profound lessons that they have learned is to live poor.
Everything I own is in a storage unit that I never wanted. I gave all my furniture to my daughter cuz she was building a lake house. So that worked out, family can gather there instead of my house. Everything else I own fits in a Prius with my dog included. She’s pretty big 70 lb. So yeah, I never thought I could be that person.
Let’s talk about actual cash in terms of while you were traveling… you weren’t staying in nice hotels, right?
The way I did it. I was a volunteer/intern. So I paid $700 to stay there for 5 weeks included my room and board all the food Italian food in the world and in exchange I volunteered about 5 hours a day 5 days a week, but he totally encouraged us to travel because why be in Italy and not see it and we were actually out in the countryside and about 20 minutes from a town, but $700 for room and board for five weeks, you know, that’s pretty good. I mean you learn. When I did travel it was Airbnb, you know, you learned you don’t need the big meals. I would rather walk Venice for hours and hours and hours and had a little appetizer than sit down for a very expensive meal in Venice because I can get an expensive meal anywhere.
You find these rich experiences, especially with other people, when you are traveling on the cheap.
Yes when, you know, like asking someone to know where I could stay tonight, you know, when you’re alone you talk to strangers when you’re with a friend you talk to your friend or your partner.
Traveling alone. It’s scary. I have to admit it took me three train rides before I was willing to buy a sandwich because I couldn’t speak Italian and had to use hand gestures and I would go hungry, but I started to become braver. And what I tell people is, I got comfortable with being uncomfortable. That was the last thing I learned, I learned to prioritize my values: which is time for myself and work because I love to work.
And I also learned to be vulnerable and brave one day at a time, only one day at a time.
And so that is what people say. How did you do all that? Cuz like I had so much to do that first 6 weeks to get ready to leave that all I could think about is just today, just today.
It’s a beautiful way to live once you can wear that coat comfortably. Yeah, it’s called living.
Well, I know yeah, this is the lesson and that you can do it. I think it’s a lifestyle that you will carry all the way to the grave, you know all the way. And very few of us are going to retire at 65 and never work again. I think this is the new model: is self-employment and because of ageism, nobody’s going to let you work. I mean it’s a real thing and not that actually works against our behalf. I mean, right, you know if you think about it, there are so many resources out there. One of them that I use, Small Business Development Centers, and they’re in every town and I go into the SBDC and I’m like, I need someone to help me build a business and they are like “here’s your coach”. That was really fun.
The other one and I’ll put out a word for is SCORE which used to be Service Corps Of Retired Executives, not the case anymore. It is filled with young vibrant men and women who volunteer their time.
They’ve done so much for me. I want to give back.
That is awesome. But I want to thank you so much for telling us your story and I will let folks know that Elizabeth is taking the lessons that she learned along her journey and she’s sharing this institutionally with organizations going through change. And so many of these lessons are true for personal growth and transformation also for organizations, and I just find this whole process so yummy and juicy and messy and I love hearing people’s stories of their version. So to my listener, if you haven’t emailed me already about your messy juicy, transformation, please send me an email email@example.com.
Elizabeth Martin. I just want to thank you so much for sharing your story and your experiences and I can see you’re so you’re so happy.
I am so happy and I don’t think I always was. This has been such a pleasure for me because you’re in my tribe and finding my tribe has been part of the experience. There’s a lot of us out there, but we are all pulled together and actually, there’s a lot of us and that’s why I’m like, so pleased you let me share.
You know, you asked me my one-word mission statement. My daughter said to me when my granddaughter was born, “Let’s get a tattoo. Let’s remember her battle to breathe. We’re going to get Breathe.” And I thought “me and every other yoga teacher. Not happening.”
So I remembered that breathe in Latin is inspiritus and also means Inspire and so that is my one word mission now for the rest of my life is inspiritus. I want to remember to breathe. I want to remember to inspire others and I want to breathe Spirit into other organizations.
I think it’s a beautiful thing and you and I are probably the same in that I can spot a mid-lifer right before it falls apart… when they’re trying so hard, so hard, to keep it normal.
Yes exactly. To continue making their current life make sense and it isn’t going to happen.
And those are the people I just… I just… want to fold them into my arms.
Well, you are, with the show.
You are. I wish I had found you back. You are one of the resources I wish I had had. Thank you.
You’re awesome. Alright, thanks for doing this sharing your story and walking the goats.
Does anybody want to walk those goats?
Thank you, Mary.