one family's yearlong dare to live their dreams

In Defense of Passion

In January my family set out to live more passionately. We decided to challenge each other to try new things in 2011 and then chronicle them in this cute little blog you’re holding in your hands. Michael called it the Living for Our Dreams project. But something about that label made me resist: Living for our dreams sounded too selfish and too navel-gaze-y. I was all for the project, but wary of the narcissism it might announce to the world.

Despite my concerns, I climbed on board. The project has given us a jolt of positive energy and has upped the happiness quotient in our little house exponentially. I even think it’s making Michael and me better parents. We have more to give.

So why do words like “dreams” and “passion” have to come with an apology or a disclaimer? I just read a great piece all about this subject by Lane Wallace in The Atlantic“The Value of Following Passion in a Jobless World.” Wallace just spent the past year and a half researching a book about passion and people who lead passionate lives. She found that nothing backs up the stereotypical beliefs about passion-followers: That they are hopelessly idealistic, selfish, or irresponsible.

Instead, says Wallace, “I would argue that passion is one of the most important elements in any effort to improve a community, build something of value in the world, and even survive tough times or a daunting economy.” She defends passionate people as those who have the courage and perseverance to pursue an alternative potential future. They’re survivors.

I think I can hang my hat on that. Viva passion!

Rider By My Side: Living Large on the Road

“Travel is all about surprises.  If you want things to be predictable, stay at home.” So begins a typical blog post by a traveling threesome living a dream life. This family—a husband and wife and their five-year-old— cut loose from their predictable digs in L.A., and went abroad for five months, stopping in Australia, Egypt, Thailand, South Africa, and many other destinations. Catch them at

They’re back in the States now, but still on the road, touring the country for the nicest possible place to settle down.

They epitomize the free spirit our family is cultivating this year. I asked them what was hardest about cutting loose and how the journey has changed them. Said dad Bryan Kamenetz:

“I don’t really feel like we gave anything up in order to travel, much more that we have gained a tremendous amount. Everything that we don’t have as a result of our travels has turned out to be meaningless, or something we did not have anyway. We gave up an apartment—it was more like we gave up paying rent on an apartment, which was something that was easy to do. We gave up a lot of things we didn’t really need. The biggest challenge was just getting started, getting rid of all the stuff we didn’t need and finding someplace to keep the few suitcases with things we wanted to hold on to.”
Their travels brought them home, wherever they found themselves.
“My perspective has changed in how I feel about home—that it is not a physical place. It is where my family is.  It is where I am comfortable. It is where my friends are. I have felt completely at home in Bangkok and completely adrift in Bakersfield.”
For others looking for a way to live a dream, he offers these words of encouragement:
“It’s easier than you think. The hard part is what you’re doing right now.”

Fruits of the Journey

We’re halfway there. In January our family set out on a yearlong quest to live more adventurously, planting a few new seeds in the garden of our lives. Now here we are in June, already reaping so many exotic and unexpected fruits from our escapades.

Among the highlights were a long-awaited trip to India for this yoga-loving Mama and a 10-day silent meditation retreat for peace-seeking Daddy. In a way, the whole family was with us on each of these journeys. All four of us are now, by contact, a bit more worldly and much more Zen.

Michael has become an Olympic-level meditator (if there is such a thing, which unfortunately there isn’t) who sticks diligently to his 2-hour-a-day sitting practice. I have taken to calling Michael “Buddha Daddy” when he calmly shifts me out of an agitated state with a suggestion to “Let it go.” But really, the whole family has taken notice of his more positive outlook on life and his deeper enjoyment of, well, everything.

And my trip to India made quite an impression on Amelie, who turned 6 yesterday and is now a kindergarten graduate reading at Level G. The English major in me could not have been more thrilled to discover that my journey halfway around the world inspired a poem that she wrote at school:

Mama’s Home
by Amelie

Looking at the pretty, sparkly jewelry
Smooth and soft
Rough presents
Everything smelled like India
Everybody saying exciting yells
Everything was different!

What’s next for the Party of 4? Stay tuned (and say a little prayer) as Michael begins flying lessons next month. And we have a few more surprises to yank out of our magician’s hat during the rest of the year. So stay with us and see if we can pull it off. With two small kids, incessant deadlines, and hardly time enough to make dinner most nights, we’re never quite sure that we can manage much of anything. But by some happy accident, we do.

Party on, and peace out.

House Swapping: Adventure on the Cheap

When it comes to traveling on a budget, there are few better ways to go than swapping houses. Our family has been doing it for years with friends in New York City, who happily swap their spacious East Village apartment for our quiet Woodstock country house. Last year Michael and I officially became house-swapping junkies: We signed up for an account on Within a matter of days we had offers from people as close as Washington, DC, and as far as France and Spain. We opted for an easy weekend road trip to Amherst, MA, home of my heroine, Emily Dickinson. (This year I’m angling for something a little more exotic. We’ll see what comes our way.)

Meanwhile, this past Memorial Day weekend we once more got a taste of the freedom and possibility that we love about house swapping.

Our girls had the chance to experience life as tragically hip city kids.

Here they are in Tompkins Square Park. We don’t remember city playgrounds like this when we were kids. Back then they were sad assemblages of skeletal monkey bars and creaky swings. Now the city playgrounds are beautifully maintained wonderlands of chutes, slides, tunnels, and sandpits.

Amelie poses under a cupcake. And indeed our NYC adventures included a quest for some of the city’s best sweets and eats. We loved the ice cream at Stogo on East 10th Street.

Jade poses near Angelica Kitchen, which was surprisingly family-friendly. Our kids adored the miso soup.

For Amelie, our weekend wouldn’t have felt complete without face painting and a carousel ride in Central Park.

Bottom line: Home exchange is a great way for families to travel affordably and feel like the whole world is open to them. We can’t wait for the next one.

Vipassana Meditation: The Art of Living

May was my month for exploring matters of the spirit. For my focus I chose meditation. Specifically Vipassana meditation, a 2,500-year-old practice taught by Siddhartha Gautama, otherwise known as the Buddha. I was first drawn to this practice years ago when a good friend of mine came back from a 10-day meditation course a changed man. Calmer. More poised. Less reactive. I’ve been thinking about that transformation ever since, but never quite got up the nerve to try it myself. Until now.

Vipassana meditation is not religious, but it has a strong spiritual component, which makes it a good choice for me as a spiritual practice. I grew up without a religion, but I guess I’ve always had a seeking nature. This year, the year I turned 42, the answer to life, the universe, and everything, as defined by Douglas Adams, seems an auspicious year to find what I seek.

Vipassana means “insight.” Vipassana mediation is a technique for recognizing and turning away from lifelong habits, called sankharas, that result in unhappiness. Buddha is said to have achieved a complete understanding of not just himself, but of the true nature of the entire universe. I guess you could say that he saw God. That’s the goal of Vipassana meditation, the end of the path. I don’t have such lofty aspirations, but even in ten days, the benefits are extraordinary.

I gained a greater sense of calm and equanimity than ever before; a deeper mind/body connection that leads to a sense of well-being and happiness; a perspective on my life that helps me stop sweating the small stuff (i.e., just about everything); a greater sense of compassion for my fellow humans and other beings; a daily practice that helps me realize these benefits every day; and techniques for gliding through life’s inevitable rough spots in the moment, as they happen.

For ten days I and my fellow students arose at 4:00 each morning, sat down to meditate at 4:30, eventually racking up a total of 10 hours of meditation each day. We maintained Noble Silence at all times, not speaking or communicating with each other in any way. The lodgings at the Center were very comfortable, and the food was excellent, though we went to bed without supper each night to keep our minds sharp.

At one point I experienced a gentle cascade of vibrations over my entire body, as though I was immersed in a carbonated beverage. “What is the significance of the vibrations?” I asked the assistant teacher (who we were allowed to talk to). I expected him to answer something along the lines of, if not actual contact with God, at least a peek into His domain. “Nothing,” he said. “It doesn’t mean anything at all. It’s just a sensation. You are to observe all sensations without reacting to them.” Okay, so I was a little disappointed, but also relieved. Contact with God would be a serious challenge to my calm.

The course I attended was at the Vipassana Meditation Center, Dhamma Dhara, in Shelburne, MA. No payment or even donations are accepted from new students; everything—lodging, food, instruction—is free without strings attached.

Here are a few simple techniques that I learned during my ten days as a monk to help you stay calm, focused, and happier in your life:

-Periodically, throughout the day, make an effort to be aware of physical sensations you are experiencing. For instance, as you walk, try to become aware of your clothing rubbing against your body. Also do this for five minutes immediately on awakening in the morning, and before you drift off to sleep in the evening.

-Observe your breathing without deliberately changing it, particularly during moments of heightened emotion. Pay attention to how it changes as the emotion peaks and then subsides.

-Forgive everyone who has ever done something that you don’t like, whether deliberate or not.

-Relax your grip on the material things in your life and observe, without acting on it, your craving for new things.

-Recognize the impermanence and constantly changing nature of all things, including you, your loved ones, every object and life form around you, and all of your emotions and those of the people around you. Repeat to yourself, through good times and bad: anicca; “this will change.”

Leaving the Kids Behind, but Keeping the Heart Connection

Hello, Party of 4 readers! The party goes on, though we are so busy with new adventures that we hardly have time to blog about them lately. As I type this, Michael is completing his 9th straight day of silent meditation at the Vipassana Meditation Center in Shelburne, MA. Okay, so it’s not exactly a party over there, but it was Michael’s long-held wish to experience this retreat. Our Party of 4 live-your-dreams project gave him the push to finally do it. I can’t wait to hear about it when he returns on Sunday.

When Michael left last week, he drove down our country road with a big grin on his face. I couldn’t help but marvel at the ease with which he was able to say goodbye to his children (and of course, to me!). Contrast this with my hand-wringing anguish as I prepared for my 17-day trip to India last month. Perhaps it goes to prove that after all our talk of equality and 50-50 parenting, there are still so many differences in our emotional landscapes as mamas and daddies.

And yet, after my journey I realized that my anguish was needless. (Isn’t all anguish needless?) At the dark root, I fretted that my absence would create a rift in the child-parent bond that knits our family together. Of course that did not happen. Like all kids, mine are winningly resilient. They danced gracefully through more than two weeks without me, and upon my return our intense attachment was as alive as ever.

Which brings me to my Ah-Ha Moment. I realized that it’s okay for moms and dads to step out of their roles for a brief spell. No, not just okay. It’s healthy. Even fabulous.

Before I go, here are a few tips to ease the heartbreak of parting for globetrotting parents.

1. Plan a special parent-child outing before the big trip. The weekend before I left, I took Amelie out for British high tea. We bonded over finger sandwiches and our mutual love of all things sweet. And we both savored the exclusivity of one-on-one time together before the goodbye kiss.

2. Get some lockets. With a silver heart around her neck, my big girl knew mama was always close. Little girls love lockets, and mothers enjoy the chance to flash their children’s smiles at anyone who will indulge them with an admiring glance. For boys, perhaps a pocket-size or bedside photo of the departing parent will do nicely.

3. Remind yourself of the brevity of your journey. Two days after you return it will seem to everyone as if you never left. So you might as well give in and love the adventure. Parents travel every day. And you know what? They COME BACK. (Most of the time!)

4. Use your mama (or papa) superpowers. Oceans away from my children, I imagined myself like Hanuman, the monkey god of Hindu legend who famously leaped from the southern tip of India to the island of Lanka. A mother’s heart can stretch over continents, beyond sunsets and thunderstorms and vast deserts. Yep. Love can do that.

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