Life by design

Life by design 1Several months ago I described in this blog the exploits of a group of friends who have woven our lives together for over a decade.  Although we all live in different parts of the country now, we still make an effort to get together once or twice a year in order to do the kind of work we do best: create a future for ourselves. Because the beginning of the year is a natural time for such reflection, we’ve often tried to organise several days together in December or January. Last year we spent New Year’s Eve in (this may make you doubt our sanity) Darwin, where Ken and Sue live. This year just before Christmas we roamed Mitchells Island and stayed a few Life by design 1bdays in a luxurious B&B in the hills, inland from Port Macquarie.

True to tradition, these are very social times, but always intermingled with earnest conversations about finance, health and vitality, and travel. And, of course: envisioning our futures.

Sue, the founder of the FLAFFs, is the scheduling queen, so she picked out the spots in our itinerary when we might have our various conversations. The one that lodged in my throat was a mid-morning session on Wednesday December 18th when we’d be sharing our plans for the coming year.

Although I’ve done this exercise many many times in my life, I can’t say I ever approach it with enthusiasm. Like squabbling crows on my shoulder, voices crowd in: “But what if something happens with my health?….What if Mum needs me urgently?…What if war breaks out?…” There’s bound to be something to invalidate all this careful planning and bring me to my knees with disappointment.

Sue, my role model in these matters, tolerates no such nonsense on her shoulders. She swats the crows off and just says what she intends to do and accomplish this year. “The last week in February we’ll be at the Bridge Tournament,” she says. “In June we’ll be in England and I’ll go on holidays with my sister on the weekend of the 14th.” “I will finish my book and it will be published.” Of course, Sue knows just as well as I do that circumstances could intervene and calamity could strike, but she just doesn’t let that distract her.

She’s worked out that the more committedly she approaches her life, the more she designs what she wants, the less likely she is to waste time, drift, and lose track of the important things. She knows that with her goals and her calendar in front of her, she will stay focused and accomplish what makes her life worthwhile.

I actually do know these things too, and so it was that I sat down a day or two before our scheduled conversation, pencil behind my ear, to mind-map what 2014 might look like in my life.

I trolled through the important areas (family, my communities, writing, the gardens, singing, enterprise, travel…) looking for accomplishments that might come my way. A few things came to mind but it was definitely not a very powerful approach.

That’s when I invented the blue dress.

I know that the more tangible and tactile I get, the more things come alive, so I said to myself: How about trying to look back from December 31, 2014 and see what’s happened over the year? The challenge became one of how to drop myself into a time a year from now. What, for example, I asked myself, am I wearing? Hmmmm. As this thought-game isn’t going to cost me anything, it might as well be something new. So right there on the spot I designed a strappy electric blue sundress, quite unlike anything I have in my wardrobe. That distracted me for a minute or two, but it did succeed in grounding me in the future. I could picture walking through the house in my blue sundress. As I did so, I noticed my piano keyboard. I “realised” that throughout 2014 I’d spent hours and hours re-learning piano and getting to the point where I could sight-read again. All right, then! That meant I’d found a piano teacher, on the Island, by the end of January, and started lessons as soon as…well, as soon as we got back from our February trip to Canada. This was getting better all the time, and thinking of Canada opened up the domain of travel. So where had we travelled in 2014? Well, obviously, to Canada a couple of times. And then there was that long-awaited trip to the island of Niue, where I snorkelled to my heart’s content. (Remembering that got my heart thumping happily under the bodice of the blue sundress.)  And speaking of snorkelling, didn’t we do another bareboat sailing trip in the Whitsundays?—of course we did, this time with friends Kerry and Gordon and Canadian cousins Ed and Jackie. Fuelled by how delighted they’d be to recall this unexpected event in their lives, I invented a new caravan, a couple dozen little fruit trees for our gardens, a revamped ocean-side fishpond at my mother’s and a formidable exercise program.

I won’t go into further detail, but you get the drift. In the course of less than half an hour, Life by design 2I had shifted myself from something bordering on apathy to a joyful engagement, with the help of an imaginary blue dress and the sure knowledge that Rick and my friends would listen to my creation with warmth, empathy and a certain amount of committed partnership.

Suffice it to say, the conversation about our coming year went well.

This year end process is a longstanding Shedder tradition as well. Sometimes it’s been hard to squeeze in among all the visitors and activities, but this year we got in right on time. On the afternoon of New Year’s Eve we spent a couple of hours reviewing the old year, each of us in turn sharing about the highlights, victories and learnings of the year that we had just survived. I would have said there wasn’t a thing I didn’t know about my housemates’ lives, and yet there were insights and surprises.

Even better was the following day, January 1st, when I recreated the visioning exercise with the Shedders. I shared the 2014 I had designed (omitting the influence of the blue sundress), and listened in turn to the things my housemates intend to get up to over the next twelve months. I heard about extraordinary travel plans, bold contributions, big learning goals, inspiring creative outlets, and interesting work and money-making ventures. As people spoke, I felt in awe of how engaged everyone is in their future.

So it was a powerful exercise to imagine a future for myself, and to hear what my housemates are Life by design 3up to. But even more remarkable were the synergies that started to emerge. Like little bursts of popping corn, we spotted areas where we could support one another, where travel plans might overlap, where we could be resources for each another. “I wonder if I could fit in with that project”…”I might like to go on that trip as well”…”That’s just given me another idea…”.

The whole exercise, while requiring considerable courage, was contagious fun. Perhaps we were a little braver in our aspirations because we were providing a safety net for one another. At any rate, the process added to our mutual respect and intimacy.

As we sat in our spacious living room laughing, complimenting one another and sharing deeply, I thought back to a day exactly twelve years ago. Amidst coloured pens, magazine clippings and glitter, the six of us first began dreaming of a future where we might live together in semi-retirement, in the country, near the ocean, in a beautiful home surrounded by gardens and friends. And today here we were, reaping the rewards of those first fantasies.

This visioning process is very powerful—perhaps that’s why it fills me with apprehension every time. Something is bound to happen as a result. And when you share your castles in the air with a number of other ­people present who love you and want you to fulfil what you’re up to in life—well, that’s a recipe for living your dreams.

I would love to hear about a time in your life when you daydreamed something into existence. What springs to mind?


9 thoughts on “Life by design

  1. Easy! The day in the spring of 2004 when Jean, Karen and Louise sat down in Karen’s living room in Pittsburgh to brainstorm a plan for living together when we retired, in the far distant future, and had an epiphany: “If it’s so good for retirement, WHY NOT NOW?”
    From Shadowlawn, our cooperative household, year 10.
    Happy New Year!

    • What a great epiphany. I can think of no end of reasons why it was an inspired decision to make the move sooner rather than later. And happy new year to you and all of Shadowlawn.

  2. Must be Friday, and here is another series of precious thoughts from Heather.. Thanks! and may 2014 be the bestest one ever for you and Rick….Love.

    Sent from Windows Mail

  3. Great exercise. The more I thought about it, the more I could recall of dreams that I (or Cheryl and I) turned into plans and realized: a waterfront cottage, a half-year trip to Costa Rica with the kids, even our dream to have a family. My bucket list is a source of such dreams – especially when I put an item on the schedule for this year! But the one that really stuck out for me was creating my relationship (with Cheryl as it turned out.)

    Our dreams don’t always enter by the door we have opened for them. When my previous marriage was clearly over, I made a very conscious decision to create a new one. I even signed up with a dating service – this was pre-Internet when it meant a face-to-face interview followed by receiving envelopes of profile sheets in the mail. As you know, I met Cheryl via other channels. I recall the evening after our first date: I was sitting at my desk with an envelope of unopened dating profiles. I bundled them up and sent them back to the agency with a note saying, “I think I’ve found the one.” Turns out I was right.

    PS. Despite not being contractually obliged, the dating service gave me a partial refund. I think the owner had a romantic streak. 🙂

  4. Hello Heather,

    I have spent the better part of two days reading your entire blog, and I must say, you have a true gift for writing and inspiring others! I live in the US, am 49, quickly approaching the 50 mark, and have started exploring the possibility of a cohousing arrangement with several of my close friends.

    With that dream now being stated out loud, it is time for a fierce reality check. I went through an intense divorce in 2010 after 25 years of marriage. I was left with basically nothing, financially speaking, and am starting over from scratch. I have no children, so I depend heavily on my close group of friends, and they all, having no children, depend heavily on me.

    Where to start, where to start? I would love it if we could correspond, possibly via email, so I could soak up some of your wisdom, pull myself up by my bootstraps, and start moving toward fulfilling my dream. Congratulations to you and your Shedder’s community! I am truly in awe!

    • Good morning, Holly,
      A humble suggestion from a group of cooperative householders (Jean, Karen and Louise) who are still very happy after 9 years of sharing a co-owned home: take a look at our website ( or Facebook page (My House Our House). Our mission is to provide information about cohouseholding options and resources, and the tools that have made it work so well for us.
      Sending encouragement from Pittsburgh, PA, in the good old USA,

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