What keeps you from living the life you want to live?

Last winter in Chicago, we experienced a deep freeze where the temperature never went above freezing for more than a month, and walking outside hurt your face. It hurt. Your. Face. At the time, I threatened to spend January 2015 in California. The snow is pretty, but the dark and cold wear on my soul.

first good snow

My parents live here, one of my closest friends just moved here, my daughter goes to school here. Until recently, I was devoting most of my freelance writing time to a company based in Orange County. I try to spend time here as often as possible. We spent the holidays here.

I am now sitting on that friend’s lovely patio, looking out at the southern California hills. Retreating for a few days to plot next steps, set goals, consider options. No one is more surprised than I am, frankly, by the fact that I made good on the threat to opt out of the polar vortex. I traded the view above for this one:

view How often have you said, “I’m going to…” and never done it? Given up on new experiences or adventures because it required some daring, some work, some kind of overcoming of your self-doubt? Or because you might disappoint someone?

How often do you whisper wistfully, “I wish I could…” only to hear yourself quickly interrupt with: “I could never…”?

Too often, even if I don’t say it out loud, that kind of thinking runs like a river underground in my heart, beneath the layers of genuine confidence and false bravado. I have watched myself have 10 books published, make a career in publishing, learn to do marketing, video editing, video directing, and more—and yet battled doubts at every turn. I’ve raised two amazing kids. Along the way, there were days when I felt guided by grace in the right direction. And also days when I thought–Lord have mercy. I would wonder if I was doing it right, if I was doing enough, or too much.

As I’ve written about before, I am beginning a season of life labeled for its losses: the empty nest. Certainly, that word–empty–connotes that what was once there is now, not.

My friend Tim says he and his wife are  “spacious nesters” rather than empty nesters, because well, while the children have flown from it, we parents are still in it. Perhaps that is more accurate. But that doesn’t make it easy.

So this year, this year of loss and confusion, I’ve decided not to say “I could never…” I decided to say I will, and then actually do the things I say I will do. I want to use the extra space to grow. I want to trade my “I could never…” for “I just did!”

Set audacious goals

Two weeks ago, I ran a half marathon with my daughter. In some ways, reaching that goal shifted something inside my soul. It firmly shoved “I could never…” toward the door, if not fully banishing it. Six months ago, I could never have run 13 miles without stopping. But I just did.

mel and me SD half This opportunity to say “yes,” instead of “I could never” might be one of the side benefits, of sorts, of this empty nest stage. No carpools to drive, no children to care for, at least not in the daily way that I did before they went to college. Self-care no longer feels quite so selfish.

I’m discovering a sort of bittersweet freedom that is forcing me to explore and stretch myself, to set audacious goals and work toward them. I had time to train for the race over the last six months, gradually going from not being able to run further than 4 miles to running 13, gradually strengthening my legs and heart so that my running pace went from about 10 minutes per mile to 8:45 per mile for the race. I finished in the top 20 percent for my age group, but more importantly, I met my goals: 1. Finish; 2. Have fun; 3. Finish in under 2 hours.

In order to train, I joined a running group. For most of the people in that group, running a half is not an audacious goal. It’s a small goal that will be a stepping stone to greater goals. It’s a goal many of them have surpassed—but they cheered me on. And now, they ask me what’s next? What goal am I setting for 2015?

The freedom of this spacious nest also provided the opportunity to work from California, for a few extra weeks, not just to avoid subzero windchills, but to seek clarity, vision, a plan for goals beyond physical fitness. I can choose what will help keep seasonal depression at bay, a self-care tactic that only those who’ve experienced it can understand.

As a freelancer, I have the flexibility to work from anywhere, so I’m doing that here. My husband, who headed home after we spent the holidays here in San Diego with my parents and our kids, is self-employed but needs to be where his clients are, in Chicago.

I miss him, actually. But it is currently 1 degree Fahrenheit at home in Chicago, with a windchill of -17. I’m sitting outside in a t-shirt and yoga pants. I went running on the beach twice this week. But still, I am reflecting on what is next, in my work, in my life. What things I thought I could never do, that perhaps I need to do. What audacious goals should I set?

Daring to be myself

This has been a year of daring to be myself, of being willing to name the things that I would like to try, and then actually trying them. Earlier this year, for example, I told my daughter I would like to go sea kayaking in the Pacific. (She leads sea kayaking trips and other adventures as one of her on-campus jobs—a story for another day.) She looked at me and said, “No offense, Mom, but I don’t really think you’ll actually do that.”

I was startled. Did my 20-year-old think that I was that boring? That fearful? That unable to follow through?

“Is that a challenge?” I asked.

“Maybe,” she laughed.

So the day after we ran the half marathon, I arranged for our family to go sea kayaking in La Jolla. We stood on the beach, then followed our guide through the surf and across the gentle swells of the bay. Far from shore, we saw a grey whale surface several times, it’s quiet whoosh of spray exhaled just fifty feet from our boats. It was astonishing and exhilarating, and more than that. It was a way of proving to myself that I am not afraid of adventure, that I am capable of following through, that my goals are not mere wishful thinking. Paddling against the surf, I thought: perhaps I could learn some new steps in the dance that is my life. Who knows what other things, previously dreamed of but left undone, I might do in the future?

I reminded my daughter of our conversation about kayaking and she said she didn’t even remember it.

In this season where I suddenly have more space, it’s easy to feel lost. To wonder what is next, not just in fitness and adventures, but in calling and career.

Perhaps a spacious nest, though it is no longer the space in which I nurture my children, can be the place I nurture own soul.

How about you? What audacious goals do you want to set this year? What “I could never” do you want to let go of, do you want to replace with “I just did!”?