Christmas letter 2019

One year ago today

The last time we posted on this blog was four months ago, at the end of our one year journey around the world, so you might be wondering what the heck happened to us.

“Are they depressed that their trip ended?”

“Did they fall right back into the busy life they said they were trying to escape?”

“Maybe their marriage couldn’t take it . . . “

I won’t leave you in suspense: we’re great! I’ve thought of a hundred blog posts since we’ve been back in Canada, but we’re having so much fun that I haven’t made the time to sit down and write. No excuses and no apologies. In fact, one of the things that changed in me over the last year is an appreciation for our greatest luxury: choice. I could have been writing every day, but I chose not to because there were other activities that were more appealing at the time. I am so lucky that I can choose to play a board game with the kids, go fishing, or build something in my workshop if it seems like the best decision in that moment.

But I’ve been bitten by the writing bug again and the timing is perfect: there is so much to catch you up on and it’s late-December – tis the season for our annual Christmas letter.

At this time last year . . .

It is somewhat surreal to recall that at this time last year we had just wrapped up our six weeks in Istanbul – oh, how we loved Istanbul! – and were starting our holiday rendezvous with extended family in Cyprus. We were only halfway through our journey, with three continents and thirteen countries as yet undiscovered by our little clan of vagabonds. Writing that, I am realizing that I haven’t posted anything about our amazing adventures in South America or Mexico, but I’m going to save those destinations for another day. This is about our return to Canada.

Best laid plans

When we decided to shelf our plans to buy a sailboat and return to Canada instead, we thought that Peterborough, Ontario would be home. We spent a ridiculous amount of time in Peru and Mexico house shopping online only to find ourselves underwhelmed when we actually drove around the area in person.

One of our many good fortunes is that we are not tied to any particular location. Many families have to go where the work is, but in our case there are fewer and fewer physicians doing ER work, so I would have no trouble getting shifts. We could decide where we wanted to live first, and figure out the rest later.

“The County” – the one with the hearts

On a hunch, Lindsay called up her cousin, Paige, who moved from Toronto to Prince Edward County about four years ago to see whether “The County”, as it is affectionately known, might be an option. I sat on the couch beside her as Linds tilted the phone slightly in my direction so I could overhear the conversation – except that it was not so much a conversation as an animated monologue filled with passion, excitement and sincerity for her amazing community. “The County is filled with people like you guys – creative, entrepreneurial . . . people really make time for each other here. If someone says they want to have you over for dinner, they actually mean it. Just come out, look at a few houses. You’ll see.”

Welcome to The County

It didn’t take long to discover Paige was right. We spent one day looking at houses in and around Picton and ended up buying a well-maintained century home two blocks from Main Street. At about 1800 square feet, it’s the same size as our first house – the one that we had before four kids – and far smaller than the “dream” house we built in Collingwood about ten years ago, which was embarrassingly huge. But right now this home is perfect. Less stuff, more togetherness. We use every room every day and it even has a separate heated garage which has become the much-used family maker space.

Adjusting to life in Canada

If you’ve been reading this blog you will know that the kids adjusted surprisingly well to traveling (as they write about here here here and here), but what about the transition back to life in Canada? In hindsight, I think the transition from our old life to traveling was much more dramatic than the transition from traveling to our “reinvented” life in Canada. Our trip was amazing in itself, but even more importantly, it shed light on the long term changes we wanted to make in our family life.

The Poyner biker gang enjoys milk and cookies on the back porch

Perhaps the biggest change is that the kids didn’t go back to school in September. The decision to home school (or “unschool”) during our travels was borne of necessity, but we found it worked so well for our boys that the idea of returning to a conventional classroom at this point would make us want to shove no. 2 pencils in our eyeballs.

Bro Science

From a parental point of view, the idea most of us have bought into that the best way to educate children is to design a curriculum, sit them down and shove it into their heads now seems completely ridiculous. We’ve seen that our kids learn from experiences, not textbooks; from having the time to investigate the thousands of questions they generate, not those on a test; and that our role is to surround them with new and interesting objects, information, and activities, then sit back and let them explore the possibilities.

The kids would tell you they’re happier: happy to have more time and freedom to explore the things they find interesting; happy they can whiz through the easy stuff and not be bored, and take as long as they need to on the hard stuff; and happy not to have to deal with the anxiety and stresses of cliques, rumours, and bullying. Unschooling might not work for everyone, but it’s working for us.

Now for some individual reporting . . .


He looks harmless, but he’s actually a teenager

Among Owen’s many talents is an incredible capacity for absent mindedness. Even though he is the oldest at thirteen (!), on our trip we were so worried that Owen might get distracted and wander off in some foreign metropolis that we forced the kids to wear bluetooth-enabled tracking tiles around their necks every time we went out. To his credit, Owen did a great job of keeping tabs on himself and his possessions during our year abroad, so it is ironic that on our very last flight back to Toronto he forgot his daypack and his treasured laptop on the plane. He called the airline himself to report the loss and we contacted the airport multiple times but after a month of effort we had to admit defeat and purchase a new laptop.

The new laptop and a robot that converts morse code into writing

Since then, Owen has certainly justified the purchase. The prohibition of gaming and social media still applies to the population of minors in our house, but Owen’s laptop has been used extensively for all kinds of research from superconductors to advanced mathematics. Just the other day over lunch Owen explained the fundamentals of how neural networks recognize patterns. For Hallowe’en he made himself into a likeness of a 1950’s computer, complete with LED lights, and a month later programmed an Arduino micro-controller to make an ugly Christmas sweater play Christmas carols – that one won him a competition at Air Cadets.

There’s always something going on in the maker space

Owen struggled within the confines of conventional schooling: when he is passionate about a topic his nature is to dive head first into it and not emerge for days; but the current system threw a blanket on that fire, forcing compliance to it’s agenda at the expense of his enthusiasm. The time and freedom Owen now has to explore the vast landscape of possibilities has taken him on all kinds of intellectual adventures. Although the mosaic of subject matter varies widely, one interest runs like a thread through all of them and that is an interest in teaching. Given the opportunity, Owen will drop everything to share what he has learned with another eager learner. This has obvious benefits for his brothers, but Owen’s outgoing personality has also forged relationships at our local library where he has started volunteering to help with a weekly Maker Lab for kids.


Cadet Thing One and Thing Two

We never would have predicted any affiliation between our family and the military, but both Owen and Jake have joined our local Air Cadets squadron. Like so many other hidden gems of The County, we found out about cadets serendipitously by getting out, doing things, and talking to the locals. Jake, who just turned twelve in October, had to wait a few months for his uniform, but looks forward to every meeting and event as a chance to participate, learn, and meet other kids. Opportunities for public service are frequent and Jake is always happy to volunteer. There have also been two overnight field training exercises where Jake could assert his growing independence and, even better, his marksmanship. Target practice during hunting season paid off.

The other days of the week Jake spends his time doing all kinds of things like exploring more and more of the town on his bike, playing with his brothers, and helping me find the cold weather walleye that this area is famous for. Jake is strong and sensitive at the same time; silently enduring bitter cold for hours on end on our hunting and fishing expeditions, while observing everything that is happening around him. He doesn’t talk much, but it’s clear his mind is far from quiet; in fact, he can get quite preoccupied with his own internal monologue. Of all the boys, we think Jake might benefit the most from our small town life with an extra helping of family togetherness.


Master builder Ben

Before starting our trip, we expected at least one of the kids to struggle with the adjustment, and the most likely candidate was Ben. I’m happy to report we were wrong. Ben went from a shy – perhaps even timid – kid who clung to the security of structure and routine to one with friendly charm, a ready smile, and easy-going attitude. This change happened on our trip and it seems to be lasting. Although Ben was a little sad that our journeys were ending, he would tell you that life in Picton is awesome.

Ben’s amazing advent calendar

These days Ben’s interests have turned toward the arts. As you may remember, he was most looking forward to getting back to his Lego collection and I don’t think a day has gone by without the construction of one invention or another. Some projects last weeks. One of the ways we try to stimulate the boys’ learning is by giving them challenges. At the end of November, after seeing one on Pinterest, Linds challenged Ben to make an advent calendar out of Lego. By the end of the day he emerged from his room with the finished product: every compartment opened with a different mechanism, the faces of Santa, Rudolph and the Grinch adorned the centre, and other Christmas characters decorated the surroundings. Best not to let Ben see Pinterest – it would just bring him down.

At the dunes of Sandbanks Provincial Park

Just off the kitchen of our new old house there is a tiny room that I use as an office. It is common for me sit down at the computer to find a document open called “Monstrom”. This is Ben’s new book. About a year ago, for another challenge, he wrote “The Lightning, The Fire, and The Water”, and had such positive reviews from family and friends that he is writing a companion novella. The contrast to writing for a school assignment is stark: Ben wants to write, and he emerges from the room lit up about a new character or plot twist. Writing a story is not a burden to be evaluated, it is a great adventure to be enjoyed.


Eli shares his birthday with Grandpa John from Collingwood

His brothers have changed a lot over the past year, but none as much as Eli. Eli started the trip as a cute little kid and has rapidly grown into an eight year old boy complete with opinions and abilities. What hasn’t changed is Eli’s love of people; his effortless knack of establishing instant rapport with new people is nothing short of a superpower. This ability has certainly been useful in the last few months as we make new connections within The County.

One of the most worthwhile experiences Lindsay has been organizing for the kids is volunteering at a few small local farms. Not only do we get to meet some amazing people who are doing amazing things, but the learning opportunities for the kids are enormous. Eli jumps right into these new environments without hesitation, often leading the way for his brothers. Whether it’s harvesting honey at Jubilee Forest Farm, or planting four thousand cloves of garlic with Vicki of Vicki’s Veggies, he’s right in the action and making everyone smile.

Practicing to be a robotics rock star (yes, it really worked)
Cousin Chase with a Bingo Bango Bongo blanket

But Eli’s not only about small talk and good times; it turns out he has an eye for business as well. One of the many crafts that Eli enjoys is knitting and soon after we returned to Canada he started making baby blankets. Turns out a few adults in Eli’s life were in the market to buy said blankets and before he knew it “Bingo Bango Bongo Baby Blankets” was in full swing. His brothers saw the action and wanted in. Not ones to let a learning opportunity slip by, Linds and I held a family meeting about business structures and basic accounting principles (because unschooling). Their interests have since migrated to other areas, but the experience of being an entrepreneur and making a little money has definitely left its mark on Eli.


Bringing back the “home” in Home-Ec

As you may recall, it was my idea to come back to Canada, not Lindsay’s. She was apprehensive that we might fall back into some old habits of spending time on things that don’t really matter and money on things that don’t add meaning to our lives. Her concerns were valid and have helped us reinvent our life in Canada so that it aligns with our values. To me, nothing else would matter if Linds wasn’t content, so I’m happy to report that she is. Not that she’s hard to please – all she wanted was a kitchen she could cook in, a community conducive to our version of home schooling, and the ability to spend lots of time together as a family. That clarity of values is rare but it has guided us down the right path.

Planting Vicki’s veggies

As you can see, Lindsay has been an incredible facilitator of learning opportunities for the boys. Besides Air Cadets and the farms, we have been on guided walks of local conservation areas, learned blacksmithing, and have been skating every week at the local arena. She even got me up on skates for the first time in over twenty years!

Linds’ greatest passion, however, is cooking and having her own kitchen again has been a great source of enjoyment. One thing she realized on the trip was how important it is to her that the boys know how to cook. She started teaching them while we were away and that has continued here. The boys now make their own breakfasts every day (not cereal), and are quickly acquiring more and more culinary knowledge.

Linds would say the most important thing, however, is our time together. We don’t always get along, and most of our days are not filled with big exciting events, but being together 24/7 for a whole year left us with the surprising realization that we want to be around each other. “Quality time” is no substitute for quantity of time. We are lucky that such a smart girl wants to spend her time with us πŸ™‚


Sometimes happiness is a ten pound walleye

As Lindsay has written about before, our return to Canada is an experiment. The greatest unknown in this experiment: Will I find a renewed love of medicine after almost burning out a year and a half ago? For the past few months I’ve been working in two different ER’s part time. It didn’t take long to get back into the swing of things; like the computer that sat dormant for the past year, I plugged in, pressed power, and the circuits whirred back to life.

But the hardware (me) was the same and the applications (the system) were the same too. I wasn’t as overheated as I was a year and a half ago, but all the old crap was there and nothing new to ignite a passion for the job. I didn’t find a secret elixir in the jungles of Sri Lanka that would make me smile at wasteful bureaucracy, or a healing crystal in Peru that would take good care of patients as the system failed them.

β€œThere is no such thing as a failed experiment, only experiments with unexpected outcomes.”

– Richard Buckminster Fuller
Helping with the honey harvest at Jubilee Forest Farm

And so, I am currently working once a week in Trenton’s relatively pleasant little ER, doing the job I was trained to do, enjoying a collegial staff atmosphere, but lacking the fulfillment I was hoping for. Not that I’m complaining – life is great, it’s just happening outside the hospital. I have an amazing workshop with room for everyone; I built a shed with lots of help from the family; I’ve taken a wood-bending class and life drawing classes; I learn Spanish every morning; I play squash several times a week; and I’ve had a great time learning how to fish for walleye in the Bay of Quinte.

The only thing better than building is building with your boys

We have, with intention and purpose, traded money for time. I could work more and we could have a bigger house, nicer cars, fancier trips – but time is more valuable: time to have a long conversation about astrophysics with the boys at the dinner table, time to play a whole game of Risk in one sitting, time to drive up to help out my father in law with one of his projects for a change.

Building stuff is good for the soul

Not everyone has the ability to make these kinds of choices – I get that. But thinking about the past year we have realized that we have more choices than we thought, and we’re maybe a little better at making those that open up possibilities rather than close them.

We are incredibly fortunate to have each other, all of you, and to call Canada home. We’d love it if you left a comment to let us know you’re still out there.

Merry Christmas!


  1. Merry Christmas!
    So great to hear about your new adventures and new home. Thanks for the fascinating read about everyone finding the thing they love and taking off with it. Inspiring!
    Wishing you all the best for the new year and looking forward to reading more.
    The Lombardi family.

    1. Hi Rocco + Family, thanks for checking in. It’s great to hear from you and would love to hear a little more about how you guys are doing with the changes you made about a year ago. Merry Christmas!

  2. Merry Christmas and a very Happy 2020 to all of you. Loved reading the update.

    Enjoy life!

    Your NY cousin πŸ™‚

    1. Feels like the right life right now, but who knows . . . maybe there will be a sailboat in our future at some point. Great to hear from you Astrid – hope you’re enjoying your first Christmas with two kids!

  3. Merry Christmas Matt and Lindsay and boys! I don’t think you remember me but Matt you know my husband Peter. We both met you both many moons ago at the Hass Farm but Peter has since seen Matt during Hunting season. Our kids Kyle and Stacey used to chum with Jordan and Brooke so therefore we became great friends with Ray and Ann. Anyhow I would just like to say and am very happy to have received your “What the heck happened to you” Merry Christmas 2019 letter. We both very much enjoyed seeing the world through your blog and wondered how you have settled into your new life. You are an inspiration to us as I am sure to many. Peter and I often think of how great life would be to just go back to basics, perhaps live off the land and be minimalists but that is as far as we take it and continue the norm. You guys on the other hand did what many of us would like to do but don’t have the guts to do it. Thank you for sharing your adventure and your family updates. All the very best in 2020. Laurie and Peter Perreault (Munster ON)

    1. Thanks so much for commenting, Laurie. Missed Pete during hunting season this year. It’s easy to romanticize alternate lifestyles; most of them involve more effort and stress than we might think at first. Still, there is often learning and contentment in the trying, and even if the change is not permanent it can lead us down roads we never knew existed. Some of those roads are pretty interesting. All the best to you, Pete and the family.

  4. Hi folks glad to finally be able to catch up with how this new lifestyle of family, unschooling, learning for the sake of wanting to know something not because your told this is what you have to do and this is how you do it. Knowing your community because it is an interesting place to learn about and be involved in, not just a place to hang your hat and shut the door and hide out.
    It’s great you can work at a pace where it provides the ability to keep the need to help others when they need that immediate help to get back to feeling better but you are able to look after the needs of ones own necessities so that you can be a benefit to family and community.
    The whole family has benefited from the life you took to changing a couple of years ago and I’m sure that as your lives continue to evolve in this new sense of community and exploration you will continue to love the people you are becoming and the life you have chosen for this next chapter in your book of your lives.
    Merry Christmas and may 2020 bring more travel and exploring of this country we are all happy to call home. Judy zπŸ’•πŸ¦‹πŸ’•πŸ¦‹πŸ’•πŸ¦‹πŸ’•πŸ¦‹πŸ’•πŸ¦‹πŸ’•πŸ¦‹

  5. Merry Christmas and great to hear about your life back home in Canada. It seems that no matter where in the world your family is, you are making the most of life.
    Keep the updates coming! I love your blog.

  6. Still out there Matt! Glad to hear an update about your move back to Canada. I will hopefully be.moving back soon too…after almost 10 years abroad….a little nervous like Lindsey was about falling back into old habits. I guess I will just have to be intentional about it : ) Time with loved ones is way more important than money. Merry Christmas!

    1. Hi Jennifer – it has been so long since we’ve seen you. Would have been great to have our paths cross in Cambodia but wonderful to hear that you are considering returning to Canada. Keep us posted as to your plans and let us know if we can help out in any way!

    1. It was awesome to celebrate Christmas in Cyprus with you guys last year and we’re really looking forward to seeing you here in Canada! So much to talk about . . .

  7. Thanks for the update – and for showing us there are many paths out there. Congrats to you and Lindsay for taking these steps – and sharing them. That takes strength on so many levels.
    Merry Christmas and the very best for 2020!

    1. So great to hear from you, Arun – I know how busy you are doing the great work that you do. Hope our paths cross now that I’m back in the same country.

  8. Merry Christmas Matt, Lindsay, and those 4 amazing young men.

    Matt, your update is so inspiring that I’ve shared it with many friends.

    You have a talent for writing. How about a book? I’m sure part of the challenge is β€˜what to write about’; your world travels, alternative education, the illness within our health care system, are a few that come to mind when I think of your experiences. If you ever decide to exploit that talent, know that I’ll be first in line at Chapters.


    1. Hi Mike, I really appreciate that feedback. In fact, I’ve been thinking more and more about pulling all of this together into a book . . . I’ll leave it at that for now! Merry Christmas and hope to see you again soon.

  9. Merry Christmas Poyner Family!

    We thought of you over Christmas and as I was admiring the various Christmas cards from our family and friends I knew there was still one missing-yours! But not anymore, lol! So glad to hear you are all doing well and have settled into PE County…almost the half-way mark to our cottage (which you must, must visit this summer!). We thought for sure you’d choose a different country to settle in but I’m sure this is nowhere near the end of your travels and now you have a home base, which is great.
    Evan’s hockey brings us to play in Trenton from time to time and Quinte West is our biggest rival…we’re currently tied for 1st place (…I think). Next time we’re there we’ll try to find you guys if that’s ok πŸ˜‰
    Happy New Year and many blessings in 2020.

    Love from all of us:
    Mandi (still burning the candle at both ends)
    Dan (still suffering burnout but smiling)
    Marcus (17 and driving…need anything welded?)
    Evan (almost 15-the Freshman in HS and amazing hockey player)
    Ryan (11-firecracker + comedian)
    Molly (7-best pet therapy dog, one snuggle will melt all troubles away)

    1. Thanks for taking the time to leave a note, Mandi and Dan – we know how busy you guys are. Great to read the quick updates on everyone, but would love to see you guys in person. Hope you’re enjoying some well-deserved holidays!

  10. Merry Christmas you guys! Glad to hear that things are going well – we always love hearing about our adventures! Much love from our gang to yours!!

    1. Hi Jenn, thanks for the note! We think about you guys often and are so happy that you have joined the “Big Family” club with Madin. BTW, the picture on your Christmas card of all four kids was beautiful. Keep in touch!

  11. Hello Big Family! So wonderful to hear from you! We had been thinking of you and wondering how re-entry was going. I even searched your website and FB page looking for updates one day. Not to be a stalker, but we realized we had become used to knowing how you all were doing. πŸ™‚

    But “good on ya” for CHOOSING not to write for awhile. In fact, I had just been beating myself up for not keeping up on our blog while traveling, but I so resonated with what you said. Thanks! I too am having too many in-the-moments to even step out and write about them. (Also I realized that trying to be the one responsible for Lucas’s schooling and also having my own writing time wasn’t very realistic if we ever planned to enjoy the touring part; might as well have stayed home.)

    As such, we are celebrating the holidays in Nelson, NZ: Top of the South [Island]. We leave here on Jan. 4 to tour the North Island for a month, a quick stop at home in CA to see the family, and then off on Phase II (Mexico & Europe). Our plans changed a bit, so we’re now adding Iceland in–Lucas’s pick based on your reports! πŸ™‚ Our re-entry date in June 23, 2020 (boo!!), so will be interesting to see how that goes.

    Thanks so much for giving us such a great look at your new lives and we wish you all nothing but the very best on this chapter. Cheers! The Myers

  12. This is amazing!! I had been wondering about how y’all were doing! Glad to hear your clan is happy and embedded in a new, awesome community. Since your family began your journey my family has welcomed our first little one and are thoroughly enjoying our 4 month old baby girl. It’s inspiring to see you discovering and living out your values. Sending good vibes for 2020 from Texas πŸ™‚

  13. Wow!! What a fantastic life for each of you. Sure glad to see you back in Canada and enjoying Picton. Each of you are able to pursue your special interests and enjoy every day. All the best in the new year.

  14. Happy New Year Dr. Poyner!! What an amazing journey you have been on with your family! It has been so inspirational reading about your experiences and I wish you a happy and healthy new year ahead!!

  15. I’ve had this comment on my to do list for a long time, waiting for a moment of quiet before my own family was awake so I’d not be taking time away from them.

    What a delightful reinvention! When our kids have an absurd moment in their education and beg us to home school them (not the right decision for us at this moment), I read about the Poyner boys and begin to wonder….

    Sometimes the return to medicine after burnout does not result in renewed fascination so much as a mutual nonaggression pact, which over time and with a little bit of luck evolves into an incredibly well-remunerated hobby – one among many.

    Simply defining your core self outside of your career goes farther to renew and root you than most other moves could accomplish. That makes medicine a privileged break to take from woodworking, planting vegetables, robotics lessons and fishing because who else gets to enjoy such a cool hobby?

    The hobby of medicine pays dividends in unusual ways that I’m only just beginning to learn. For the past several years, I give the kids a little massage at bedtime as we review their day’s highlights and lowlights. I use the correct anatomic terms for muscles and bones as I give them their end of day massage.

    My daughter returned yesterday from school reporting that her sixth grade science test had gone swimmingly thanks to the model of blood flow through the heart we’d practiced following. Despite feeling very confident, she believed she missed the extra credit question.

    It consisted of a diagram with an arrow pointing to the calf. The correct answer according to her teacher was “muscle,” but she had filled in the blank with, “gastrocnemius.”

    May your current detente with medicine lead to eventual supramonetary (pardon the neologism) rewards.



  16. Thanks for the update! I found your blog through the PFI group (I’m PMR in Ottawa) and followed with interest, shared with friends and actually checked in the fall wondering about how you had landed. I particularly appreciated how honest you all were about your experiences. The boys sound like they are learning so much, what an ideal childhood, (almost) makes me want to home school my kids too!

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