Practicing Sabbatical

I’ve been on sabbatical for nearly a month. There’s been lots to do – I’m working on a couple of projects, researching and writing, have had meetings to discuss a book editing project that I will pick up in the fall, and have been planning for the two short term summer courses that I’ll be co-teaching in Europe beginning next week. On the third day of my leave I met a friend for a drink, and she was asking me how things were going. I told her I wasn’t sure, that so far I’d still had to go to work two out of the three days, and that on the third day I’d gotten distracted by a mountain of laundry and other household chores. I wasn’t sure how it was going – it didn’t feel productive, it didn’t seem like I had much control over (or understanding of) what my schedule would or should look like, and already I’d become concerned that I’d end up at the end of my leave with nothing to show for it.

“Well it makes sense that you should feel this way,” my friend said. “You’ve never done it before, have you?”

“Had a sabbatical?” I asked. “No. This is my first.”

“Then how you’re feeling makes sense. You’ll have to practice in order to become good at it.”

It’s not something I had ever considered. Sabbatical is, “Literally, a `ceasing.'” How hard could it be, I wondered, to slow down, step back and, ideally, concentrate more deliberately and more consistently on a couple of specific projects? It seems perfectly desirable – like it would be easy – to step away from the daily routines of work and class and meetings, all the real-world trappings for which sabbatical is an antidote. And on the one hand, it was easy – to lock my office door, say goodbye for now, and walk away. But it’s also pretty difficult, it turns out, in part because it requires a radical shift in approach to organizing my time, to productivity, and to achievement. And then there is the problem of perception, where everyone around me seems to think I am on an extended vacation, or otherwise enjoying early retirement. Don’t get me wrong. I’ll be the first to admit that these are some pretty incredible problems to have. But nevertheless, I’ve discovered that practicing sabbatical is a challenge.

Last week I had a meeting with a colleague who is approaching the end of her own sabbatical – I shared with her some of what I’ve been thinking about my leave, and she said she’d spent the first month of hers piddling around with household chores, sketching future garden plots, doing anything but the work she was supposed to be doing. She read a lot. She took little notes. And then when the time came, thanks to a deadline, to sit down and get to work, she realized she had been accomplishing something all along – that all that reading and all those little notes, when it came time to sit down and write, added up. The difference was that it hadn’t seemed like work while she was doing it. And maybe that is the trick and the genius of sabbatical, that when all the other distractions of the job have fallen away, the work that remains feels different – that so much hard work doesn’t seem like work at all.

I’ve been working, but it hasn’t felt like it. I don’t have anything to show for it yet. And the more time that passes, the more I practice sabbatical, the more comfortable I am becoming with that. I’m new at this. And even though it will be over before I know it, it’s still early. I’ve read a lot, I’ve written some and, mostly, I’ve prepped for the two courses that I’ll be co-teaching in Europe – case studies for a larger writing project I’m working on. I leave tomorrow. So this will be a new phase of the experiment – after a month here at home, I’ll have a month of teaching in Europe, a month during which being on sabbatical will take on a different feel, a different tenor, and will require another new approach. Then another month back here, and that will be that.

When I graduated with a masters from Boston University, I experienced a moment during the commencement ceremony when my advisor was placing the hood over my head, and I thought, “okay, you made the right decision.” That decision was the one to come to BU in the first place, to accept their offer, to seek that degree, to take that step. That had been years before, and yet I did not know for sure, until it was over, that it had been the right move for me.

Sabbatical will be over in a flash. I hope to one day discover that I’ve gotten good at it, become proficient, been successful. Something tells me, though, that I won’t know that until some unknown point in the future. In the meantime, based on what I’ve learned thus far, I will be practicing sabbatical right up until the moment that it ends.

Recently re-read Malcolm Boyd’s Take Off the Masks; finally finished Katharine Graham’s impeccable autobiography, Personal History; and read selections from Elizabeth Becker’s important new book, Overbooked: the Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism.

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4 Responses to Practicing Sabbatical

  1. Have a wonderful trip! Sorry we didn’t catch up before you left. Call me when you get back, and we can talk Mad Men and Europe! Safe travels.

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