Sabbatical

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How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on, when you begin to understand…there is no going back?
— Frodo Baggins in Return of the King by JRR Tolkein

A sabbatical is a period during which someone doesn’t work at their regular job in order to rest, travel, and do research. The term shares the same root as sabbath, an unmistakable connection to a ritual of renewal.

Traditionally, sabbaticals have been a feature of academic careers: university professors would be granted a paid year off for every seven years spent teaching. But the notion of a sabbatical is available to anyone. It doesn’t have to last a year or involve exotic travel or quitting a job. But it must constitute a rest in some form.

All we usually need is a pause by the side of the road. After a few deep inhalations of the world, we can merge back in, replenished.

But every so often, pulling over isn’t enough because continuing on isn’t possible.

This rerouting sounds dramatic, and it is. But it’s also normal, like a winter storm that shakes the limbs of the trees, littering the ground with broken branches.

The thing is, it doesn’t feel normal.

Having the wind knocked out of you feels like a disaster. In a way, it is, because it’s a shock. But it’s not failure. It’s a temporary immobilization that allows you to absorb an impact. A natural resetting of breath.

Author Katherine May calls the act of honoring this process wintering. She fills out her exquisite metaphor in Wintering, one of my favorite books of 2020. In the first chapter, ‘September,’ she encourages us to release our white-knuckle grip on a season of comfort we wish weren’t over. She writes:

Once we stop wishing it were summer, winter can be a glorious season in which the world takes on a sparse beauty and even the pavements sparkle. It’s a time for reflection and recuperation, for slow replenishment, for putting your house in order.

In September 2021, I finally stopped wishing it were summer. A week after dropping my youngest off at college in Minnesota, I was sitting at my Mom’s dining room table in my childhood home in Northern California. I had been getting along well enough: my family was vaccinated so we had a measure of freedom we hadn’t experienced in eighteen months. My daughter’s college departure had gone smoothly, my equilibrium felt intact.

But all at once I became aware that I was standing on the precipice of an entirely unfamiliar life; a life reshaped by the recent deaths of my father and mother in-law, the slow-moving catastrophe of the pandemic, the departure of my kids, the January 6 Capitol insurrection, and a shifting and more complex Internet. It was like being jolted awake in the middle of the night in a different country.

The moment of transformation was upon me whether I wanted it or not.

May writes:

This is a crossroads we all know, a moment when you need to shed a skin. If you do, you’ll expose all those painful nerve endings and feel so raw that you’ll need to take care of yourself for a while. If you don’t, then that skin will harden around you.

My final episode as co-host of the Edit Your Life podcast is live. Recording this episode with Christine was lovely, fun, sad, momentous…I’ll never find the words to properly describe how it felt. Perhaps because I’m still feeling it. This multi-year conversation with Christine, itself a continuation of a multi-year conversation that started when we co-wrote Minimalist Parenting in 2013, has been an ongoing thread of friendship, joy, and insight. Christine is uniquely dear to me, and we’ve seen each other through remarkable changes in our lives. We’ve raised our kids together, built stuff together, traveled together. I’m sitting with how much I’ll miss our weekly pre-dawn recording sessions and our interactions with listeners.

Taking time to situate myself in this new life feels like a radical act. It’s liberating, but it’s also confusing. At times it feels self-indulgent and mildly shameful, an excuse dressed up as enlightenment. But the quieter, surer part of me — the part revealed by grief, I suspect — knows this is the right step.

This closing down, this ending, this step back… is also an opening, a beginning, a step toward something new. Right now, that “something” includes connecting with loved ones in person or over the phone rather than interacting on social media.

Experimenting with the boundary between public and private.

Shifting emphasis from mind to body; from the screen to the sidewalk or trail or highway.

Recalling what I used to love, and discovering what I love now.

Giving myself a chance to explore and inhabit the present.

If you’re a new- or longtime reader, or an Edit Your Life listener, thank you for joining me on this crazy journey. We’re all in this together, even though it sometimes feels like we’re the only weirdo in the room. The sooner we recognize we’re all weirdos, the sooner we’ll begin to appreciate the beautiful weirdness in each other, and in ourselves.

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