Lessons from Sabbatical: Resting

Weirdly, during self-isolation, I'm more grateful than ever for this lesson

Photo by Iván C. Fajardo on Unsplash

I’ve always had a weird relationship to resting. In my childhood home, my mother got up in the morning and, like a worker bee, she was never still again until it was time for bed. My father, however, can almost always be found in one place: sitting at their counter, reading a paper or listening to NPR, drinking coffee or sherry, and smoking his pipe.

In other word, he rests a lot while my she rests…never. Meanwhile, my mother is quite vocal about what she thinks about my dad’s habits, to which my father merely shrugs and puffs smoke, like a professorial dragon. As a child, I absorbed these mixed messages about activity and rest. On the one hand, my mom is productive and energetic, traits I admire. On the other hand, she’s a lot, and her “productivity” can be more for the sake of being busy than it is strategic. Conversely, I’m not entirely sure how much of my dad’s hermit-like qualities are the result of social anxiety, or actual choice.

Mostly, however, I erred on the side of my mother, which meant that I was always visibly and vocally Very Productive. I Got Things Done, and I Let You Know It. That I would sneakily spend some Sundays without showering or leaving the house, enjoying a book, was something I felt legit guilty about. I should be working! All the time! Rest was for the weak! And yet I *needed* those days spent on the couch, not speaking to anyone after a long week teaching, making decisions for my program, and being patient and understanding—two traits I’ve learned to mimic but are not necessarily in my nature.

Rest was another thing that sabbatical really forced me to come to terms with. I was burned out after getting tenure, although I didn’t realize it at the time. I knew my unhappiness, grumpiness, and irritability weren’t normal, but I didn’t realize why I had them. I also had real time on my hands—or I was supposed to. I was still directing an MFA program, but that’s only supposed to be “half-time.” So I was either going to make it “half-time,” and use my sabbatical to rest, re-charge, and get back into my writing, or I was going to let that part of me that loves to show off How Busy I Am! ruin my sabbatical.

In retrospect, what probably saved me was my impetuous decision to take a writing class in New Orleans, and driving down two days after I signed up for the course. I think if I’d stayed in Pittsburgh, I also would have stuck with the habits that, while not necessarily unhealthy, weren’t serving me at that moment. But almost immediately upon being on sabbatical, I physically blew up my schedule by driving South to a city that does not give a fuck about your routines.

New Orleans worked its magic and I spent each day differently. I had my class, so I had homework. But I wrote somewhere different almost every day, and I was writing something new and challenging. I met new people, and drank and danced and ate basically anything that couldn’t escape. I talked to all the strangers, and I enjoyed time with old friends.

And I rested. I slept when I wanted to sleep. And I didn’t work at all for whole days when I visited friends or took myself on adventures. Even my writing wasn’t “productive,” in the sense that none of it was contracted, or for a particular goal (like writing this newsletter), or whatever. I was experimenting—trying something new with no guarantee I’d succeed or be rewarded for my efforts.

It was glorious. Weirdly, I’m also using those sabbatical lessons now, as I socially isolate. On the one hand, I’m no longer on sabbatical—I’m teaching, directing the MFA, and writing more than ever. But on the other hand, there’s a global pandemic. People I love are sick and I am scared. There are times when my body or my anxious mind yells at me to rest and, channeling what I learned in New Orleans, I don’t fight that urge any more.

When I need to step away from my computer, I do so. When I need to read a book all Sunday and pretend there’s no outside world, I do so. Today, as I write this, that book was Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Warrior, and reading it was a glorious way to spend my Sunday.

I did have to battle some internal voices. Voices that told me I “should” exercise. Voices that told me I “should” answer emails. Voices that told me I “should” check in on people to make sure they were okay and if they needed anything. That I “should” write. But, honestly, I didn’t have the energy for any of that. I’ve been checking in on people all week. I’ve exercised every day. I’ve gone above and beyond for work this week and I have nothing to say, creatively, right now.

I needed to fucking rest. So I did. I even took a nap. Tomorrow, I’ll get back on the horse and we’ll ride till we’re both in a lather. But right now, I’mma go take a bath and start another book.

I hope you are also resting, even though everything is topsy turvy and scary and it’s easy to forgo real rest to watch news, or scroll through the headlines, or get enmeshed in social media. But that is NOT resting. Don’t let it fool you.

Go unplug, re-charge, and re-fill your well with whatever you need to take care of you. xo

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