Field Notes on Sabbatical: A Contemplative Essay or How to Spend Six Months in Sweatpants
1. Whenever I’d tell a colleague at work that I’m taking a sabbatical, some combination of envy, disbelief, and outright rage would twitch across their face. “A sabbatical! No one takes a sabbatical! How do I get one of those?” And they’re right: sabbaticals are unheard of in K-12 education. They’re a job perk for tenured college professors like my wife. Technically, I’m taking an unpaid leave of absence. “I’ve been saving for a long time to do this,” I’d say, but there’s still the prevailing sense that I’ve miraculously dug a hole through the prison wall and I’m leaving them all behind to rot. People are much happier to suffer if they know everyone else is suffering too.
2. On my first day of sabbatical, I went online and bought a pair of fleece sweatpants from REI. My old ones had a hole in an embarrassing place, and it seemed symbolic to start things off with a new purchase. I was shocked by how comfortable they were. I’d put them on first thing in the morning to get my kids out the door to school, and then when it was time to put on my big-boy pants, I’d think, “Why not just stay in the sweats?” So that’s what I’ve been doing. It’s very convenient for my midday yoga class.
3. In the Atlantic Monthly article entitled, “How Much Leisure Time Do the Happiest People Have?” the author cites research on 35,000 Americans that concludes for people who work, the optimal amount of leisure time is two and a half hours per day. For people who don’t work, the optimal amount of time is four hours and forty-five minutes per day. The article doesn’t say why people who don’t work need so much extra time. Maybe it’s because most of those people are old and retired and it just takes them twice as long to do everything. Disappointingly, the article says nothing about middle aged people who are on sabbatical. Researchers do note, however, that people’s definition of “leisure” varies considerably. Sometimes when I cook dinner, it feels like a leisure activity because I am making green papaya salad with long beans and cherry tomatoes, and it took me an hour driving around in a strange part of town to find an Asian market that sells green papaya. When I make plain pasta with butter and Parmesan for the thousandth time for my taste bud-stunted children, I sometimes regret having children at all.
4. The house across from mine is under construction. They are in the demo phase. Sometimes when I am between things (like breakfast and lunch), I’ll sit on the front porch and watch the men load bricks and concrete and old wood into the giant yellow dumpster. This morning, a truck grabbed the full dumpster and swapped it out with an empty one. Everyone over there is working really, really hard. I keep wondering if those men think about their job from an existential point of view. Such as: “When this dumpster is full, I will have to fill another one. The dumpster itself might change color, but there will always be another dumpster.” Before my sabbatical, that’s how I felt when a new group of students would file into my classroom.
5. At first, it’s impossible on sabbatical not to feel a little sorry for everyone. When I drive to the grocery store, people in their cars seem mad and preoccupied, their eyes darting back and forth between their windshield and phone screen. The store is a hive of activity, and I feel like I’m a part of things again. “I can’t work nights this week, man! I’ve got kids at home,” the butcher complains to his coworker. I feel a little bad for him, and then order a half pound of Applewood Smoked bacon. Is it weird to chat up the produce manager with a witty anecdote about how I sometimes confuse Italian parsley with cilantro? My house is so quiet. The other day I thought, “Why didn’t my father ever call me on my birthdays?” I don’t have thoughts like that when I’m teaching.
6. In an Abstract entitled, “Effect of leisure time and working activity on principal risk factors and relative interactions in active middle-aged men” put out by the National Institute of Health, the authors concluded that if men move their bodies during available leisure time, instead of, say, watch thirteen seasons of House Hunters on Hulu, they have favorable health outcomes, and are less likely to drop dead. Unless you’re a heavy smoker. Then you might die no matter what you choose to do with your free time. In this way, smokers have more flexibility.
7. A friend at my school texted me this morning: “Had another sleepless night last night, riddled with anxiety thinking about all the things I need to accomplish in the next few weeks. The number of recommendations for college and scholarships on top of everything else has nearly paralyzed me.” In yoga yesterday, my teacher gave a lecture about the nervous system while we were in extended Downward Dog. He said our nervous systems can be thought of like ancient trees that are the descendants of cosmic creation. My hamstrings were crying out for Child’s Pose, but I got what he was saying: it doesn’t take too many backed-up letters-of-rec requests to send our cosmic harmony machine into overload.
8. In the scholarly paper entitled, “Does Leisure Time Moderate or Mediate the Effect of Daily Stress on Positive Affect?” published in the Journal of Leisure Research, the authors state that when people are very stressed out, “leisure coping” can help. “However, exactly what coping resources people use to derive positive affect in stressful situations is still understudied,” they conclude. More research is needed, apparently, before science can definitively determine the best ways to use our free time. I sent the journal article to my friend at work anyway. She’ll have time to read it next summer.
9. There are definitely drawbacks to sabbatical. For example, I have been thinking a lot about death. When I’m teaching, death seems far away, and sometimes even desirable. But not anymore. Death’s grim visage is laughing at me, and it’s not just because I finally have time to put the Halloween decorations away. And I really feel my age. The big five-O is approaching. Having lunch with a friend the other day, he asked me if it was weird to think about how no one wants to have sex with me anymore. I said, “Maybe now I can focus on more meaningful things than being a sex object.” “Don’t kid yourself,” he said, while stuffing a morsel of soon-to-be-extinct Bluefin tuna into his mouth, “you were never a sex object.”
10. People say, “No one on their deathbed wishes they spent more time at the office.” Does that go for the classroom too? I love my students, and I miss them—not teaching them, but their energy, their vitality. When they occasionally email to say how much they miss me, my heart lights up. Right before my sabbatical started, I panicked a little. After teaching for seventeen straight years, could my nervous system even handle not being overloaded all the time? What happens if six months of downtime makes me realize I need to abandon my family and open a dance studio in Bolivia? Who even am I without my job? Is extra time like a gateway drug? By March, will I be shooting crack in the alley behind my garage?
11. In her essay “Leisure” written in 1893, Agnes Repplier describes work as “the restless ocean of endeavor.” She writes, “Leisure has a value of its own. It is not a mere handmaid of labor; it is something we should know how to cultivate, to use, to enjoy.” And so I sit here on the porch. The dumpster is almost full again. The men look tired. But they don’t stop working.