Sabbatical day 5: “If you need to talk to someone, I can help with that.” Her voice echoes kindness; her brow furrows. “Or I can write a prescription.”
I shift my eyes to avoid her gaze. The examination room is spare and spacious, yet the clean, white walls seem to be closing in.
“I’m OK, it’s just . . . there’s been a lot going on.” I sigh and wipe my eyes. Moments ago, the nurse ticked through her medical history checklist, barely glancing up when I noted my mother’s surgery, my father’s treatments, my traumatic C-section. It was protocol, but it felt like a cruel joke when my doctor went through the same questions again. The second time I deliver the answers, my voice cracks. My doctor notices.
She gently begins to interrogate me. We discuss my husband Jay’s health issues, my trouble sleeping, my mental health. The tears arrive unbidden. This was not the plan at all — I’d come here for a routine appointment, not to rehash two and a half years of family drama.
“Your son is at a great age, you should be enjoying this time!” she goes on. “Your husband is going to be fine. I promise.”
This time, I don’t look away. I believe her. Who I’d began to question, however, is myself. Am I really OK?
In June, I’d sketched out the plans for my sabbatical, which was approved for September through November. First, a coverage plan for my job as a content editor: I wrapped up projects and doled out writing assignments. In July, I signed up for a writing class and coaching to hold myself accountable toward my sabbatical goal. In August, I submitted an application for a week-long stay at Holden Village, which I hoped to use as a writing retreat of sorts. Finally, I filed my last stories for the magazine, all whilst wrapping up freelance work.
These details are boring but I share them with you because they show me starring as the thoughtful colleague, the meeter of obligations, the planner of activities and that annoying person you know who derives great satisfaction in checking off to-do list boxes. It is a fact: I take great pride in my work. This is not always a good thing, to be defined by doing.
When I closed my work laptop for the last time in late August, I should have felt relieved. Finally, I had more time to focus on my family, my health and the book idea that was on my heart.
Instead I felt lost.
Sabbatical day 9: There’s an orb spider living outside our back sunroom. Her perfect, intricate web stretches from one power line to the other, shimmering in the sun. A couple days ago, Jay and I discovered her first web above our candy apple front door. We brushed it away from this highly trafficked spot and carefully transported her into the bushes. A pang of guilt passed through me after we went inside. At least we didn’t kill her.
The sight of her perched in the new web, dotted with dew drops and a few unlucky bugs, makes my breath catch. I begin to think of the spider as a kindred spirit.
I’d hoped to begin my sabbatical with gusto: merrily churning out assignments for my writing class, investigating market research, outlining chapters, spinning stories. All around me people are picking up new rhythms as the school year starts and church programming ramps up. On the cusp of a new beginning, I freeze up.
I sit down and write a few lines, then scratch them out because they sound terrible. I type a paragraph, then delete it. I rack my brain to tap into a memory I hope to use to create a scene. I draw a blank. I know there is something here, but I just can’t access it.
At night, I struggle to sleep. Staring into the fuzzy gray, listening to my son’s sound machine from across the hall — this night it plays a rainstorm — I contemplate my career path, my sense of calling. I’ve spent ten years writing professionally and I can’t even finish a damn essay for this class, I think. All the other writers in this class are better than me. Who was I to want to write a book? Why can’t I just be productive? I feel the weight of my privilege and worry I am wasting this gift of time.
I spend an afternoon in my bath towel, moping. I accompany the dog and my husband (who works from home when he’s not traveling) on afternoon walks. He can see something’s bugging me, so he urges me to join them. Rather than buzzing with energy and new ideas, I arrive at our doorstep listless. At some point I write in my journal a phrase I’d read once before, “The problem with having a breakdown is that you don’t know it while you’re in it.”
My web is gone. Unlike my spider friend, I cannot bring myself to spin a new one.
Sabbatical day 13: In the afternoon, I receive test results from my doctor’s office. I listen to the voicemail; it says I need to call back. I dial the number and hold my breath. When I look out the dashboard out across our quiet, treelined street I am thinking of my son, first and foremost. Then I think of my husband. My extended family. My dreams and ambitions. And for the first time in days, I dip my head and pray.
Only after I hang up do I exhale. Only then do I notice fresh tears on my cheeks. Again.
My body is trying to tell me something. That night, after putting my son down, I curl up into bed and pass out. I sleep for 11 hours straight.
At some point in the middle of this sabbatical, let’s call it day 22, two important things happen:
First, I pick up the phone and call my best friend. Second, I read Tara Westover’s memoir, Educated.
Holly’s voice immediately helps me relax. I lose myself in our conversation, affirming her ups and downs with her baby daughter, sharing my ups and downs with my precocious preschooler. I rest in our stories. I laugh. When I hit the end call button I feel lighter.
I download Educated onto my Kindle because I think it will help me better understand how to tell my stories and it has been on my to-read list for a while. Within the first chapter, I am hooked. It’s so good I devour it in a day and a half, barely moving from the orange arm chair in our living room, eyes locked on the screen, until I have to pick up my son from school. After his bedtime, I open the book again and dive into Tara’s story, reading into the night. One I finish, sleep comes easy.
The tightly wound ball of stress inside me begins to unravel.
There is a scene in Educated where Tara sits in a college classroom listening to a lecture on freedom. Her professor is discussing the concepts of negative liberty and positive liberty. Negative liberty involves freeing oneself from external obstacles and constraints. Positive liberty, however, involves the mind, it is freedom from internal, “irrational fears and beliefs, from addictions, superstitions and all other forms of self-coercion.”
Tara — educated outside of the public school system by fundamentalist parents — struggles to grasp the concept of positive liberty. A friend introduces her to Bob Marley’s song, “Redemption,” and she scratches the lyrics None but ourselves can free our minds into her notebook. It is only later Tara realizes the hold her parents have on her thoughts.
I stop reading. Have I been doing this all of my sabbatical? Holding myself prisoner to my own self-doubt? I had not given myself permission to rest. Nor had I given myself permission to write.
Sabbatical day 32: “Mommy, you don’t have your phone,” my son says, munching his toast. I watch the bits of grape jelly and crumbs stuck to his lips and smile.
“That’s right, honey, I’m just here to spend time with you,” I answer, taking a sip of my coffee. Hot and creamy, I relish the smell, the way the drink warms my throat and wakes up my mind. Outside our dining room window, the sky is gray and the leaves are beginning to turn outside. Signs of change.
“Mommy can we make butterflies?”
“Of course! Let’s do that before you go to school,” I answer, rising to clear our plates and usher him into the sunroom.
It is now October. I completed my writing course and my final essay didn’t turn out horribly like I thought it would. I’m brainstorming for my book proposal. I slowed down, and I let go of my ambitious expectations. I’m going back to therapy too.
I am rebuilding my web.
At a tiny table in the sunroom, Jack holds a paintbrush with intention, dipping it into the watercolors then swishing it across a butterfly I’d cut for him out of white drawing paper.
“Mommy can you come paint with me?” he asks, turning his face toward me. I stand at the kitchen counter rinsing dishes and think of how many times I turned him down earlier this year in the rush to drop him at school and go to work. I am lucky that today I don’t have to, and I understand what a sweet gift that is. The dishes can wait. This cannot.
So I answer: “Absolutely. Yes.”
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