How I'm doing

I’m grinning as I write the title of this post, thinking of Joey from Friends: “How you doin’?”  (As Rachel replies that one time she’s drunk in Vegas: “I’m good, baby, how are you?”)

It’s been almost five weeks since sabbatical ended and I returned to work.  The first two weeks were surreal.  I found myself narrating everything I did in the third person:  “Julie is now heading to the reference desk.  Now Julie is going to teach a class.”  It was disturbingly hilarious.

Things have felt more normal the past few weeks – my short answer when people ask is “I’m good baby, how are you?”  Everything is also impossibly new.  The biggest part of the transition back to work has been seeing how much I’ve changed.  (My workplace has changed, too – more on that below.)  I worried when I went back that I would fall into old patterns of doing too much & for the wrong reasons.  (I blogged about those patterns a few weeks ago.)

It’s still early but I’ve successfully tested the hypothesis I shared in that same post on August 13:

I have some plans and ideas to put in place when I return to work, ones that I hope will establish a healthier relationship with my workplace.  Basically, live like I – and my plans, dreams, writing, life outside work – matter.  Because they (and I) do.

So yay me!  The intentions I’ve put in place have been shaped in part by the circumstances at work. I don’t think I’m airing the dirty laundry by saying it’s a tough time for higher education in general and libraries in particular.  We are short of funds and staff, due to complex – and not easily solved – circumstances.

There’s a theme that keeps emerging – as I talk with colleagues, as I review my own career plans, as I read reports and reviews of my library from the past few years – in lean times, our energies go toward providing the services we are able to provide in the best way possible.  We don’t have the time or energy for new initiatives, at least not on a broad level.

As my library goes, so go I.  It’s been a fascinating few weeks, colored by some darker moments, including health issues, parenting challenges and the death of a well-loved cat.  Maybe it’s just the stage of life I’m in now, but these feel like lean times, too.  Maybe we’re always near that edge.

I’ve often seen work as an adversary this past year – the jealous spouse demanding all of the time and energy I’d rather devote to my writing and the rest of my life.  Now I’m glimpsing how work can be a supportive partner, reinforcing the importance of recognizing my own limitations while also providing opportunities to fulfill my responsibilities as best I can.

So I’m doing fine.  Couldn’t be better.  Today I haven’t barred the door of my office and curled up on the couch to watch Friends reruns. But let’s just see how tomorrow unfolds, shall we?

A brief meditation on death, writing and gratitude

20131024_091852A few weeks ago I talked about the general malaise I was feeling as I approached the end of my sabbatical.  While those feelings are still part of the equation, I realized the other day – as I had a leisurely breakfast one last time on the front porch – I also have profound feelings of gratitude.

I will be eternally grateful for the experiences I had on sabbatical, for long mornings and afternoons spent writing.  For the flexibility to have no plans.  For the space to be spontaneous and lazy.  For all the books I read and Netflix binges.  I’m grateful for the friendships I cultivated and maintained, especially the friends who wandered around cemeteries with me, who facilitated & enhanced research trips and who took the time to be interested in my writing and my life.  (And I’m especially thankful for my bar trivia team – Dinosaur Erotica/Lady Gardens 4eva!)

(What saddens me most about sabbatical ending is losing all that lovely time.  Think of all the amazing things I could think and do if I had even more time off!  Think of what we all could do if we had regular sabbaticals!)

I am required to turn in a sabbatical report to my institution by the end of September.  While I’ll talk about the rejuvenating aspects of this time away from work, as well as the progress I made on my official sabbatical project, what I really want to submit is this:

More than anything, sabbatical offered me time to contemplate my own mortality. As I approach midlife and live into the choices I made when I was younger, this time was essential. In numerous cemeteries, I read countless gravestones and wondered what happened in the space between every birth and death date.  I thought about the space between my own birth and death dates.  The question I’ll consider – at least until my next sabbatical – is, what do I want my life to look like before I die?

The nothingness of death terrifies me. The body ceases to function and consciousness dissolves. (Maybe there’s more to it but I’ve yet to see proof.)  This terror made me manic for months.  I spent a lot of time concocting wild plans to toss everything stable in my life aside, quit my job, jump into a freelance writing career – or simply run away. Why am I wasting my time doing [insert tedious task here], I thought, if I’m going to cease to exist someday?

These fears and plans eventually led me to a conversation with my husband (who deserves the most gratitude of all). The idea of nothingness after death doesn’t terrify him.  Whether there is nothingness or not, we can’t change it.  Why not accept it?  His groundedness created a small but profound shift in my thinking: acknowledging my own mortality – and using it to inform decisions and dreams – does not mean I need to be driven by the fear of death.  Above all, this is what I learned on sabbatical.

My life might look very different in a few years – there are certainly new paths I want to explore – but any vocational decision I make will be driven by careful, considered risk and discernment, not fear.  Someday death will happen.  I won’t accomplish everything I’ve ever wanted before I die, but maybe that’s okay. Maybe that recognition clears the way for me to focus on what I really want to do – write, read, love my family & friends, be open to new possibilities, be present and reflective, live mindfully and with loving-kindness.

Goodbye, sabbatical!  Hope to see you again soon.

I'm Blah, or, Sabbatical is Almost Over

Goodbye, long mornings on the front porch.

Goodbye, long mornings on the front porch.

I’m almost at the end of my 15 month sabbatical, and I have to tell you that I’m not handling it particularly well. I remind myself that I’ve had more time off in one year than many workers do during their entire careers.   I remind myself that I have a job – and one that I’m both trained to do and that I’m good at.  I remind myself I have almost-ironclad job security.  I remind myself that my job (with its 9 month contract) still has more flexibility and autonomy than most jobs.  I remind myself of all the amazing, hard, rewarding and challenging things I’ve done – and thought – during my sabbatical.

Yet still, I whine.

My chiropractor – a wise, wise man – commented that a lot of it has to do with the rhythms of work, that even when you are gone for a few days, it’s hard to get back into the swing of things.  He advised that I be gentle with myself when I return.  Absolutely – and now my challenge is to find ways that don’t involve copious amounts of ice cream and/or alcohol.

His comments got me thinking about the rhythms of work that existed before I left.  Over sabbatical, I started seeing how dysfunctional some of my patterns were.  Here are a few:

  • Saying yes to almost everything, because saying no might lead to closed doors or alienated colleagues and maybe the possibility of not getting tenure
  • Operating as if work had first dibs on all of my evenings, weekends and other free time, thus letting everyone else’s priorities come before my own
  • Berating myself for not accomplishing everything on my to do list, because if I didn’t do everything I wanted & planned & dreamed of doing, it meant I was a failure

Much of my work dysfunction stems from the same place as most of the other dysfunction in my life: Deep down I think I’m not good enough.  So I have to try super hard to please everyone and do everything so that everyone can see that I am, indeed, good enough.

This is an old wound and a persistent one.  It’s one that plagues a lot of people.  And it’s one that can go to hell, although that’s easier said than done.  (Even as I write this I have an irrational fear that people I love will reject me after reading my thoughts, because they’ll think I’m dull, boring, inarticulate, stupid, [insert low self-esteem descriptor here].)

Even though I haven’t fully healed that wound, I do know that the challenge facing me in a few weeks is not only getting back into work rhythms, but getting into new ones.  Sabbatical gave me a new sense of my own authority.  It’s almost as if, at age 37, I am finally becoming an adult – independent, autonomous, one who is a player in her own life and not just a passive recipient.

I have some plans and ideas to put in place when I return to work, ones that I hope will establish a healthier relationship with my workplace.  Basically, live like I – and my plans, dreams, writing, life outside work – matter.  Because they (and I) do.

I’m still going to need a whole bunch of cookies for those first few weeks, though…