on learning the lessons at one’s feet

For the 37 years prior to 11.12.13/0014h, my days have proceeded thus: wake up, get up, work, fulfill duties (to children, spouse, animals, friends, and strangers), work some more, fulfill duties, work some more, fit in some work-related activity (reading, writing, sewing, knitting, tracking, building), shower, sleep, dream (often about work), and then do it all over again. Weekends have never been demarcated differently, except for the fact that ‘work’ then also includes volunteering and cleaning. Vacations have always been about fulfilling duties (usually family) or work: research for a book or project. I don’t go anywhere unless I can use some aspect of it for work.

Now I like work, even thrive on it, and have always been grateful to have it, for the alternatives are grim: for me, worklessness means not only poverty, but white-hot PTSD and crippling depression; I need work to help me hold things together, to make a pretense of survival when I’m breaking inside. But in recent years I have grown weary of work’s constancy, the pace of workplace demands, and the 24/7/365 nature of this sometimes hostile beast. I have carried on, though, because, well, that’s just what I do, and I can be downright hardheaded about such things.

Then in 2009, I discovered Facebook and happily embarked on connecting with people beyond my ordinary circles—human beings working for social and economic justice, environmental wisdom, and all-round goodness—and this became an important coping tool for workloads that consistently, insistently gutted my days and commandeered far too many of my nights. Off the clock, round the clock, I worked on, using social media as an escape valve from the life I had built. Work a while, need a break, take it on FB connecting, breathe, and go back to work. The escape valve was enormously worthy and valuable: I’ve met some of the highest-quality people of my whole life in this e-world, and some of those relationships have slipped their beginnings to allow connections face to face. They are of a deep and enduring nature, too, and not limited by the shallowness ascribed to such media by some commentators. I’ve also participated in petition campaigns (online and in-person) that have had good effects—slowing down the Keystone XL pipeline, stopping a planned execution in Mississippi, ensuring that a dying man wrongly convicted and held in solitary for decades be released from prison, putting a bright light on miscreants in many places—and I know for a fact that these connections and efforts matter right now. So, too, do the campaigns for which I donate money or time or simply shift my own consumption patterns to support companies that pay livable wages and tend the environment as if it belongs to us all. The information I get here is worthwhile, worthy of my time and attention, because it comes to me via thoughtful, compassionate, gracious human beings doing everything they can to make our world better to live in for all.

But engaging in social media for my own safety valve and remaining open while there (the only way to breathe, for me) also means that I am slammed every day by things I can’t do anything about. And when work is pressing so hard on a body every minute of every day, these knowings—as critically needed as they are now—can leach energy from the soul within. At some point in the last two years or so, work ironically became my escape valve from social media, and the tight turnings of my existence on these spaces sped up (astonishingly so, re: productivity in both), and the delineations between one space or another vanished. Everything was work. For the first time in my life, I began to seriously long for a sabbatical from my life. A stopping place. Respite.

Completing the terminal degree in my field didn’t help one whit. If anything my workload increased, and more of it involved doing things that are only of limited value to anybody anywhere ever: applying for jobs, trying to write for publication in genres required for an academic career even though those narrow parameters kill off most of the reasons for writing in the first place, not writing for publication in genres looked down upon by academics because I’m applying for academic jobs, being judged negatively for engaging in social and political struggles in ways that make establishment academics uneasy, etc. ad nauseum. As a term employee for the federal government and then adjunct teacher, I found myself overworked, underpaid, and beginning to fray some at the edges. I’m slow to learn, though, and stubborn about following through on my commitments. But the longing for respite grew. “This side of the grave, too,” I began to say to myself in odd hours.

On 11.12.13 at 0014h, I stopped and set aside all my daily habits in one fell swoop. For one year, one month, one day, and one minute—to precisely 12.13.14 at 0015h—I intend to live by my own lights and whatever lessons I can find at my feet each day. Originally I’d planned to stay awake and have a glass of wine to celebrate this auspicious occasion, but I’d spent so many hours of the previous night working that I was tired. So I entered this new realm sound asleep. And rose with the sun alongside my husband to care for the animals who live here with us, only this time we hied out for the hills, just us two, tracking an old injured dog and then a series of small creatures and coming alongside a schedule no longer driven by an intemperate need to work myself into the grave. I’m done with all that.

IMG_8134I still have responsibilities and will meet them. I still value social media and will connect there. I still have dear friends and family and will love them as truly I can. I still believe there might be a few academic jobs for which I am fit and vice versa, and will likely still apply. But around and amongst all that, I’m also well embarked upon a sabbatical from all habits of thought and action for this specified period of time.

Once I’ve mulled and figured out what I can best contribute with my limited resources, I’ll join in once more, all burners rockin’ hard. For now, though, I’m going to spend some time doing first the things that feed my soul: writing, tracking, being and caring for the beings alongside, re-learning how to open myself better, as Albert Camus once put it, to “the gentle indifference of the world.” In other words, learning the lessons at my feet that I, for 37 years running, have marched over willnilly in quests largely undefined. This may be, it seems now, the work of a lifetime.

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