What I’ve Learned After 21 Days of Not Working
A few days ago, I drove 45 minutes from my house through the wide and winding road of Interstate 90 in Western Washington. The road takes you along the bottom of the Cascade Mountain Range and transports you from the steel gray of the city of Seattle into the green gray of the mountains in less than an hour.
On this particular morning, I had a familiar anxious energy running through my body. This low level of anxiety had become my “normal”, my heart always beating a little faster than it should, my brain used to juggling my own as well as everyone else’s needs. It’s why, in essence, I’ve taken a creative sabbatical, as my friend Jonna proclaimed a few weeks ago. I am trying to slow down my heart beat.
This creative sabbatical began on October 20. The first two weeks, my brain wanted to focus ceaselessly on producing something — anything — and kicking this habitual anxiety to produce is the greatest gift I can think to give myself.
Driving to the mountains is the best thing I know to do when I feel like this.
Before leaving the house for this hike, I had packed hot water and tea bags in a Stanley thermos. I promised myself that when I reached the top of the mountain, I would make myself a cup of tea and take the time to breathe and enjoy it.
When I did finally reach the top after switchback on switchback, I breathed into my hands to get them to warm up, and I unscrewed the lid of the thermos. My dog curled up at my feet, and he turned his head upwards to watch me for signs of falling food scraps.
I poured the tea into the thermos lid and stared at the water rushing down from a waterfall across the valley. The air smelled like cold steel and pine needles.
Just as I was beginning to slow down, a man approached me with his gray Weimaraner pup.
“Is your dog friendly?” he asked, as my dog Bruce barked a warning in his direction. I could have said yes and let Bruce warm up to him. But hiking alone, since I turned about 28, always makes me feel a little frightened of being killed by a strange man in an empty forest. Yeah, it’s hyperbolic, but it’s actually where my brain went immediately as my heart beat picked up its pace again upon seeing this man.
“No, he’s a rescue, so he’s unpredictable,” I said. The man nodded at me, smiled, and then jetted off back down the mountain.
The last time I drank a glass of hot tea while sitting on the ground on top of a mountain was seven years ago in Arthur’s Pass, New Zealand. I spent a year in New Zealand in 2010, which I suppose could be considered my first creative sabbatical. I never did have a warm enough jacket that year in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, but I remember holding that tea that day and sipping it and feeling warm and safe — and I wasn’t alone. I was with two strangers and my friend Marie.
We ended up at Arthur’s Pass amid a terrible storm on the South Island. We had planned to backpack a few days with these two Israeli guys we met at a hostel, but everyone in the town warned us against it. It was too dangerous and the views would not reward our hard work. We half believed them. After all, all the photos in the magazines looked like this:
Even in crappy conditions, that would still hold beauty.
Instead, we checked into an “honesty box” hostel where the owners trusted us to pay the posted rate, where we were the only guests, and where the rain had brought out a few rats and mice that we skillfully worked around over the next 24 hours.
We grew restless quickly and ventured out on a hike to a waterfall. Yes, against everyone’s advice. It was dangerous. And yet I felt safe.
I felt grateful for those men. They had a car, for one, so Marie and I could stop hitchhiking temporarily (our mode of transit that year). But I also felt safe around them. I felt like a whole person on my own journey, and their jokes and games only became part of that journey instead of interrupting it.
Up and up and up we climbed in the rain that afternoon. They in their Israeli hiking boots, their legs toned from years of military training and a life spent on farms working hard. Us following along behind in our worn down tennis shoes, determined not to fall behind.
When we grew tired, one of the guys just declared it was tea time and sat down cross-legged on the ground. He pulled out a camping stove from his canvas pack and lit a fire to warm water for tea. Right there in the middle of the trail. To each cup, they added spoonful upon spoonful of white sugar. They added so much to mine that it turned into tea-Kool-Aid. I’d never tasted anything so sweet. It reminded me of childhood, adding an extra cup of sugar to the Kool-Aid, just because I could.
We sat and talked and laughed and sipped our tea. One of the guys talked of his family’s olive farm, of how to taste the very best olive oil, of his small community where he felt loved and where he would return.
And I asked questions upon questions. This was when I still had so much curiosity I thought the questions I held would split me at the seams.
As I sat on the mountain in Washington a few weeks ago, I thought of the contrast.
Curiosity doesn’t always feel safe anymore, even when I crave it. Curious about the wrong person, you end up kidnapped from a forest, I thought.
I poured another capful of tea after the mystery man and his Weimaraner took off down the mountain. My heartbeat started to slow.
I thought of what safety actually is to me these days. My choice as of late has been one between safety and danger. But when I’ve shielded myself from danger, I’ve shielded myself from joy, connection, curiosity too. I can’t numb the bad and feel the good. Everything numbs.
If I trace it back, I remember how my own mother did a great job of keeping me safe. This, after all, is what mothers do. She kept me safe by shielding me from heartache and pain, though I often wonder if maybe neither of us have realized that the ways mothers often shield young girls from pain is by thrusting their own pain on them. How many girls feel that they are protected from pain by those who hold their own pain, and then go on to carry that weight for generations, skimming the surface of life for fear of what is swimming just beneath? It is not their fault, but it’s not ours either.
When my mind settled there, I regretted not inviting that man and his dog to sit with me, to share the view, to hold connection for just one moment. Maybe it would have been awkward, maybe it would have been dangerous. Or maybe it would have been just two people on their journeys sharing a joke and a laugh about our dogs.
The funny thing about being “safe” from the bad is that I actually am just ushering it in. The bad just lives in my body — the unrealized fears about my own death, the fear of loss. The risk of keeping my walls up — the ones that have served me so well — is now much larger than tearing them down.
Sure, a creative sabbatical is risky professionally. But this lesson is true no matter what I “produce” next. I know that my time spent breathing, slowing my heartbeat, going to the mountains, and talking to strangers will lead me where I need to be. And, more importantly, I hope it will show others that it is okay to step back and stop holding the weight of the world on their shoulders if they feel that they are doing that today.
Three weeks into my sabbatical, I can say I feel calmer. I am tying the strings of my life together. And, importantly, I have learned how to slow my heart beat down just by recalling times of calm.
No matter what I create after this, it will not come from a place of deprivation. It will come from ease and confidence. And it will come from a place of safety and not fear. Because I know if I run into anyone on my next hike who wants to share a moment on top of a mountain, I will simply say, “Hi there. Isn’t this beautiful?”