My Accidental Sabbatical

Stop trying to make everything neat!

Welcome to My Accidental Sabbatical.

I’m on a sabbatical — an accidental one (more on that later), and I would like to share what I learn from having this time out (sort of the point of the sabbatical). I want to jump straight in and share the first lesson, which I learned in the process of writing about what I’ve learned so far (you’ll have to keep up).

Having decided I’d like to share my experience of the sabbatical, I then spent weeks trying to work out how I was going to do that; the timescale, how many ‘lessons’ I needed to do per post and how often, where to start, when to explain why it’s accidental, and so on. I’m already a few months into it, so if I go back to the beginning it won’t be ‘as it happens’. However, if I don’t start at the beginning, it won’t be neat and I might miss all the beginning stuff.

If this kind of black belt level procrastination sounds familiar, you might appreciate this blog. Anyway, I decided to just start. To stop trying to make everything neat, and not worry about whether it’s in the right order. So the lesson of the moment, not necessarily my first lesson, is:

Stop trying to make everything neat!

For one, it’s exhausting and two, it wastes time and keeps me firmly in the ever so comfortable position of not actually doing anything. As I say, this lesson was reached quite quickly whilst planning the blog, but I couldn’t have anticipated having to learn the lesson again, mere moments later, whilst writing the blog.

I suddenly realised that, all the while I was writing about stopping making things neat, another part of me had been busy tidying the rest of the writing I’d done in the last month or so, putting it all into neat buckets by ‘lesson’, in a table of course. Constantly distracting my attention and adding weeks to my task.

It put me in mind of Gollum from Lord of the Rings; mischievous, sneaky, sabotaging, having an agenda entirely separate to mine — distraction/control — but so easy to miss because it looks so similar. I know Gollum is misunderstood, driven by other forces and cannot help himself. There’s no point trying to defeat him. But at least now I can see him so I can try and work with him.

God I’ve needed to learn this lesson, and will probably get another opportunity to re-learn it moments from now.

Much time has been wasted, but I don’t want this account to be about looking backwards. I intend to write honestly about what happens along the way, what I try, what I learn, and how I show up in the face of this challenge.

Of course I want this journey to be neat, linear, starting out with a desire and ending with a shiny conclusion. But what I want more is to experience something different.

I hope it’s enough. I already flit between feeling like everything I’m doing instead of working is full of life, hope and energy, filling me up to the very edges. Other times it feels like a few pebbles of interest I’m carrying in my pocket. If they fell out of a hole, I’d just be a woman without a job again.

Photo by Jens Lelie on Unsplash

I just needed a new hat!

As the Accidental Sabbatical isn’t an actual journey, I wanted to go on a metaphorical one. I love metaphors. I find them really helpful as a way to check in with how things are going. When stretched and explored, they can help me work out what to do next and even help me find my way out of a pickle.

I chose a solo ocean voyage; setting off into the unknown in search of new lands. If I want something new, I have to leave behind what I know. This is surely the perfect metaphor.

In it I can see that for the first month or so of the sabbatical, I refused to let go of the shore. I was unashamedly clinging to dry land with only one foot in the boat, straining to stop it floating away without me, but too scared to get in fully. I might have been crying a little bit too.

I know there’s nothing new ‘out there’, and what I need is to find is something new on the inside, something I’ve not yet unpacked, as per Quentin Crips’s wonderful quote (below). That’s what the sabbatical is about. But what if I’ve unpacked everything and this is it? Coming back will surely be harder than just not leaving. Eventually I realised that emotionally, I’d already left and so, exhausted, I got myself into the boat.

For now, I’m still bobbing around, not far from dry land, but I’m past the point where I’d normally dare to swim. The tide however is going in and will take me back with it if I’m not careful. So once in a while I dig the oars into the water to stop me ending up on the shore again. I’m not forging ahead, not just yet. I know that ‘out there’ are big waves and bad weather and things underneath me I cannot afford to think about.

The sea, you see, has a few major issues for me. Well, mainly one. Sharks. Being born just shy of the 70s I was of course taken to the cinema to see Jaws. I was 6 or 7. I’m sure all parents took their young children to see a terrifying movie about a killer shark. Don’t worry Mum and Dad, I’m not holding a grudge, it was a different time then. It’s not just sharks though. Being someone who prefers to have their feet on solid ground, I find the sea an extremely unstable and discombobulating place.

I know I can’t die from a metaphor. The metaphorical death would be ending up where I started, whatever form of transport I chose. Survival isn’t in question here.

But as I write, I can feel a question in the grooves of a deep frown. Have I been living my life as if it’s something that has to be survived? Is this how I’ve ended up on the Accidental Sabbatical? And chosen such a scary metaphor? Maybe realising that life is to be enjoyed, not endured, is all I need to learn.

An urgent thought comes to mind. Where’s my explorer’s hat!? Having the right hat suddenly feels like the only thing that matters. I find it in a dusty corner of my mind’s eye, in an unopened box. I reach in and pick it up. My fingers tingle with excitement. It’s handsome of course, tan leather, lightweight but strong. I can see it is perfect for all weathers and just as importantly, will go with any outfit. It breathes into the space around it and I feel myself relax.

This hat has somehow reassured me that everything is going to be alright, whether I’m at sea or on dry land. My current head-wear — a full helmet with a tiny, dirty window to peer out of — is well used and tired. The war is over. I take it off and put it aside, thanking it for its service. It’s time to be an explorer. I feel like Mr. Benn.

Quentin Crisp Quote: Neither look forward where there is doubt nor backward where there is regret. Look inward and ask not if there is anything outside you want, but whether there is anything inside that you have not yet unpacked.”

There is no Sabbatical App

I’ve just finished ‘Couch to 5K’. A running challenge that comes in the form of a handy App. No-one is more surprised than me that I’ve done it. Imagine all the people in your life who you’d say would never take to running and then imagine the people who didn’t make it onto that list. I’d be on that list.

Apart from the fact I strangely enjoyed the running, I enjoyed being told exactly what to do even more. I just had to run until Sanjeev (my chosen coach on the App who didn’t mind that I occasionally swore at him) told me I could stop.

Not someone who normally likes being told what to do, I suddenly want my life to be full of instructional Apps that I can follow without question, especially as once again, I find myself stuck in inaction on the Accidental Sabbatical.

I have checked and sadly, there isn’t a Sabbatical App, accidental or otherwise. There isn’t an App for sabbaticals because they’re not straight forward like running. A sabbatical, I’m coming to realise, is essentially a mini life, a chunk of time with a label slapped onto it along with an expectation that what to do with my life will somehow be clearer.

I’ve learned so many lessons from running that it’s taken me weeks to write this blog post. I write myself out of one lesson into another and then back again. Which is exactly what my brain has been doing on the sabbatical. Going round and round in circles, looking for answers, looking for certainty and clarity. All the while I’m supposed to be forging ahead and finding something new. But a dog chasing its own tail doesn’t make any ground (if this isn’t a Chinese proverb, I think it should be).

I know what I need to do but I get convinced that there’s something I don’t know, something I haven’t learned yet, that will inform all my decisions and make things easier, less scary. It’s taken me years to learn that trying to ‘think’ to a solution is like trying to staple jelly to the ceiling but, somehow, I keep forgetting that it can’t be done.

So here I am, an explorer in a boat, stuck in the surf, scared to go forwards, unwilling to go back. Fear is powerful — this we all know. I’m stuck in fear that I’ll get it wrong. That I’ll waste this precious time, that I won’t learn anything or uncover anything new. That I’ll end up a year down the line, still in the surf, dizzy from chasing my tail, covered in jelly.

This thought sends icy shudders through to my very toe nails. This is what I need. The motivation to push through the fear. Maybe this is the biggest lesson of all. To get in touch with what I don’t want in order to find what I do want. That’s what I did with the running challenge. The fear of my body failing me (having had to use two hands to get back up from crouching at the washing machine) scared me into action. I guess that’s what people mean when they say you should channel your fear, anger, whatever into something positive. I never really understood it before, but I think I get it now.

I know many self-help books have tried to teach me these and countless other lessons. But that’s the trouble with reading self-help books. They’re inspiring and can get me fired up. I go “Yes! I get it!” and it ‘feels’ like I’ve done something. But feeling that something has shifted, does not a change make.

So today the lessons are multiple. Use the fear of what I don’t want to motivate me to find what I do want. Get out of my head and into action. Get comfortable with uncertainty — which is ultimately about growing up. There will be more to come on this I’m sure.

There isn’t a sabbatical App for good reason (just like you don’t ever see Sprout soup… trust me). I can only create my own, by which time I won’t need it anymore. And that’s life! Ironic, confusing, scary and reliably uncertain.

Additional (running related) lessons I learned from Couch to 5K:

  • Goals aren’t everything. The goal of running 5K wasn’t important, I just needed the motivation to do something.
  • Just start. Not knowing what’s ahead can really work. I didn’t look beyond day 1 to see what was next for fear of putting myself off.
  • Running gets you in the moment. I love the fact I can’t do anything else whilst I’m running, other than run.
  • Knees hurt (unless you’re really young). Yes, my knees hurt, but they hurt before I started running and they’re no worse.
  • Any music will do. It really didn’t matter what music I played, so don’t get hung up on choosing the ‘right’ music.
  • Run before food. It might be unpopular but it prevented me from having stomach cramps post-running (apparently this is a common running complaint).
  • I can do that! It really is thrilling to do something you thought you couldn’t do.
  • Shhhh. Don’t tell anyone. Not telling anyone I was doing it (at least at the beginning) prevented me from getting the praise for having only talked about doing it. Which could have led to me not actually doing it. See related article below.
  • All the gear and no idea. Not buying ‘all the gear’ (and having ‘no idea’) relieved me from additional pressure. I just wore loose trousers and a t-shirt. No special socks, no special anything is required to do the challenge.
  • It’s true what they say about endorphins. Enough said.

Relate articles: Don’t tell anyone your goals:

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