Half the clothes, twice the money

If you work with me or if you’ve traveled with me, you’ll back me up when I say that I know how to pack a suitcase. I pride myself on my packing skills, and while I’m not one of those militant carry-on only types who washes her socks in the hotel sink, I’m pretty good.

I‘ve also learned to make do with less.  On a whirlwind trip to Africa, my first, a colleague and I visited three countries in 10 days.  We flew from Dulles to Johannesburg, and sprinted through the airport to make our connecting flight to Maseru.  Our bags had less of a sense of urgency, and decided they’d rather stay in South Africa.  I spent the whole trip with just a backpack: toiletries, the clothes I was wearing, plus an extra shirt and a few spare pairs of underwear.  With no opportunity to buy replacement items, I borrowed here and there and, yes, I washed a few things in the hotel sink.

When circumstances force your hand, you realize how little you actually need.

Packing for a month-long journey is a challenge, particularly when that month is going to be spent in one of the more fashionable places on earth.  But I’m trying to keep that first Africa trip in mind, and remember that I have more than enough.   Maybe I won’t be prepared for every weather condition or possible event or activity, but I’ll make do.

What I most want to remember is that the freedom to choose, while highly valued, can sometimes limit us in other ways.  “The aim [of choice] is to have chosen successfully, not to be endlessly choosing”, writes George Trow.

I spent 12 years wearing a school uniform.  Every morning I put on a plaid skirt, a clean blouse, a blazer or a vest. I don’t think I realized it at the time, but the nuns were on to something.  They knew that when you aren’t worrying about your clothes, about fashion or fitting in, you can give your attention to other things, other choices.

I’m not bringing any plaid skirts to France.  My bags (yes, there are two) are packed, choices made, and I’m more than ready to turn my attention to the adventure ahead.

One day, ten questions, one word

I will confess to watching, more than once, the show “Inside the Actors Studio”, with the wonderfully pretentious James Lipton as the host.  I’ve also seen the brilliant Saturday Night Live Will Ferrell skit that introduced the word “scrumtrulescent” into my vocabulary. (It’s ok, you can go watch it.  I’ll wait…)

If you’ve watched the real show or the SNL spoof, you’ll know that at the end of the interview James asks his guest ten questions.  What is your favorite word?  What is your least favorite word? What sound or noise do you love? What is your favorite curse word? Some of the celebrity responses are revealing.  After watching a few episodes, you’ll start thinking about your own answers to this now-famous questionnaire.

Just to be clear, NO, I did not spend the first official day of my sabbatical watching reruns of “Inside the Actors Studio”.  And I’m not going to bore you with all of my answers – just one.  Because my favorite word has been following me around all day, just outside of my field of vision, waiting for me to see and remember it: liminal.

Liminality comes from anthropology and describes the disorientation that can occur partway through a ritual or transition.  The participants are no longer the same as they were at the start, but they haven’t yet achieved the status that they’ll have at the end of the process.  They are said to be at a threshold, between two states.

I can’t remember when I first learned about this – it may have been in a freshman anthropology class or during my post-collegiate love affair with Joseph Campbell – but I do remember that the concept made a lot of sense to me.  It gave me a way to identify and better understand the inevitable transitions of my early 20s (and mid 20s, and early 30s, and mid 30s…).  And it’s helping me make sense of these few days before I board my flight and really get started on this adventure.

I’ve learned not to look for comfort in these liminal spaces, just patience.  I try to remember that something is happening.  Something has begun, and the restlessness and ambiguity are part of the deal if I’m going to see it through to the end.  Today I’m just glad that my favorite word decided to reappear on Day One of My Sabbatical, when I needed it most.

So here’s to liminality.  Scrumtrulescent liminality.

When someone else just says it better…


Pere Lachaise Cemetery, November 2012

“Hearing a foreign language is like seeing a postcard from some other land, even when you are actually in that other land.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes for The Atlantic, covering topics as diverse as hip-hop, Civil War history, gaming, pop culture, politics and, in this beautiful piece, his recent experiences learning French as an adult.

My own “sprawling periods of incomprehension” are set to begin in just a few days – here’s hoping I can bring the same wonder and openness to my language study that he’s brought to his.





“We can’t forget how lucky we are; we can’t stop fighting for a world in which more people are freed from the degrading stresses of material want and insecurity. But we also can’t forget that blessings give us the opportunity to live lives of quality and purpose and service and love.” – David Roberts

The door’s open, but the ride, it ain’t free.

When I committed to taking my sabbatical this year, one thing became clear: it was going to cost me.  There were the obvious financial costs of the things I wanted to do – a month in France may not be a round-the-world adventure, but it still wasn’t cheap.

Then there are the less tangible costs, like time away from my husband and missed events with family and friends.  (And I’m going to miss the New Kids on the Block when they come through Boston.  Horrors.)

As my pre-sabbatical days wind down (4 left!) I’m also thinking about the professional costs.  In some ways it’s hardest to quantify these, and that’s what makes them the most anxiety-producing.  I suspect that fear of losing professional ground is what prevents many people from considering a sabbatical or significant leave.  Hell, I think it prevents a lot of people from taking a vacation.  Our sense of value and self-worth is so closely tied to our work that we believe that our workplace cannot possibly function without us.  Without our constant presence and attention, everything will fall apart. And just think of the mess we’ll have to deal with when we get back from that hypothetical vacation.

But if we dig a little deeper, we will probably discover that the real fear is that without our constant presence and attention, things might actually be ok.  In fact, there’s a chance things could be better. Our proximity to our own work doesn’t allow us to see how we might be holding things (or other people) back.  It’s easy to do your work the way you’ve always done it, especially if you’ve been in a job for a long time.  But in doing so, you lose out on opportunities for growth and change.  And since my colleagues are taking on so much to allow me to have my sabbatical, don’t I owe them the chance to flex and to innovate and to find better ways to work?

Easy words to say.  The true test will be when I get back to work and instinctively try to undo or re-do things that weren’t done my way (just ask my husband after he attempts to fold the laundry…).  I hope that thinking about it now will help me be better prepared.  When I return to work, I want to hear about what my team has accomplished in my absence, and celebrate their achievements without feeling a need to unravel all the good things they’ve done.

What have I, what have I, what have I done to deserve this…

More than once, when I’ve told someone about my sabbatical, they’ve said to me, “Well, you certainly deserve it.”  And every time I’ve heard that, it’s made me uncomfortable.  I know I’ve earned it, but that’s different.  Earning is transactional.  A criterion is set, and you meet it, so you get your benefit.  Company policy says I’m entitled to a sabbatical after 10 years of service.  Since I’m almost at my 15 year anniversary of employment, yes, I’ve earned it.  No question.

“Deserving” is more complicated.  It’s got implications.  It seems to say something about the relative value of my work, and the merit of it.  What I hear in that word is that if I’m deserving, it follows that others are somehow less so.  And there’s the root of my discomfort.

It’s not that I don’t work hard – I do.  But who doesn’t?  My dad often worked three jobs to help raise our family. My in-laws worked until disability forced them stop.  And this is to say nothing of the thousands of colleagues and patients I’m connected to globally, for whom the idea of leisure time and relaxation are just that – a nice idea.

I’m really not trying to beat myself up about taking this time off.  Honestly.   But I am trying to continually remind myself that this sabbatical is not just a benefit.  It’s a gift.  To have time, to have resources, to have support and encouragement in this adventure – all gifts.

Other people are bearing the cost of my opportunity.  That is something I want to remember, every day.  And if I can remember that truth, and use each day in a way that demonstrates and celebrates that truth, then by the end of this sabbatical, I may be deserving.

I Don’t Know You But I Love You

My husband really likes hockey.  He goes to games, watches it on TV, follows the Bruins pretty closely.  I’m a sports fan, but hockey eludes me, mostly because, embarrassingly, I cannot follow the movement of the puck.  (When the networks started showing that blue “after burn” streak a few years ago, I rejoiced.  Turns out I was alone in that, so, bye-bye after burn.)

But here’s what I do know that my husband does not: ice skating is hard.  My dear hubby has never laced up a pair of ice skates in his life.  When I watch hockey, I watch for the skill of the skaters.  These guys are huge – most well over 6 feet tall.  And they are moving at such speed, turning, pivoting, stopping, being chased and hit by other huge guys, all while balancing themselves on 0.11 inch thick blades.  If you’ve ever ventured out on to the ice, legs wobbling, ankles turning hopelessly inward, and made a few tentative turns around a rink, you’ll have a much greater appreciation for the talent and force of professional hockey players.  And I often wonder how – or if – my husband can really appreciate hockey without having some sense of the difficulty of mastering the basic skill on which the whole game rests.

I’ve been thinking about this more lately since I have my own hockey equivalent. For me, it’s music.  I love it, but I can’t generate a note, nor understand the complexities behind much of it.  My music education and experience is limited to the following:

1. I played the glockenspiel for about 3 years in the middle school band.  Pretty cool, right? It wasn’t even a marching band.  And while I did learn to read music, the notes are engraved on the instrument’s keys.

2. I sang in the choir in my freshman year of high school.  I’m pretty sure I’m an alto.  Please don’t get the idea that this was a “show choir”, a la Glee.  This was a bunch of awkward teenage girls in matching outfits with their hands clasped in front of their diaphragms singing, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” to a theatre full of bored but obligated parents.

3. I took a beginner violin class in my early 20s, but it was hard to practice because my roommates were convinced I was skinning live cats.

4. There is an old upright piano in my home.  It came with the house, it is hopelessly out of tune, and I sometimes run my hand along the keys when I pass through the living room.

5. (And this is my strongest qualification) I really, really like music. I appreciate good songwriting and a surprising phrase. I love hearing an artist reinterpret a song during a live performance. I’m not a great dancer but I know what it is to be moved by the power of a song.  I’ve been part of a crowd that a musician has eating out of his hand, shouting myself hoarse trying to echo back the same energy and passion and joy he’s giving us.

But the question still stands: can I really claim to love something if it’s something I can’t do? Or have never really attempted?  Is music appreciation possible without a better understanding of music creation?  In this time I have available to me, can I make a start, maybe in some small way, to become not just a consumer of music, but something else?

Springboard #1, or It’s Never Too Late to Study Abroad

One of my regrets from my more youthful days is that I didn’t have a chance to study abroad.  My college trajectory was…how should I put this?  Fractured? Erratic?  Let’s just say I transferred a couple of times and caused my parents no small amount of anxiety in the process.  When I finally landed at a place where I was happy, and from where I’d eventually graduate, I only had 2 years of college left and didn’t want to spend part of that time abroad.  I’d only just arrived – it seemed silly to leave so soon.

When it came time to plan my sabbatical, I figured I should try to find the experience I had to forgo in my 20s.  I wanted something longer than a vacation, with the opportunity to immerse myself in a place and in a culture.  So, in about a month’s time I’ll be heading to the Institut de Francais in Villefranche-sur-mer, on the French Riviera, for a 4-week intensive French language program.  It is a program designed for adult learners, and students come from around the world.  I’ll be living in shared student housing and attending class 8.5 hours a day. And I can’t wait.

I know most people wouldn’t choose to spend their vacation in language lab or doing homework, especially when the beaches of the Riviera are a few tempting kilometers away. But you’re talking to someone who used to start reading her textbooks weeks before school started.  I honestly can’t think of a better way to spend the gift of time that my sabbatical offers.

So I’ve discovered my own version of a collegiate study abroad program.  Unlike what I might have done when I was 20, I’m guessing this one will have more mature people.  Oh, and much better booze.