2017

On more than one occasion during my childhood, my mother managed to squash her children’s potential birthday meltdown by reminding us that, “If you cry on your birthday, you’ll cry all year long”.

I never really believed her, but I seem to have internalized the idea just the same. Only I apply it to New Year’s Day. I’m not one for New Year’s Eve parties or resolutions or grand plans for the year ahead. But I do think it’s important for the year to be well-begun, and I’ve long believed that January 1st can set the tone for what is to come.

If I continue to believe that, then 2017 is not looking promising. It’s 3:40pm as I write this and I’ve been in bed most of the day. Any plans for New Year’s Day have been thwarted by a continuing cold. The “12 days of Christmas” we spent in the U.S. were not filled with lords a leaping or ladies dancing, but rather with boxes of Kleenex and endless doses of NyQuil. It was not how I wanted to spend our limited time with family and friends. Thankfully, I managed to keep most of our appointments and dinner dates, but I didn’t feel fully present for some of them, lost in a haze of medicine or struggling from a lack of sleep.

And now we’re back in Amsterdam, another year having gone by. In spite of all the public loss and the political disappointment, 2016 was a good year for us personally. We traveled a lot, hosted visiting family, made new friends and deepened other relationships.

If I take a glass-half-full approach, maybe the year is not off to such a bad start. After all, I’m well-rested, I finished a book, spent time with my husband, and finally posted something here. There are still a few hours in the day to email old friends, work on my French studies, and make a nice meal. Not a terrible way to begin a new year, right?

If nothing else, 2017 will be a year of uncertainty. If you’re anything like me, you may be wondering what we can do to be a force of reason and goodness in an uncertain world. As I do every year, I turn to my favorite New Year’s poem and its reminder that we need to “stay alert, reach out, speak when not spoken to…”. Training starts today. Happy 2017.

New Year’s Resolution
Philip Appleman
Well, I did it again, bringing in
that infant Purity across the land,
welcoming Innocence with gin
in New York, waiting up
to help Chicago,
Denver, L.A., Fairbanks, Honolulu–and now
the high school bands are alienating Dallas
and girls in gold and tangerine
have lost touch with Pasadena,
and young men with biceps and missing teeth
are dreaming of personal fouls,
and it’s all beginning again, just like
those other Januaries in
instant replay …
But I’ve had enough
of turning to look back, the old
post-morteming of defeat:
people I loved but didn’t touch,
friends I haven’t seen for years,
strangers who smiled but didn’t speak–failures,
failures. No,
I refuse to leave it at that–because
somewhere, off camera,
January is coming like Venus
up from the murk of December, re-
virginized, as innocent
of loss as any dawn. Resolved: this year
I’m going to break my losing streak,
I’m going to stay alert, reach out,
speak when not spoken to,
read the minds of people in the streets,
I’m going to practice every day,
stay in training and be moderate
in all things.
All things but love.
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You Can Have Too Much of a Good Thing

I’ve been very conscious, as I continue my planning, of not overloading my schedule, and not trying to take on too much.  Given my personality, there’s never been a chance that I’d lay on a beach for 3 months.  It’s much more likely that I’ll overcommit, and try to do a thousand things, and then curse myself at the end of August for not accomplishing everything on my list. It happens, and we’ve got the New York Times article to prove it.

To guard against this, I’ve tried to separate my goals and activities into two buckets, which I call the Checklist and the Springboard.

The Checklist is pretty self-explanatory. It’s stuff I want to do that can be planned, executed, and completed.  There are friends I want to be sure to see, and places I want to hang out and explore for a few days.  I want to kayak on Spot Pond and swim regularly at Walden Pond and do some fly-fishing.  I want to bike around Cape Anne and go to Cape Cod and find the best ice cream in New England.  I want to finally read Infinite Jest and go to the movies in the middle of the day, in the middle of the week.  Write ‘em down, check ‘em off.

The Springboard is a bit more complicated. There are fewer items on the list, for starters.  The challenge for each is to define what kind of involvement would satisfy me.  Would it be enough to expose myself to something new?  Or aim for a thumbs up/thumbs down decision as to whether it’s something I’d like to pursue more?  Should I try to set some level of mastery or progress as a goal?

The reality is that the items on the Springboard list are life-long pursuits, and I’m hoping my sabbatical time will allow me to deepen my skills and my appreciation of these interests.  Research shows that attitude, enthusiasm and intent are key to keeping the mind nimble and continuing to develop the brain at any age.  It’s important to have goals, but exposure, practice, and enjoyment matter, too.

My Springboard activities are going to use my brain in new ways, and I don’t think the learning will be easy.  Instead of getting hung up on a specific outcome, I would rather focus on the wonder of my brain’s ability to change and absorb new knowledge.  I want to pay attention to when and how things “click” (assuming they will, at some point!), and how I feel throughout the process.  I want to be sure to remind myself that learning is the goal.

Making Plans, or, Not Everyone Wants To Go To Thailand

When I started looking for information about how to structure my sabbatical time, I found some good general resources, but I couldn’t find quite what I wanted. Many websites offered suggestions for corporate folks who were looking to do volunteer work abroad.  I sort of already do that, given that I work for an international health organization.  Other sites focused on long leaves and world travel, putting your life in a backpack and hitting the road.  I knew I’d have 3-6 months, at most, and I wasn’t interested in traveling extensively without my husband, who only has a few weeks of vacation time.

I went to a fun, well-organized gathering of people planning “career breaks”. There were a lot of inspiring stories and information shared about budgeting, solo traveling, culture shock and more.  But nearly everyone I met there was planning at to take at least a year off in between jobs.  Most were doing round-the-world travel with long-term volunteer stints mixed in, teaching English or working in an orphanage.  While the experiences shared were varied, there was one thing that was consistent: Bangkok.  The most frequent piece of advice I received was, “Whatever you do, start your trip in Bangkok!  Thailand is incredible and so cheap!”

It was almost impossible to explain that I had no desire to go to Bangkok.

What I really wanted to get from the event was for someone to tell me HOW to figure out what I wanted to do.  What would make me feel challenged and engaged, but also rested and restored?  What was my Bangkok?

I think one way to answer that question is to think back on all the times you’ve said, “One day, when I have time, I’d like to…”.  How do you finish that sentence?  If I stopped you on the street and asked you that question, what would you say?

Better yet, if I asked your spouse, your closest co-worker, your buddy from college, what would they say?  What’s the thing you’ve been going on and on about for YEARS, testing the limits of the patience of those nice folks in your life?  Out with it.  You’re boring the hell out of them and they’re just too polite to say, “For the love of God, will you just go DO IT already?”

There is it. That’s your Bangkok.

Your own worst enemy

Here’s how I started my campaign for an organizational sabbatical policy several years ago, somewhere around 2009:

“Hello there boss, with whom I’ve worked for over 10 years.  You know, this international non-profit work we do is pretty stressful.  We’ve dealt with lots of crises, disasters, challenges, and just the day-to-day stressors of our jobs.  It would be great to take a break, and I don’t want to have to have a baby to get time off, since I’m pretty sure that maternity leave is NOT relaxing.  At all.  So, yeah, let’s think about a sabbatical policy.”

It won’t surprise you to hear that this was not terribly effective.  The only thing I accomplished was to get the word “sabbatical” tossed around the office a bit, which was something.  A work/life balance initiative was undertaken in 2010, but due to the average age (young) and the average tenure (short) of my colleagues, a sabbatical wasn’t at the top of their priority list.  In fact, it wasn’t until mid-2011 when our Executive Director decided to institute a sabbatical option.  She announced the existence of the policy and the eligibility criteria, and then said she’d be the first to take advantage of the benefit.

Her 7-week leave started the following Monday.

Here’s how I might have organized my campaign, if I was the slightest bit strategic:

“Hello there boss, with whom I’ve worked for over 10 years.  You know, this international non-profit work we do is pretty stressful.  We’ve dealt with lots of crises, disasters, challenges, and just the day-to-day stressors of our jobs.   There’s research that shows that offering a sabbatical can increase staff retention and job satisfaction. And they’re not just for academics and priests any more.  Many companies offer some sabbatical options; there are many ways we could structure it to make it work in our organizational culture.  Would you be open to me making a proposal for you and the executive leadership team to review?”

The lesson here is pretty clear. You need a plan. (As my husband would remind us here: “With no plan, there’s no attack.  With no attack, no victory.”)  If your employer has a sabbatical policy already, that’s great. If not, don’t despair.  As a committed and talented employee, you’re in a position to advocate for this benefit. Check out some of the links on the Resources page, and think about what would work best for your company’s culture.  Then sketch out a few options that you can share with Human Resources. Get the ball rolling.  Trust me, you’re not the only one thinking about this.