I guess it all adds up to joy in the end…

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Joy to Marseille

I stole the title of this post from the talented Josh Ritter. It’s from a song called “Joy To You Baby”.  It’s a breakup song; more accurately, it’s a post-breakup song. But it popped into my head while I was in France, since joy was what I was feeling most of the time.  I remember walking around Marseille with the line, “Joy to the city, the heat wave and all…” on repeat in my brain.

Out of fairness, I should probably share the lines that precede the one above, since they are also relevant:

“There’s pain in whatever we stumble upon. If I never had met you, you couldn’t have gone. But then I wouldn’t have met you, we couldn’t have been. I guess it all adds up to joy in the end.”

And that sums up how I’m feeling, sitting here, the day before I return to work, reflecting on the past three months of my sabbatical and trying to distill some wisdom from the experience. This time has been about the dichotomy of things gained and things lost. Beginnings and endings, meetings and partings, anticipation and memory, exploration and introspection.  Balancing the risks – lost professional opportunities, missed events, things undone – with the benefits – restoration, adventure, friendship, growth. And not just balancing, but understanding. Understanding what I’ve chosen and what, then, cannot be chosen. Understanding – knowing  the “pain in whatever we stumble upon”, but accepting it because we also know, or trust, the joy in the end.  

Really, that’s what it’s all about, right?  Life, that is. We move between, and try to balance, the joy and the pain, the bitter and the sweet, the struggle and the triumph. And what you hope for yourself and those you love is that in the end, when you weigh the sum total of your days and years, your experiences and adventures, the scales tip towards joy.

Recently one of my youth group alums, a well-traveled young woman wise beyond her years, shared this quote from writer and professor Miriam Adeney:

You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart will always be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.

I love this, and I know it to be true. I felt it first for Haiti, a place I have known for 15 years, where I have friends and colleagues and a deep sense of connection. As life has taken me and friends onward, parts of my heart have gone to California, Connecticut, Amsterdam, Rwanda, Paris, Seattle, Prague, Memphis, Chicago, and now Germany, Australia, Nice, Canada, and of course, Marseille. In my own travels, I’ve left parts of myself in places, like breadcrumbs dropped in the hope that they will one day guide me back.  Or better yet, like seeds, which have the potential to take root and, if I do return, to surprise me with what they have become in my absence.

One of life’s challenges, of course, is getting comfortable with the feeling of never being completely at home. It is unsettling, and can lead to restlessness or shallow and hollow attempts to fill that part of your heart.  But what I’ve learned throughout this time is that the restlessness can be a gift, if we’re willing to listen to it and learn from it, instead of trying to drown it out.

On occasion, I’ve been accused of being a bit flighty, fickle, jumping from one activity to the next, as if I am trying to fill a void or find the thing that will finally be “it”.  At times I’ve felt the truth in that charge. Why aren’t I satisfied with the comforts of my life as it is? Why do I always want to have something on the horizon, something to look forward to, something new to try, or some new place to go?

My friend Wolfgang shared a beautiful poem recently with this line that, for me, starts to answer my questions:

“Only he who is ready to journey forth can throw old habits off…”

Yes! It’s only in response to the feeling of being not-quite-satisfied that we can free ourselves from the things that fetter us, and seek out something new.  With the help of words from other, smarter folks I can begin to build a defense for myself. My seeking and all that comes with it – the restlessness, the sense of not being completely at home, the hunger to see new places and try new things – these don’t arise from a desire to replace something lost but rather to give more away. The other places and other people I love don’t diminish me, they expand my life. They make me more curious, more generous, more fully myself. Who wouldn’t want more of that?  And if the unease, the not-at-home-ness, are the price, I’ll accept that because the reward, the payoff, is joy. Always more joy.

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This will be the last time I post here, at least for now. My intention was that this blog would last as long as my sabbatical.  Since the sabbatical is at its end, I think now is a good time to, as we’d say at the Institut, “prend une pause”. I may offer a post-script about my return to work, but otherwise I’m going to take a break, and wait and see what happens next.

When I started this adventure, I emailed a group of exactly 43 people and shared my blog address with them. According to my stats , I’ve had 1609 views (not visitors), from 24 countries, from the US and Germany and France to Belarus and India and Israel. Which means that I likely don’t know most of the people who visited my blog.

It’s part of the weirdness and wonder of the internet that strangers would take an interest in what I had to say, but I’m grateful for it, and for all of you. Thank you to everyone who visited and read, who shared my blog, who commented (either publicly or privately).  I am so thankful that you joined me in this life-changing adventure.

Wishing you joy on the journey, and in the end.

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List-makers of the world, this one’s for you

I love making lists. I have been known to make lists of lists, especially around the holidays (Christmas card list, Hanukkah list, gift list, cookie-baking list, and on and on). There is something very satisfying about crossing things off and saying, “There. That is done. What is next?”

At my workplace we use a special shorthand for these to-dos, referring to them as “bwat lists”, from the Haitian Creole word bwat, or box. Think you’re finished with a task? Not until you send a bwat-check to whoever asked you to do the task in the first place.

As a reader, however, lists can be a bit annoying. I get pretty cranky when I turn to a favorite columnist and see that they’ve offered up a list of “random thoughts”. It’s always a bit insulting, like they’re either being clever, or they just can’t be bothered to think more completely or critically about an idea. If you don’t have enough to say to write a whole column about it, maybe it’s not that good of an idea in the first place?

But here I am, a week out from my return to work, and I realize that there are a number of things that I’d like to share, but I won’t have the time to flesh them out fully.  And, I’m rationalizing to myself, many august publications rely on lists to convey information. I mean, Harper’s does it, so it can’t be that bad, right? (We’re going to choose to ignore the fact that far less august publications also publish lists, in the form of those terrible “What’s Hot/What’s Not” and “In/Out” lists that give me a blip of anxiety – ack! kitten heels are out and wedges are in? – until I remember that I don’t actually care.)

So, with apologies to the list-haters, here are (in no particular order) a few things that don’t quite merit a post of their own, but still, in my mind, deserve a little bit of my blog space:

– You can’t make over-generalized statements about the entire population of a country. There are over 65 MILLION French people and they are not all rude. When I got home from France I heard things like, “France is wonderful, except for the French!”  Everyone I met there, from waiters to taxi drivers to hotel owners, was friendly, polite, and helpful. And I’m from Long Island, so I know a thing or two about rude.

– Regardless of what I just said about over-generalizing, I’m convinced that everyone from New Zealand is completely crazy.

– The current crop of French pop songs includes a ridiculous – perhaps even obscenely high – number of male/female duets.

– If you’re a AAA member, you can renew your driver’s license at one of the AAA branch offices, without having to go to the Department of Motor Vehicles! You can also buy movie tickets, amusement park tickets, and book travel. It is fascinating to me that with all of the on-line options, there are still people who physically go to a AAA office to book flights.

– I should never attempt to read David Foster Wallace after 10:30pm. Those evening hours are meant for travel magazines and fluffy historical fiction.

– Having a lane to yourself at a public swimming pools is one of life’s greater pleasures.

– Solo travel is good for the soul. It forces you to take responsibility for yourself, and reminds you what you’re capable of.

– Concord, MA, might be my favorite place to ride my bike. Seen on my ride yesterday: horses, goats, a cranberry bog, farms, polite (ok, tolerant) drivers, friendly Concordians, rolling hills, chipmunks, Orchard House. NOT seen on my ride: traffic lights.

– Speaking of biking…triathlons are awesome.  What I’m most proud of is that over the past several years, I’ve recruited at least 8 women, by my count, to the world of triathlons. It’s been so much fun to help them prepare and to watch them realize how strong and able they are. If you live in the Massachusetts area and are thinking about doing a triathlon, I recommend any race organized by Max Performance. Also: stop thinking, and go do it.

– There’s no substitute for putting yourself out there. No one is going to knock on my door and offer to speak French with me for a few hours. (Although, as it turns out, I have a Moroccan neighbor, so that could happen…) It is awkward and scary to attempt to meet new people, especially as an adult, but the rewards are great. I’ve met some lovely folks this summer, and continued to improve my French thanks to them. That only happened because I reached out, took a chance, and showed up.

– One of the many gifts of my sabbatical was that it allowed me to slow down. I did less, but I enjoyed more. I was deliberate and a bit more thoughtful about how I spent my time and my energies. Along with my time for exercise, this is what I’m most afraid of losing when I return to work.

– Nothing – no social network, no text messages, no occasional greeting cards – can take the place of being face to face with friends and people you love. Of course, we know this already (and if we didn’t, we now have studies to prove it), and our lives don’t always lend themselves to personal contact. But we have to prioritize it, and try to order our lives in a way that encourages it, if we want those relationships to grow and nourish us.

If you’ve made it this far, thanks for indulging my list-making and hanging in to the bitter end. You can now bwat-check “Read Kathryn’s blog”. What’s next?

 

Where do we start?

Earlier this week I had lunch with a friend I haven’t seen in several years. As we sat down, we started talking about a race he had recently run, my sponsorship of which had put us back in touch. With that covered, we had a moment where we looked at each other and said, “So, where do we begin?”.

Given the time that had passed, we weren’t sure how or where to start.  Do we calculate exactly when we last saw each other and work forward from there?  Or just skip ahead to current stuff – jobs, family, mutual friends? We figured it out, and, as it’s always been our custom to enjoy long, lingering meals, we spent over three hours catching up.

I’m hoping that meal will be good preparation for my upcoming return to the office, about a week and a half from now. Where do I start catching up with my colleagues? Of course, three months isn’t nearly the same as three years, but three months in the life of an organization is a significant amount of time. Particularly when that organization includes hundreds of people and spans multiple countries. On top of that, the past several months have been a time of transition and turnover. I honestly don’t know how many people I’ll recognize when I get back. Part of me wonders if I should pretend to be a new employee, and see how long I can keep that up…

For now, I’m focused on spending the first few days getting re-acclimated, meeting with and listening to the people who have been doing the heavy lifting in my absence.  I have to remember to be patient with them, and with myself, and to allow for some difficulties in the first few days. Getting back to my old routine and schedule will be a challenge.  I’m thinking of strategies to bring the things that have become important to me – exercise, mindful eating, thoughtful communication – into my work day.

All of this will take time. I hope in the weeks to come that I’ll be able to share some of what I learned during my sabbatical with friends and colleagues, and that those lessons will result in positive changes to my work and to our organizational culture. But first I need to listen, and understand the successes and challenges that my colleagues have had while I’ve been away. And most importantly, I need to find a way to show my gratitude, which, especially in these last days, is immense.

How to end a sabbatical

One of the reasons I started this blog was that I couldn’t find the kinds of resources I wanted to help me plan and prepare for my sabbatical. So it should come as no surprise that there are even fewer resources to help me end my sabbatical.

Yesterday I realized that I had only three weeks remaining before returning to work. A friend pointed out that if you offered most people a three-week vacation, they’d be thrilled – it would seem like a luxurious amount of time. To look at it another glass-half-full way, I still have about 20% of my sabbatical remaining. Not bad.

Still, I’m starting to feel some urgency and some anxiety about the remaining time. Several months before my sabbatical, I had the opportunity to attend a leadership training program, and as part of that experience I was assigned an executive coach. In a follow-up conversation a few weeks before my leave, I asked her for her thoughts about “re-entry” into work, and if I should use the week or so before returning to start getting caught up, checking email, etc. “Absolutely not!”, was her immediate reply. “Your sabbatical is your time until the moment you walk back into your office.” That’s been my guiding principle, and I’m confident I can stick to it.

But the question remains as to what to do with the time that is left. There are no great adventures on the horizon, but neither are there any big things I feel like I must do. Many of the goals I had for this time have been accomplished. I have learned, traveled, explored my hometown, nurtured relationships, exercised, read, reflected, gotten organized. Still, a part of me feels like I need to produce something, or have something more concrete to hold up to others to justify having taken this time. (One could argue that this blog could be that “something”, I guess.)

So that’s where I am on this beautiful Wednesday morning. Not yet counting down the days remaining, to be sure, but mindful that those days are few, and should be used well.

The things you keep, and the things you lose

I’m back from a lovely few days in New York, in which I visited The Island (as in Long), The City (there’s only one), and what the inhabitants of both places incorrectly but lovingly refer to as  “Upstate”, even though I was only about 40 miles north of Manhattan.  I saw wonderful friends, ate well, caught up with family, laughed a lot, and returned to Boston with a car full of Gino’s pizza (voted 3rd best pizza on Long Island!), as there is no decent NY-style pizza to be had in Massachusetts. At all. Anywhere.

I apparently also left with something unexpected.  My friend’s parting words to me were, “Drive north! Your Long Island accent has never been as strong as it is right now.” I’m pretty confident I lost it again somewhere in central Connecticut. Close call.

Being on sabbatical and having so much leisure time has given me the opportunity to see and spend time with people at their convenience, which has been wonderful. The weeks ahead are filling up with lunch dates and dinner plans, because I have time to reach out to others and offer an open-ended invitation to spend time together.

I’ve been back from France for a month.  The process of looking back and sharing memories and conversation with others has brought the experience into sharper focus.  I’ve realized that what I miss the most about that almost magical month is the socialization.  Not just the people who I met, although I do miss them (a lot!), but the ease with which we could all be together.  With the exception of our nightly homework and the occasional family or work check-in, most of us had no other responsibilities.   What a gift to be surrounded by fun, adventurous, curious people who were almost always available!  I mean, when was the last time you had a friend just drop by your home?

I have wonderful friends here in Boston, but the responsibilities of life, parenting, work, and activities make it difficult to be spontaneous.  It’s hard to find people (or make oneself) available to just be together, on a whim, on, say, a random Tuesday night.  But I’m convinced that those kind of spontaneous gatherings give a richness to our relationships that can be hard to develop any other way.

There have been many things about my time in France that I’ve had to let go of.  Most of them involve bread. And cheese.  But there are other elements of the experience – the easy fun of socialization first among them – that I really want to fight for, and hold on to, and try to translate into something that will work in our overly busy, hyper-scheduled American culture. I haven’t figured it out yet, but I’m working on it, and I know I’m not alone in wanting this. 

Getting down to business with David Foster Wallace

So it turns out that when you say publicly (on a blog, for example) that you’re going to do something, people often read your statement, remember it, and then actually ask you if you’ve done the thing you said you were going to do.

And so it was that over a lovely dinner late last week, a friend asked me about my progress with Infinite Jest, reminding me, “…you said on your blog that you were going to read it during your sabbatical”. Yes, yes I did. And now I have…started it, at least.  Again. Luckily I have good company and lots of resources from the incredible folks over at Infinite Summer, who undertook the task of reading, discussing and dissecting Infinite Jest back in 2010.

For people like me who love to read, the question of what to read is a constant challenge. There are few things that excite me more than walking out of a library or bookstore with an armful of books. The only thing that tempers that excitement is the realization, walking around said library or bookstore, that I will never be able to read everything.

As a result, I tend to cast a wide net, attempting to sample a little of this or that. One might say that I’m a bit promiscuous in my reading.

For example, in addition to Infinite Jest, the following books are currently sitting on my dining room table, courtesy of a recent trip to my local library: a small book about the Battle of Waterloo (“June 18, 1815: The Battle for Modern Europe”, in case you’re interested); the 800-page novel “Paris” by Edward Rutherfurd; and Michael Lewis’ “The Big Short”, about the stock market crash. And that doesn’t even begin to address the pile of books on or near my nightstand. Or the e-books queued up on my Nook.

But for now, for the foreseeable future, it’s me and David Foster Wallace. I’m putting those other tempting books aside and giving my full attention to the sprawling genius of this 981-page (not including end notes) creation. Time for some literary monogamy.

Springboard #2, or, It’s About to Get Noisy

Some time ago, before the sabbatical actually started, I laid out some of my plans for what I hoped to accomplish during this time.  I sorted activities into two categories: the Checklist and the Springboard. I’ve been working away at the Checklist, but until now, my ongoing French studies have been the only Springboard activity.

That, friends, is about to change.

If you’ve been reading for a while or if you’ve explored some older posts, you’ll remember that I wrote about music, and the fact that while I love music, I can’t generate a note of it myself.  I got it into my head a few months ago that I would learn how to play blues harmonica (don’t ask…).  After making a friend in France who was also learning to play the harmonica, and after hearing his fabulous 5-note blues riff, I was sold. Inspired. So when I got back home, I took action.

My German-engineered Hohner harmonica.

My German-engineered Hohner harmonica.

I am now the proud owner of this beauty.

Of course, owning a harmonica and having any idea how to play it are two very different things.  But we’ll get there. I’ve found some free lessons on line and started practicing. (It’s harder than you’d think, especially if you want to play a single note.) I’ve got a book on the way and will start learning the basics.

I’ll keep you posted on my progress, which I assume will be slow. Local folks, look for me practicing on a park bench near you…