26. Ain’t That Enough ? – Teenage Fanclub
“What will you do ?”. That was the most common question and, no doubt, “what did you do ?” will be its echo when I return. I took six months out from work, six months sabbatical, and the question was always the same: what ? Sometimes people would cautiously venture into “why ?”, wary that they were poking at something evidently personal, but it was much less common. Generally the safe question was “what ?”.
My answer was almost always the same, a vague “spend some more time with the family”, and something about getting to know my daughter’s school better. Those things were true but, six months ago, I don’t think I genuinely knew exactly what I was going to do. My answer always seemed to engender a very slight sense of disappointment in whomever had asked the question. Only very slight but just discernible. As if the answer everyone wanted to hear was something that, on the face of it, seemed more exciting: I’m going to travel the world, I’m going to base jump off the Sears Tower, I’m going to swim with wild dolphins, I’m going to write a book. And whilst those things sound great (apart from the base jumping thing, never a good look with vertigo) and I would genuinely love to do at least one of them that was never what six months out was about for me.
Some people knew I wasn’t in a great place when I decided to take the time out: this will give you some time to think they would offer gently. That wasn’t what the time became about either. Time to think has never been something I’ve been short of: it’s how I’m wired. I take Descartes to heart. I think, therefore… What had steadily crept up on me though was the old cliché about the mind being a wonderful servant but a terrible master (some more eloquent thoughts on which can be found here from David Foster Wallace via the wonderful Brain Pickings). Six months off didn’t give me a chance to think – it gave me a chance not to.
So the answer to “what…” ended up being this:
Four days a week I walked my daughter to school. Every single time it was the best twenty minutes of my day. We walk exactly the same route but she finds something new every time we walk it: a patch of snowdrops, a skip in someone’s front garden, the moon visible in the morning sky. She talks, babbling excitedly, and I listen to all the small things that are important to her – who is friends with who, why Scooby and Shaggy always have to be the bait, what she is going to play at school that day. We pretend a lot. I spend a fair amount of time being Max, her imaginary little brother, or the owner of Biscuit, an imaginary cat (obviously she is Biscuit), or someone from Star Wars. We practice spelling and she indulges my game of weaving that week’s words into the conversation seemingly by accident – “look at those flowers, what a beautiful purple…. Oh, purple – that’s one of your words, how would you spell that…. ?”. She indulges it with a roll of the eyes but indulges it nonetheless. She asks me questions that veer from the simple to the profound – what happens when people die ? why does Anakin turn to the dark side ? – and I answer as best I can. That Anakin one is pretty tricky, there’s certainly not enough in Attack Of The Clones or Revenge Of The Sith that convinces as motivation. Then we arrive at school and I watch her skip happily into the playground with scarcely a backward glance.
I cooked for my wife every week. I’m no one’s idea of a cook but every Thursday I tried to create something from scratch (my definition of scratch is quite loose). Tray baked fish is my specialty which has everything to do with the fact that it involves throwing everything into one dish and putting it in the oven. Presented rustically is what it would probably say in the review. Dolloped might appear in the same sentence. The point of my culinary misadventures wasn’t really about being any good, it was about investing time and effort and thought into the person I value above all others, the person whose empathy and support effectively gave me the gift of six months off: my wife.
I cleaned the house. I did the ironing. Went to the supermarket. Did all of the mundane, ordinary things that needed doing. I enjoyed them, enjoyed the routine, found value in the tasks in contrast to the lack of value I had been finding in my paid work. I don’t doubt that some of it was novelty, that some of it would become dull in time, but I didn’t reach that point. I actually remember thinking as I was cleaning the toilet that it felt like a better use of my time than the previous few months at work had been and if that isn’t a sign that you need some time off then I don’t know what is.
I took my daughter to swimming every week, sitting in the over heated local baths and watching her plough up and down the pool. I took her to ballet, dropping her off and then retiring to a local café with my notebook whilst she and her peers stomped around and occasionally stood in first position (presumably to distinguish what they were doing as ballet rather than just running about and randomly leaping). I chatted with the mums (and dads – but it was mostly mums) and the nannies and felt like I became part of a new community of people.
I bought a bike and started cycling. I won’t be troubling Bradley Wiggins any time soon but it did enable me to discover, on one of my meandering rides, that there’s a llama farm in the town where I live. If I’d been minded to write a diary of my sabbatical months then “Llama Farmers Of Suburbia” would have been in the running for its title. “Zen And The Art of Llama Farming” perhaps. I also took up a pilates class and discovered another new community of people. Mostly a community of middle aged ladies who routinely put me to shame in the strength and flexibility stakes. Still, not only can I now see my toes but I can also touch them without displacing something in my spine. All that stuff about exercise being good for depression ? It’s all true.
And I wrote. I didn’t write a book but I did find a way to start. I wrote 40,000 words. Some of them were quite good words and sometimes they were either preceded or succeeded by other quite good words. Rarely, a sentence would emerge that wasn’t half bad and a couple of times I think I nailed a paragraph. I discovered a lot about writing in the last six months but chiefly I discovered that the important thing – for me – to do is just to do it. Irrespective of any aspirations I might have to write a novel or make a living from writing the most important thing is to do it. Turns out it’s a part of me, an outlet for expression that is as critical for my emotional health as getting enough fruit and veg is for my physical health. Initially I grappled with writing in a public space (like this blog) given that I wanted to deal with some issues personal to me but it turns out that’s important to me too. Comments, words of encouragement, some recognition, however small, have all been hugely important to me. And deeply appreciated. If you’ve ever taken the time out to read any of this then thank you: it’s a slightly astonishing thing to me and means a great deal.
One of my stock responses when asked about my sabbatical was to say something like: “I can’t afford a Porsche and a ponytail really wouldn’t suit me so I thought I’d better have some time off instead”. A jokey acknowledgement that all of this might look a bit like a mid life crisis manifest. It didn’t answer the question as to what I was going to do nor, indeed, why I was taking the time. It was a light hearted deflection. I didn’t have a plan for the six months and, now at the end of it, I don’t regret that; I have no sense of having “wasted” time. Quite the opposite in fact. What I did and why I did it ended up having the same answer and it turned out that my vague “spend some time with the family” that I reflexively settled on before the sabbatical was right.
Experience some time might be better phrased. Experience some time, be present in those moments and not lost inside myself, and appreciate the truly important things in my life. Of course there’s been a certain amount of taking stock and a regaining of perspective as well; I’ve had time to not think but me being me there’s inevitably been some thinking. I had lost sight of what mattered to me and some time has helped bring that back to focus; my family have helped guide me home, guide me back to myself.
This morning, on the walk to school, my daughter was beside herself with happiness at the first signs of Spring, birds singing, flowers budding, and the sun in the sky. It wasn’t the first time in recent months that I’ve found the irony in life chucking me another free metaphor (watching Disney’s Frozen at the cinema and having way too much empathy with the lead character’s emotional repression and resultant disaster was my personal favourite) and I’m sure there will be ups and downs to come – there are as many winters as there are springs after all. But those moments are enough. They might be all there is. You probably all knew that anyway, I’ve been a bit slow on the uptake. Teenage Fanclub had it right all along.