The First Rule of Sabbatical
Nature knows the secret of how to be productively dormant
The last weeks of December to the end of January are the only months of the year when my mom and I struggle to find a good selection of leaves to use in our plant prints. We share our end-of-season leaves for our last few batches and then resign ourselves to taking some time off from print making. Even nature takes sabbatical.
The shortness of the leafless season is one of the very few reasons I appreciate the lack of seasons in Southern California. So many of my friends have had landscapes with trees stripped bare and sleeping for months now. They are beautiful in their own way, but there isn’t a leaf to be found.
Printing leaves is a simple process that involves soaking leaves in vinegar, pressing them between paper and then boiling them with a mordant. In my case, I use rust and vinegar. You can see my plant prints in the borders of most of my art.
Not all leaves print, some print better than others, and the leaves of every tree and bush print uniquely. There is so much out of your control when printing leaves. Minerals in water, the acidity in soil, the amount of sun, the varied genetics of a plant species, the number of times its parents kissed it goodnight and the plant’s mood, all create variations of the tannins the leaves express and how they print. I’m joking about the effects of a plant’s emotional nurturing and state of mind, but it’s so variable that I might actually be right. Plant prints aren’t entirely in your control, and neither is the dropping of leaves.
Nature dictates times when the work must be done internally and in stillness. The rest of her kingdom responds, but humans keep going. We do the external work for most of lives and never take time to be dormant.
I’ve been on sabbatical from my job at Rivers & Lands Conservancy for five weeks now and as I start my last week, I’ve been fighting deeply with this parallel. I took time off from my job to work on my own projects, but what does that mean? What makes a sabbatical successful. How do I win at sabbatical?
I keep asking myself if I crossed enough things off my long-ignored home project list, cleaned enough, dedicated enough time drawing, wrote enough of my book proposal, or spent enough time with my friends. It has been making me anxious and instead of throwing myself joyfully into whatever I can accomplish in these last seven days, I’m doing everything except this. I earned my time off and this was planned for a year. No one is going to quiz me on if my sabbatical was productive. Why does it matter?
In fact, I’m late for this deadline for this exact reason. Having failed to tackle the essay I was planning on writing, I sat down to make a cumulative list of all the projects, art, and meaningful time with others that have been accomplished. I hoped it would stop the negative talk in my head. Indeed, the list was long. It was so long, in fact, that I then asked myself if I had taken a sabbatical at all. What had I taken a break from besides collecting leaves.
Trees convert starch to sugar, so that they can pause and not freeze. They get sweeter and slower. They shift their cell structure so that they cut themselves off from the outside world and then they focus within and below. The root system continues to busily do the focused work of sustaining the body and preparing for a successful spring. The tree isn’t alone though, it is still interconnected to the greater network of mycelium and woodland. It’s just focusing on itself and taking a break from the imperative work of photosynthesis and the greater good it supplies to the world producing oxygen. And as I wait for them to unfurl again above ground, I think, perhaps nature knows sabbatical best.
I can’t think of a time in my life when I’ve had a true sabbatical: a big block of time where I was still being paid, my day job encouraged my time off, and the majority of my deadlines were self-imposed. Being self-employed certainly doesn’t lend itself to this. I won’t have it when I retire either because people ask for more of you when you are retired. (I know this because I work with a board of directors.) People think you have the time to do anything. No one is going to listen when you tell them you are taking vacation for a month. You’re on permanent vacation – but really, you’re never getting a vacation again.
In my time off, I completed small projects that make me smile when I walk by them and likely will for the rest of the year. I made my working spaces more amenable to my needs and elevated my outdoor spaces with projects I am deeply enjoying and will look forward to continuing. I drew some art that surprised me and lead me to ponder meanings and possibilities. I connected with friends both through the mycelial network and in person. I was sweeter, slower, busy but still in my silo away from the world. I was having a true sabbatical and when I consider the wintering trees, I think I would make a Pennsylvania maple proud.
I know I am incredibly lucky to have had this for myself and that it’s rare. I wish more employers would embrace this concept for their leadership like mine has. Of course, it took a lot of mental gymnastics for me to stop the inner critic who believed I wasn’t winning at sabbatical. So, what I really wish is that we could all find enough generosity towards ourselves to make sabbaticals a part of our lives. The first rule of sabbatical is that no one loses at sabbatical.
Perhaps we could all find this well of kindness and care for ourselves if we spent more time with trees. Maybe we should try. Have you ever attempted printing leaves?