• Susanna Williams

On Taking Time

Updated: Dec 20, 2019

I quit my job in July. The organization was going through a restructuring and my work was sidelined. I didn't agonize over the decision. I had money saved and no dependents relying on me at home beyond my three rescue cats. I didn't have another job lined up- but over the course of my career, I have rarely made a job transition with a secure place to land. More importantly, I knew that I was burned out.

My last vacation was in 2012, when I took ten days and went to Mexico in preparation for starting a job at a major global nonprofit organization. Even that wasn't really a vacation. I spent the time in all kinds of therapy in advance of what I knew would be an intense work experience. And it was. My next break came when I quit that job and moved across the country- again, without another job lined up- but that wasn't a vacation. That was a transition. I spent the next five years as an independent consultant and, while I had complete schedule flexibility, I lacked the security that allows for full relaxation and rejuvenation.

This latest transition point was an opportunity to do things differently, to be deliberate about this time. I was terrified that, without structure, I would end up sitting on my sofa surfing social media, eventually oozing into a puddle of ambition-less oobleck. The therapist I worked with as I transitioned out of my job asked me what I wanted. That question was the hardest question I'd been asked in a very long time. I started very simply: I wanted to feel connected. Grounded. Present. I wanted to re-engage with my artistic side. I wanted to disconnect from social media.

I decided to take a sabbatical.

The word "sabbatical" comes from the Latin "sabbatum", which means "to rest". It's related to "sabbath". A sabbatical is traditionally understood as a period of paid leave from a university faculty position, but the practice has expanded to independent school faculty and the ministry and is now generally applied to a break from work that is longer than a vacation and involves a deliberate project or goal. Sabbaticals seem to always involve a journey, sometimes physical, always emotional and / or spiritual.

Around this time, I met a man who works with public school students to create school gardens. Spending time outside working with plants sounded really good. I reached out to him to ask if he needed volunteer help. He never got back to me.

But that spurred my thinking. I remembered that a friend had spent time working on farms through WWOOF- Working Weekends on Organic Farms. I discovered that there were hosts all over the world. I really like wines from Alsace, France, so I started reaching out to vineyard owners in Alsace. I didn't hear back from any of them.

I posted about this plan in What Would Virginia Woolf Do?, a Facebook group for women over the age of 40. One of the members responded that she was a member of WorkAway and had had great experiences through the site. Other members echoed her praise. I created a profile there, too, this time broadening my search to the whole of France as well as Portugal and Argentina.

There was a post from a woman in Brittany, France seeking a dog sitter for an elderly Golden Retriever for the month of August. She had uploaded a single picture of a spindly bush in sandy soil. No photos of the house or her or her family or the dog. We exchanged messages and discussed dates and, before I knew it, I had booked a flight to Paris using my Delta miles and a round trip TGV train to Lorient. They would meet me at the station. I found house sitters for my own cats and I was off.

Truthfully, I half expected this to turn out to be a scam. Thankfully, it wasn't. The family met me at the train station as promised and the next morning, they set off on their holidays and I was left on my own with Chaad, a 12 year old Golden Retriever, two cats, and my limited French language skills in a farm house 15 minutes walking distance from a very small village with infrequent bus service to the nearest city and train service. I went from living in the middle of Brooklyn to living next door to a farm with chickens, geese, ducks, sheep, donkeys, and, most memorably, peacocks.

I spent the next three weeks continually challenging myself. Every single interaction required vulnerability and courage to get what I needed. I walked eight miles along shoulder-less roads and back woods trails one night to attend an opera concert at an ancient abbey in the next department across the Laïta River. I went to the Sunday market at the church in the village centre each week and bought fresh fruits and vegetables from the vendors. I rented a car for the middle week and that involved a whole new set of courage skills as I navigated my way around south central Bretagne (the firm GPS British lady became my indispensable companion).

Every night I made a simple dinner and painted scenes from my day.

I discovered pêche plat- flat white peaches- and was so inspired that I decided to learn how to make marmalade. Which I did. Each week. I read Julia Child's "My Life in France". I unlocked "delicious".

I discovered the network of trails that connect villages through fields and along old woods roads and oceanside cliffs. Not quite hiking, nor really just a walk, these randonnées mean crossing the lines between private and public space, which is really the essence of weaving together community.

In other words, I lived.

And I re-set. I found a new rhythm of life. I stripped away the "busy" and found my breath. I reconnected with my values. I recovered.

It was the best decision I could have made for this juncture in my life. The lessons of presence, quality, connection, and relationship building are ones that will imbue whatever comes next for me with a very different perspective. I have found a different kind of ambition, one that has far less to do with myself and far more to do with the kind of community I build around me.

I went to Bretagne to live deliberately, and, in living deliberately, I am prepared to be a far better person in every aspect of my life in the US. It was just a little more than three weeks of time, but the life ROI is already exponential.