responsibility of privilege

No one warned me about the guilt. It was all happy, happy, joy and fun. The time, they would emphasize, to do this and that and so much else. To contemplate, to reflect, to breathe, to become rejuvenated. To be free from here, they would earnestly repeat where “here” referred to a panoply of campus-related ills – pettiness, politics, and policies chief among them. But at no point was there ever any mention that being saturated in the time to do this and that and being free from that and this would result in an almost shame-like posture when someone would ask What do you do? What are you working on now? It was easy enough to sidestep the whole truth until someone in the know would proudly announce “She’s on sabbatical!” I have never wished for the earth to swallow me whole more than when such a moment occurred soon after talking with a friend from grad school who I ran into at a local grocery store. She was with her two toddlers, a packed schedule, and wondered aloud why I was in Philadelphia on a Wednesday. The guilt, perhaps, stems from the realization that everyone could benefit from the gift of this time – to have time, to take time, to find a new relationship with time.

And there is certainly time. Blissful time, seemingly boundless and nearly uninterrupted time. And with that time comes, also, the possibility-turned-obligation to notice things that were merely blurs in years past. In the house, in the news, in one’s own life and the lives of others. This is not idle time. No, to be sure this is hyperaware time during which a strange hyper-vigilance about everything and anything is emerging.

But this was not always the case. The first few months were, as has been documented here, what I assumed the sabbatical might be. Joyous. Magnificent expanses of possibilities of how to use one’s time. New forms and spaces of seeing. And what I feared – the paralysis that has been shown to follow in some post-tenure cases – has so far been avoided (rapidly knocking my knuckles to my head, on the faux-wood table in front of me), replaced instead with a flow of ideas inspired in no small part by the reading that this sabbatical-time affords.

So what has changed. People, for one. That is – and I know how bad this is going to sound – during the month of December ample time was spent with family, both immediate and extended, and also fictive – those individuals and family units whom I have known for decades – for whom a sabbatical is not only not common parlance but the concept of a break in the quotidian rhythms of life has no basis in reality. Adult obligations still persist in most people’s lives even if work-related ones are greatly diminished. I mused about as much with a friend recently while saying out loud how unimaginable it seems to me now that there are some people who can mentally manage the spate of home repairs and general home maintenance (of all kinds, structural, personal, familial) while also managing to fulfill their professional desires.

At this point, the word “choices” was silently screaming from a dark corner of my brain. For a person who lives relatively regret-free, this was a strange moment. Some with whom I engaged in conversation during these past few weeks seemed to view my very existence as confusing. I could understand this, because when I have to say out loud how I spend my days and the commitments to which I have chosen to give my time, the words are quite outside of the norm for most people. What are you going to do? How are you spending your time? You’re going where? For how long? By yourself? Their questions were asked not in malice or with disdain, but perhaps with the nascent curiosity of an ethnographer who is truly struggling to make sense of  something (or someone) thought to be so familiar that now seems to be something (or someone) strange. Yes, I will think of these as short-lived, ethnographic inquiries that were premised on the notion that there are norms and that in part they were being flagrantly flouted by this strangely situated, micro-social phenomenon called a sabbatical.

And deadlines. Whereas I wasn’t naïve enough to think that a sabbatical would actually function as a time-stopping, invisibility cloak, I was blanketed in a relatively luxurious amount of time free from immediate demands of the writerly kind. (And no, Nanowrimo was not the same at all.)  And now I am eye-deep in three writing deadlines that fall in the next two weeks. Apparently sabbatical has done little to abate my proclivities to procrastinate, despite how early these Todos begin. It probably doesn’t help that I also keep adding items to my plate, that seems magically (read: incorrectly) larger than before July 1st.

I am left then with one simple, familiar thought: With great privilege – like this relatively unfettered time – comes great responsibility.

That seems a nice idea as any to bring 2011 to a close. And while you out there in your respective corners of the world will be preparing to embrace the new year, I will be feverishly writing to meet one of those aforementioned deadlines (12/31 – did I mention that?), and pondering how to live and use this time responsibly. Thankfully I didn’t completely lose a day like the people of Samoa.

Happy New Year!!

Bonus: the smooth sounds of Nancy Wilson. enjoy!

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