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Monday, March 2, 2015

Being Here Is More Than a Vacation

Earlier this winter, when I announced here in “Books on Northport” that David and I would be taking a sabbatical, one of my readers (and you know who you are, BB!) asked about the difference between a vacation and a sabbatical. Actually, before he raised the issue he’d done a little homework and looked up a definition of sabbatical. Basically, a sabbatical involves some kind of professional creative work and time to “recharge the batteries,” often in a setting away from home. The away-from-setting may be chosen for its research possibilities, but that’s not always a necessary consideration.

But wait – isn’t an ordinary vacation supposed to “recharge the batteries,” too?

In the academic world, faculty members long for time to do what each calls “my own work.” Teaching, of course, is the primary job of most college and university professors, but they are also expected to (and usually want very much to) produce their original work – scientific research, creative writing, works of art, inventions, or whatever – and that can be hard to do simultaneously with the demands of preparing classes, teaching, grading, and advising students. Hence the sabbatical.

In our regular Michigan lives, I have a bookstore, which in summer is open seven days a week. The schedule isn’t quite as rigorous the rest of the year, but business is still a constant presence in my head, the first thing there when I wake up each morning.

David is not quite so tied to his gallery -- since the bookstore is right next door, he can come and go more freely, knowing I’ll keep an eye on things -- but he, too, although he produces more painting in his gallery than I get writing done in my bookstore, feels the pressure of business concerns on a daily basis. And naturally our days off are consumed with personal, household, and business errands.

Four years ago, down in Aripeka, Florida, I wrote ten short stories, and David made between 20 and 30 new paintings. It was an extremely productive winter for both of us. But that was four years ago, and while he has been productive since then, I have felt stagnant. So when the opportunity came along to rent this little cabin in southeast Arizona, even before we left Michigan my mind started recharging! I began a novel. I looked back at an unfinished short story. And then we started driving across the country....

my corner

Now here we are. I have finished the short story, and I written eleven chapters of the novel. It feels good.

David is having second thoughts about writing he’d planned to do and isn’t pushing himself to write, but that’s all right. He bought some new brushes and has the beginning of some new work underway, both drawing and painting. I’ve not been as diligent at my drawing as I’d anticipated but am not pushing myself in that direction. Getting as much writing done as I have been is the main thing; for me, drawing is meditation, not “my own work.”

The vastness of the Western landscape had us both overwhelmed for the first few weeks. It is so BIG! The effect gained by being here depends on being surrounded by the desert and mountains. But just being here, driving around and looking, sitting and looking, soaking it in, looking, looking, looking – all that is energizing, all of it refilling the wells of creativity.

It’s that kind of recharging, I realize – not electric, as with an engine or batteries, but more profound, as with an aquifer.

We’re reading a lot. David was thoroughly absorbed in Huffington’s biography of Picasso and read every word of it hungrily. He and I both read a fabulous book on coyotes and are now sharing a book on horses and racing by Jane Smiley. If you want to know what else I’ve read since our arrival, just look over at my “Books Read 2015” list, but my point is this: We read and discuss; we look at everything and talk about what we see; we pay a lot of attention to cloud formations, as if we are children again, lying on our backs in the summer grass. My short story was set in Scotland, and my novel is set in Michigan. Some of David’s drawing is figurative, nothing to do with landscape at all. That doesn’t matter. We’re working, and it feels good.

MANY books added since this photo taken!
Having a home base is important. During the day we are free to go out exploring, and then we come home to the cabin every night -- nesting, building our sabbatical libraries, and organizing and reorganizing our work spaces, secure in the knowledge that we have weeks in which to spread out and concentrate on work that is very personal to us and involves no one other than ourselves. 

Not everyone has the luxury of taking months away from work. I realize that. At the same time, since neither of us has a regular job or a position with benefits, we cannot look forward to ordinary retirement, either. Instead of the retirement other people have, we have this -- unpaid sabbatical time we have arranged to give ourselves and each other.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.


BB-Idaho said...

Sabbatical and/or vacation - it sounds very successful, perhaps
exceeding expectations. Just wondering if Dog Ears Books will
be carrying an expanded western
desert section? :)

P. J. Grath said...

"And" rather than the exclusive "or," BB. I'm having a lot of different thoughts on the desert books I'm collecting and haven't decided which ones will go onto the Dog Ears shelves. We'll see!!!