On the last day of school my normally stoic creative writing teacher strode into the classroom and giddily announced: “I’m going on sabbatical to Florence. I’ll be back in a year….Or two.”
The next day I officially changed majors. Goodbye medical school, hello pipe and tweeds. I figured I’d be crazy not to. Not only did English professors have the cushiest job on the planet, they got to soak in the Italian sun for a year on somebody else’s dime. I could almost imagine myself lounging under the Tuscan sun, reading Dante, drinking Chianti and ogling Florentine girls. Talk about La Dolce Vita.
Needless to say, I never followed through on that threat. It turned out a gazillion other liberal arts majors had the same idea and most of those Ph.D.’s are now selling shoes at the Foot Locker, which makes me feel a little better.
I wasn’t, however, going to allow a little thing like not having a doctorate thwart my grandiose ambitions.
A few years ago I decided to take some time off. I didn’t make it to Italy — I didn’t even make it to Little Italy — but I did imbibe a considerable amount of Chianti while ogling girls of Italian ancestry. (Sadly, I abandoned all hope of getting through the Divine Comedy twenty pages into the Inferno, settling instead for season 3 of The Sopranos.) Since I wasn’t on some one else’s dime, I had to live frugally off my meager savings, but it was as close as I was ever going to get to a genuine sabbatical. And I loved it.
I was able to get away with this because I wasn’t married, I had no mortgage, or credit card debt, my vehicle was paid off, and, most important, I felt like I had earned a break. I’d been a working stiff since I was nine and got stuck with my older brother’s paper route. And I kept right on working all through high school and college, at which point I graduated and… I began working professionally. Besides, it wasn’t like I was jumping off some great career ladder to the stars. I had been pretty much spinning my wheels for a decade. It was now or never, or at least another 25 years until retirement.
SOME PEOPLE WOULD have been bored stiff. Some would have missed the office gossip and politics. Not me. While all the office hacks were crawling off to work, I would leisurely make the first of many pots of coffee and fire up the old laptop, then sit down in my pajamas to hammer out the great American novel. It was an adventure tale about an escaped slave in 1850s Arkansas, and it took me almost an entire year to write, and it was absolutely dreadful, but it was a great learning experience. Among other things, I learned I had no business writing novels.
When I wasn’t busy kicking down the doors of American Literature, I would go for long hikes along the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River, breathing in the solitude and the all-too-fleeting freedom of being unchained to a desk. Afterwards I would sit on my patio and read, waiting for my friend Andy the realtor — who seemed to be on permanent sabbatical — to stop by. Then we would stroll to the neighborhood bar, where Andy never failed to say, “I am really impressed how you just quit your job like that.”
Looking back it was probably not a wise thing to do. When my savings were gone and I began interviewing for jobs, the human resource managers would look at me like I had three heads. As soon as they learned I had walked away from a perfectly adequate job to take a year off they would shred my résumé, not once, but twice. Worse, this was right at the start of the recession, so my year-long sabbatical stretched on another nine months.
Businesses and nonprofits like to say that they are more open to sabbaticals, but what they really mean are unpaid leaves. And these unpaid leaves are more like long vacations and they are only for the one or two employees who are so valuable and irreplaceable they can walk away for an extended period without management saying, “Hmmm, maybe we can get by without this guy after all.” Not that such people exist. “The cemetery is full of irreplaceable people,” my grandfather used to say.
I certainly don’t regret my time off. Nowadays, between office-chair induced back spasms, I like to remind myself that while I may not always have Florence, I will always have my sabbatical. It’s too bad we don’t take seriously the Lord’s commandments, because in Leviticus 25, God commands us to desist from work every seventh year. As the inventor of the Sabbath, He knew the importance of time off, even if we don’t.