Relax Your Head

It was my first visit to my new osteopath. After 18 months of bouncing around in my kitchen to Zoom cross-fit, I’d knackered my left foot. The inflammation was causing pain all up the side of my shin, and connecting to the Known Issue in my left hip. The earliest I could get an MRI was December. So I needed some assistance.

Crystal asked me to lie down on her table, and then she put gentle pressure on the trouble spots. In that way osteopaths do, she began sensing my story.

“Are you under a special amount of stress right now?” she asked me. “Your body is really amped up.”

I have no doubt she was right. But here’s the thing: no special stress at the moment, really. I’m on sabbatical.

Sabbaticals are gifts given by a combination of labour laws and historical workplace privilege to academics. They aren’t free: we’re meant to have projects to do that require concentrated research time; we earn sabbatical periods with accrued teaching time; and we take a pay cut during the sabbatical period. But still, they are gifts.

And I’m terrible at receiving them.

Here’s what the Oxford English Dictionary says about sabbaticals:

The first definition of “sabbatical” in the OED, as a screen shot. It reads, among other things, “A. adj. 1. a. Pertaining to or appropriate to the Sabbath.”

I was surprised to learn of sabbatical’s religious roots; it had never occurred to me that “sabbatical” is of course derived from the “sabbath”! (I’m most moved by the 1892 reference to “calm … contemplation of his labours”; more on that in a minute.) The link is unexpected, but also instructive.

I’m not a religious person; I have a strong spiritual sense, or at least I believe I do, but I’m agnostic in practice. Which is one reason, I suppose, that I do not rest well; I do not have a sense of rest as something that calls me, the way (perhaps) acts of spiritual devotion linked to rest days might call others. I like to be busy; busy-ness is distracting and I find distractions calming. (I’m working on it in therapy, don’t worry.) Rest, in other words, is hard work for me, and it does not come naturally.

If I worship anything, it’s my bicycle – and the connection to the road, the earth, my community it offers me. Here, rest is essential: you can’t do the kind of riding I do (usually somewhere between 40km and 80km at a go) without resting regularly. There’s a lot of strong evidence about the essential role rest plays in building strength, capacity, and physical endurance – full rest days let cyclists like me go faster, climb stronger, and avoid injuries.

A cat in repose, head on a pillow. CATS JUST KNOW.

Rest is also more than muscular, though – it provides a way for athletes (of all kinds – including writing athletes!) to regroup, adjust their headspace, reduce their cognitive load, and refocus. (I recommend this wonderful piece by the psychotherapist Susan Tarshis on searching for rest in her life, her exercise, and her work.)

Do I rest well off my bike? Nope. I know I should, but somehow on “rest days” I feel like I should be… doing something. So I garden, or I sneak in a lifting workout, or I do a short row on my ergometer, or I try a spot of yoga (complete with headstands).

My partner tells me, wryly, that my Facebook status should permanently say “sore”.

Clearly, though, my employer isn’t granting me sabbatical leave to ride my bike or to convert to Catholicism or Judaism. I’m meant to be writing a book (which I also did on my last leave, when I taught myself the power of a regular, controlled writing practice). I’m also undertaking two new teaching-research projects, complete with a stable of five (FIVE!) graduate fellows.

Here’s what the OED eventually says about this more familiar kind of sabbatical:

The OED’s second definition of sabbatical, item c.: “designating a period of leave from duty granted to university teachers at certain intervals…”

I note here with interest that this definition of sabbatical indicates the leave is “for the purposes of study and travel“; I think back to the “calm… contemplation of labours” in the first, religious definition. There’s something moving about the “meta” aspect here, the idea that I might use a sabbatical to reflect on how it’s going, on how my working practice is or is not serving me; the idea that I might use this time to learn to be a better, more capacious, kinder (to myself!) version of Professor Kim – not just to do Professor’s Kim’s research projects.

I’m also caught out by the phrase “designating rest or absence…”: sabbaticals, even MY kind of sabbaticals are… about REST?!

The definition I’m quoting here is the origin of meaning for the very thing I’m currently undertaking; in other words, the world’s most historically thorough and reliable wordsmiths are telling me plainly that sabbatical leave MEANS a period of study, travel, and rest.

If you talk to anyone working at a university who is coming up to a sabbatical, they will tell you how desperately they need it.

They are exhausted from the emotional labour of holding up the students in their charge, all of whom are in a liminal transition space between childhood and adulthood and are consequently undergoing constant, often difficult change. The independence of university instructors means so much of what we do is homegrown (no set curriculum), and quality prep is loads of work that has to happen before we even get into the room with those students. And don’t even get me started on university administration.

Like academics everywhere, I’ve always experienced the first month or two of sabbatical as a kind of falling over. I’m drained and I know it and what I really, really, need is to rest. But I’m also an excellent subject of power, and the prevailing wisdom of this culture is GO GO GO; rest is to be regarded with some suspicion. This is the flip side of the world of the bike, the world of the sabbath, where rest is to be cherished and revered; this is the world of publish-or-perish, the world of economic neoliberalism, where only the busy people are regarded as good enough, as fully human.

So I feel like I should fall over… but I can’t let myself. There’s a book to write, right? And ethics protocols to craft and graduate students to hire and … and … and …

This dog. I want to be this dog.

The 24/7 world is a lie, though, and increasingly we get it. The most productive among us are the ones who rest and work in balance, who rest MORE than they work, in fact. All over the globe, corporations large and small are trialling the four-day work week, to massive success. (The link here is to a short BBC article; if you want a deeper dive, I recommend a listen to this podcast episode, from Ed Miliband and Geoff Lloyd at Reasons to be Cheerful.)

Academics have some of the most flexible working lives on the planet, and yet the old joke is that we work all the time. We fetishize work as a badge of honour; then, we pass the fetish on to our graduate students, and we find them in the library on Saturday mornings. Could it be that we fear if we don’t perform our commitment to constant graft, we might be found out as – GASP – privileged? Free to rest whenever we need it?

I wonder what it would mean, for me and for anyone of us who feels somehow bad about themselves when they are resting, to take the OED definitions of “sabbatical” to heart. What if we regarded our leaves as periods of time when our jobs shift deliberately from work to rest – from work to calm contemplation about the many things we need in order to be our full selves? What if our sabbatical “projects” were not books or articles, but the recalibration of our bodies, traveling to see family and friends, a stack of work-unrelated books to read for fun?

What if the whole reason for the sabbatical was, unabashedly, to rest?

I’m still working on this, of course; even as I write this post I feel uneasy imagining myself prioritizing rest over the other things on my to-do list. It’s a hard lesson to unlearn; we live in a world that has naturalized a carelessness of self (principally so that it can sell products related to self-care back to us). It’s a trick of power – and it’s a very effective one.

But then, I find myself thinking back to my last sabbatical. When I wrote more or less a whole book in three months, simply by devoting two hours, or 1000 words, each weekday morning.

And I wonder: what could two hours of solid, devoted rest each weekday morning achieve for my aching foot? My sore hip?

I might even be able to wear my favourite shoes when I head back into the classroom in January.

This is Freddie, my road bike, enjoying a view of the Yorkshire moors above Hebden Bridge. This was taken in the first week of my last sabbatical, in 2017.
This entry was posted in Life gets in the way, Sabbaticals, Still learning and tagged by Kim Solga. Bookmark the permalink.

About Kim Solga

I am a university professor currently based in Hamilton, Ontario. I teach theatre and performance studies at Western University; previously, I was Senior Lecturer in Drama at Queen Mary, University of London. On Wordpress, my teaching blog is The Activist Classroom; I'm also a regular contributor to the popular blog, Fit is a Feminist Issue.

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