“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
—from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, 1986
IT’S CLOSING on 30 years since Ferris Bueller counseled us all to take a ditch day to keep our perspectives fresh.
But now that we’re grown-ups with bills and snappy Twitter personas and these goddamn phones attached to our faces, we can’t seem to find the time. Even though we know this will eventually result in burnout, wrinkles, heart attacks, bad posture, unhappiness and the inevitable violent hurling of the phone thingie across the room.
We’re consoled with the platitudes “Just breathe” and “Take some time just for you” so many times they’ve become colossal clichés. In my head, I can hear the imaginary chorus of judgmental hipsters cynically muttering yeah yeah yeah, I can quote ‘80s movies all day long, too, dork as they scroll through their Instagram feeds clutching a Bulletproof coffee.
Even worse, the message of self-care has been co-opted by branding experts who use it to shill products from bubble bath (Calgon, take me away with your harmful sulfates and chemical irritants!) to checking accounts (I tell you from experience that despite the web pic of the pretty lady meditating on a cliff, banking with Suntrust is not the path to inner peace.)
Deep down, we know the truth: You cannot buy your way or roll your eyes to serenity. And no, there’s not an app for that, either.
Sometimes, when things get really whacked and you find yourself red-faced and hyperventilating that someone left the box of cereal open again, you need more than a few breaths. You need to do something radical. You have to steal your life back from the deadlines and the iPhone calendar and the to-do lists.
Earlier this summer, after months of general malaise and a recurring nightmare about fire ants making a nest under my desk, I decided that the most revolutionary action I could take for my mental, emotional and physical well-being was a sabbatical.
College professors take sabbaticals all the time to further their hands-on knowledge in a particular area of research. As a person with very little academic authority, mine was to deepen my expertise in creative navel-gazing.
I humbly recognize that not everyone is in the economic position to take six weeks of unpaid leave to do a whole lot of nothing. I didn’t believe I could do it either, until I committed to the idea.
With a couple of well-timed freelance gigs and the support of my bosses here at Connect and at home, I took the longest ditch day I could. Here is a brief account:
The first week, we entertained guests from the West Coast that we hadn’t seen in 12 years. We grilled hamburgers and mortified the kids with our ‘80s dance moves.
We learned that Facebook isn’t a terrible way to stay in touch with distant friends, but surviving a flash flood together on Tybee is way more fun.
The second week I helped the children pack for summer camp. If you’ve ever had to stamp 50 pairs of underpants with indelible ink, you understand why it took an entire week. There were also quiet moments to make a mommy’s knees buckle, like holding hands with my soon-to-be high schooler while we walked the dog. Even when our neighbors came outside and saw us, he didn’t let go.
The third week, struck dumb by the silence of an empty house, I sat at my kitchen table, drank tea and watched birds. All. Freaking. Day.
Later that week, two rats invaded the pantry, probably attracted to the open cereal boxes. An epic BB gun offensive culminated in a hurricane swath of destruction and a bloody standoff in our daughter’s closet. So there was a solid two-day block of washing pink princess sheets and hunting down tiny bronze pellets before the dog could eat them.
The fourth week, I went to visit my parents. I haven’t really had them all to myself since I was in diapers, and it was a real gift to spend time with the two funny, interesting people who raised me. Especially now that we can drink wine.
The fifth week the AC broke. I escaped to the beach, where I drank too much beer and gave my dermatologist tremendous reason to scold me for my amazing tan. One morning, I paddleboarded all the way from Alley 3 to the end of Horsepin Creek just because I had nothing better to do. On the way back I passed a pair of dolphins slopping up mullet in the marsh banks. They ignored me like I was part of the scenery.
Towards the end of the sixth week, we rented a tiny cottage near some waterfalls outside Brevard, N.C. It rained a lot. I sat at the kitchen table, drank tea and watched some more birds.
By now, my mind and heart had settled back into a rhythm that more closely resembled the life I believe in, one of nourishment and gratitude, of faith and justice. From the polestar of my rediscovered self, I have found myself more able to respond authentically to a world spinning off its center:
Carnage in the Middle East. The spate of local shootings and our city leaders’ audacious helplessness. Cops in Missouri lined up like they’re going toe-to-toe with ISIS militants instead of American citizens exercising their right to congregate and grieve over the shooting of an unarmed young man. The heartbreaking suicide of one of our most beloved and beneficent bodhisattvas, Robin Williams.
So many tragedies to remind us of the sadness and injustice inherent in this confounding place we’ve found ourselves in together. More than ever, we must do whatever we can to cultivate our essential compassion for each other. And that means taking the time to tend to it for ourselves.
Six weeks might not be feasible, but I implore you to do whatever it takes to get your own life back. Even if it means sacrifice, it probably won’t be a financial disaster (unless your AC breaks. But the repairman will tell you it would’ve happened anyway.)
It’ll be the laziest, quietest revolution ever: Let’s be drastically patient with our need to slow down. Let us snuggle and pull the covers over the dogmatism and cynicism. (As Ferris also advised, “Ism’s, in my opinion, are not good. A person should not believe in an ‘ism,’ he should believe in himself.” Or herself, as it were.)
As I return to my desk and its deadlines, perspectacles freshened, I plan to hang on hard to the long, lackadaisical moments of my sabbatical.
I will always need to remember that calling my parents more often, closing the cereal properly and spending a few minutes watching the watermelon plant take over the backyard is worth far more than anything I can purchase on Amazon Prime.
I’ll remind you if you remind me.
Just breathe. Take your time. It’ll all still be here when you get back.