Breathing Room

I felt a little bit like I was breaking a promise.

I’d been hustling to make new contacts, sending out my resume in the hope of getting interviewed, and had said–quite expressly–that I would be writing on here once a week.  It never seemed that I had quite enough time to get it all done, but somehow things were holding together.  Sure, I was a little frazzled.  Sure, there had been a few mistakes in cover letters here and there that might have led a hiring manager to discard my resume in favor of somebody else.  But that can happen to anybody.  And I finally finished that chapter I’d been working on for so long, clearing one item off my desk–at least until revisions come in.  Just keep working, just keep yourself available, I told myself, and something will take hold.

When you’re in the thick of things, it always seems like the frenetic energy of work itself is the one thing holding you together.  Academics like to joke about how they all get sick at the end of the semester, when their bodies can finally take a break, but there’s a truth to it: when you feel like you need to keep going, you usually can.  And when there isn’t a real goal in mind, it’s easy to think that keeping going is all there is.

So I was a bit apprehensive at 9:00 AM last Monday when I boarded my second plane of the day and turned off my phone.  We were leaving Miami, en route to Belize.  And despite the temptation to keep working, to sneak a peak at my email while I was away, I had promised Mallory that I would go the next five days without a cell phone, email, even TV.  Five screen-free days to disconnect from all the things that were cluttering my mind and to focus on more important pursuits: leisurely breakfasts, snorkeling trips to the reefs, and rum punch by the pool.  But for all that this meant keeping my word to my wife, it still felt–as I said above–like I was breaking a sort of trust with myself, or at least with the people I’d been reaching out to and relying on while searching for a new job.

I was helped along by the fact that many people supported this even before I left.  One simply held off on reaching out to a contact for me until I returned.  Another was happy to push our second call back a week–and in truth that was better, since it would give him time to think of other people I should meet and investigate opportunities with his firm.  One interviewer even told me plainly that being gone a few days wouldn’t have any negative impact on my application–that those types of trips are precious and not the sort of thing you need to make excuses for.  I’d learned earlier he was a widower, so he spoke from experience.

So despite a little apprehension, I threw myself completely into leisure.  Over the course of five days I read three novels, something I hadn’t done in years.  Gulliver’s Travels, The Time Machine, and The Handmaid’s Tale.  All very different stories, but with certain similarities.  Each one thrusts you into a new culture, virtually a new universe (or sequence of them) that makes you question what you think you know about human nature and human society.  Reading that sort of book you become lost in time and space, and when you’ve turned the final page to return to what’s familiar you still find yourself a bit unsteady.

Then there were the trips to the reefs.  These stretch along 200 miles of Belize’s coast, forming part of the larger Mesoamerican Barrier Reef system that is second in size only to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.  Mallory and I went out twice: first to Hol Chan and Shark Ray Alley, then to the Mexico Rocks.  To spend a few hours, face submerged, as a visitor in this ecosystem is utterly entrancing.  For the smaller fish an individual coral formation is their entire world–a self-sustaining habitat populated by diverse species.  Larger creatures, like snapper, eels, and rays move between and around them, seeking out food as they’re able, impacting those smaller outposts but never really part of them.  And then there were the sharks.  Lots and lots of sharks.  If you want to see things with perspective, try jumping off the front end of a boat, into their world, while twenty or so of the monsters are lured to the back with bits of rotten fish.*  There’s a ferocity to them, but a beauty, too.  And something oddly calming about realizing that under the waves you’re just another part of the food chain.  The sharks don’t care about jobs, anxieties, or hopes: it’s all meat to them, just some of it more easily got than the rest.

Mallory and I also upped the ante on the trip by deciding ahead of time to use as little artificial light as possible.  We’d done this by necessity on our honeymoon, and found that rising with the sun and retiring shortly after dark left us more refreshed than we’d ever been in our lives.  Not the sort of thing we can do in a normal week, but a luxury we were happy to accept on vacation.

All of this gave me lots of time to think–or not to think–and turned out to be exactly what I needed.  Answers to questions I’d been mulling over before I left percolated up at unexpected times, clear as day, even though they’d been elusive when my mind was focused.  My personal hierarchy of needs and wants became more obvious to me.  And I of course came back with energy restored, no longer feeling like I was running on empty.

In short, the silt that had been stirred up in my mind over so many months was given time to settle.  I’ve come back restored, refreshed.  So I’m very happy to have allowed myself this little breathing room, and even wish I’d been able to extend the trip a little longer.  But my contract with Tulane is of course nearing its end, and the biggest push is still ahead of me.  Duty inevitably calls.  Even so, I feel more confident facing this than I did before.  I now have the fresh eyes and clear head that can only come from quiet and dislocation, and enjoy a mental calm I was decidedly lacking before I left.  This will no doubt help me in the coming months, and give me the perspective and resolve to keep the new promises I’m about to make–the ones that really count, the ones that aren’t just apprehensions of my own design.



* Okay, so they were nurse sharks, and mostly harmless, but it doesn’t feel that way when they’re swarming!

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