In the past 19 years, I’ve taken two brief bouts of meaningful time off of work, both for maternity leave.
I’m by no means proud of this, as I despise hustle culture and deeply value down-time, but this is the reality for most of us of pre-retirement age (and often beyond…).
We work. And we try our damndest to stay plugged into joy and balance. But we work.
I found myself this summer on an epic trip that was meant to happen that first pandemic summer. My husband landed a teaching gig in an Italian study abroad program, so finally this summer we had a re-do, and our family took a sabbatical in the Tuscan countryside.
In the months leading up to this trip, I’m ashamed to admit my first inherent assumption was that I would work remotely for the summer and juggle the mental gymnastics required to manage the nine-hour time difference. I’m an artist and maker in all the nooks and crannies of my life, but my job as a therapist overseeing a network of other therapists in the United States and Canada is the role that pays my bills.
Eventually, I snapped out of the worker-bee lull and decided to absolutely not spend my once-in-a-lifetime summer in Italy stuck on my computer all day. I decided that even if I had to cash in part of my retirement, I was living now and would make this work. (And as it turned out, the internet was wildly unpredictable in our town, so my plan would have flopped anyhow…).
So after months of working on over-drive and saving and planning and worrying about my fur-babies and getting the house clean for the sitter and jamming tons of random sh*t I didn’t have time to deal with in closets, off we went.
Alas, the months were both beautiful and experimental as I noticed my over-scheduled, work-trained brain attempting to figure out what to do with itself. And don’t get me wrong, I’m actually adept at work-hard and play-hard, and can tap into adventure and chill in beautiful ways, but only for short bouts.
My brain and being understands the assignment when escaping for a weekend or even a week. But to have an entire summer untethered from work routines and over-scheduled parenting obligations had me on a strange, interesting journey.
As I slowly let go of what normally defined my days—work and over-parenting, 21st century style—I began recalibrating what was important and what would now keep me grounded. It turned out as I peeled back the layers that all I was seeking was the ability to see, to be awed, to find the magic that speaks to me now, in this mid-life place.
It seems a bit like magic and wonder are much more readily available earlier in life. Even in the angsty chaos of our 20s, the ability to be bowled-over by beauty or to say yes without a roadmap is a privilege granted by a still-developing brain and the absence of heavy adulthood obligations not yet having sunk their claws in.
But seeing the magic now is a bit like shaking that damn bell in the Polar Express. The bell could literally be in the palm of our hands as we wildly flail it about, desperate for its pinging sound, and yet we’re left confused with the sound of silence.
It is an art—finding the magic and awe in adulthood, even (as I discovered) on a picturesque Tuscan hilltop.
As the cadence of my days in Italy this summer unfolded—hanging laundry on the line in the summer heat, falling in love with all the stray cats and devising secret plans to adopt them, saying yes to all the pasta, watching the swifts wildly duck and soar in the sky—I came to realize that the beauty and wow that I see now isn’t the big bowled-over stuff.
Instead, it’s the quiet stuff, the subtle seeing.
My mind is a jungle. I think many of us experience this. We are ever searching, reaching, looking, uncovering, meaning-making, grappling, seeking, and attempting to understand what this one life is really about. We’re doing this at age 25, we’re doing this in different ways at age 45, and my clients are doing this still at 80-plus.
And that’s not to say we’re tortured souls or never make peace. It’s just that the way we find and feel magic and joy shifts and changes as we age and as we navigate different life experiences. We have to reach a bit further, become masters at forcing the slow-down, and get familiar with our own unique ways of staying plugged-in.
This summer was a privilege. An experiment. A time-travel departure from American capitalist hustle. And I’ll acknowledge again, a privilege.
Wherever you are, whoever you are, I hope you continue to find the magic and the beauty—whether big and bowled-over or tiny and still.