Time races on.
By the time your read this it will have been three months since we finished our sabbatical, exactly the same amount of time we spent away.
Right now I’m sitting on a packed commuter train into London. Crammed in around me are people going about their lives, worried about the next meeting, desperately trying to catch up on email, or reading the sensationalist opinions in the papers.
To my left, one of the most spectacular sunrises of the last few weeks. It’s misty this morning, meaning the sun’s morning glare has taken on a powdery appearance across the recently ploughed fields of Hertfordshire. One man walks his dog through the clodded fields. His silhouette is grey rather than black, as the optimistic early light of a new day finishes its ten minute journey from the sun to earth, and transforms him from a mysterious half-being into just another person.
I feel lucky when I get to see this on my commute. Too often I’m on this train in complete darkness, and even when I’m not, it’s rare a scene of this beauty reveals itself at the exact time I go by.
Do you want to know the most striking thing about this sight?
I’m the only one looking.
The modern coaches of the Great Northern Rail Network more resemble one long tunnel rather than individual carriages, meaning alot of people are visible from my spot. But no one is looking up. Mother Nature has no other admirers of her performance this morning, just me, a lone guy with an open notebook. Like a talented busker on the streets of our destination city, the world goes by without a glance.
Before we continue, I must be clear I’m not trying to sell myself as some kind of virtuous saint here. I got tutted at by an older lady in Charing Cross station yesterday for ‘staring at that bloody phone’. And clearly, I’m now looking at a notebook as I write this.
But what it did make me realise is how I’ve changed. I’ve always been a dreamer, always will be. I get lost in my thoughts, bounce from one idea to the next. But I’m also a grafter, someone who doesn’t go easy on myself. I describe it as an urge to be ‘constantly improving’, the reality is it comes from a darker place. I fear time, how little we get, and how easy it is to waste. My train journeys of seven months ago would have been very similar to my fellow suited sardines. Laptop out, tapping away, feeding the urgency monster that big business creates.
But taking three months to travel has changed at least some of that. It’s made me no less driven or focused, no less organised and if anything, more of a dreamer. But it has also made me realise happiness doesn’t come in big bursts. It comes in short day-to-day, normal hits. Getting home earlier than you expected, seeing the sunrise on a commute or just sitting and being for a while.
Anticipation is a wonderful thing. A lot of the pleasure of travel comes from the anticipation. You book a holiday, and the six weeks leading up to it are filled with excitement. Your energy levels go up, knowing you’re on the home straight. But when it’s done, the blues hit. A six-week build up to one week away, it’s raced by quicker than seems possible. And you’re back at work.
Life isn’t meant to be lived in anticipation. That’s a future state, a reality that doesn’t actually exist yet. You have to be present, aware of what’s going on, and pluck the small pebbles of happiness from right now. It’s great to be looking forward to time away, but that shouldn’t detract from what’s happening right now. Even on the toughest days there are small chinks of light.
I definitely learned that whilst on sabbatical. Not because I had some kind of epiphany, in fact entirely the opposite. I was expecting thirteen weeks of travel around Asia to be life changing.
Memory creating, yes.
Spending more time with Becca than ever before, yes.
Life changing. No.
I came back fundamentally the same person I was before. The anticipation was huge, the experience fantastic, but (save for a few tweaks around the edges), I came back the same guy who’d taken off.
Was this a disappointment?
No, I don’t think it was. It was unexpected, but not a disappointment.
It made me realise that a lifetime can be spent searching for things that are in plain sight. That being happy is my choice, my accountability. It’s not in some far-flung country, not in different religions, not with other people, it’s right here, right now, in every moment and every breath. Yesterday’s gone, tomorrow doesn’t exist, the only reality is in the present.
That doesn’t mean I don’t want to travel again. In fact I want to travel more! The food, the people, the places, the experiences, wow! Sign me up.
But those same moments of happiness while travelling, can be recreated.
Routines can be shaken up, more time can be found to spend with people I love, new places can be discovered even in my home town.
What I enjoyed most about the sabbatical was not the huge one-off experiences, but the small stories. Saving a baby bird on an island in Vietnam, watching the sun set in the mountains of Thailand, sitting on a bench waiting for my dad to arrive aboad a tuk-tuk in Cambodia, and more than anything, seeing Becca so happy and stress-free.
But these didn’t happen because of the sabbatical, they happened because I was present, not distracted, and content with just living. They happened because I noticed things I wouldn’t normally have done, and made time to appreciate the small moments that happen every day.
Whilst that’s not an easy state to maintain through the intensity, urgency and recurring bullshittery of work, it is something to aim towards.
Something I’m working harder on doing a little bit of every day.
So there we have it.
Take a sabbatical everyone….
It might not change your life, but it might just change your perspective.