The State of Connection

Today’s guest post is by Veronica Arellano Douglas, Reference & Instruction Librarian at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

My partner and I are both currently on a one-year sabbatical. Rather than sabbatical-in-place, we chose to spend the year away from our home in rural southern Maryland. In July we moved our son and a few essential items (legos, hair products, shoes) to Houston, Texas, a city we last called home almost 8 years ago. We wanted to take a break from the woods and rivers of St. Mary’s County and see if we could live in a big city again. We wanted to be closer to family and old friends, most of whom reside within a day’s drive of Houston, if not in the city itself. We wanted a chance to do something different.

So we did.

This summer I said goodbye (temporarily!) to friends and colleagues. We bemoaned our loss of whine/wine nights, weekend play dates with the kids, Martini Fridays, and communal dinners.  We may not have had family in Maryland but our friendships were solid, and, it turns out, an integral part of our everyday lives. We promised to FaceTime regularly, preferably with a glass of rosé in hand. We would stay connected.

In my sabbatical proposal, I focused on productivity. I will read this, do that, write that one thing I’ve been talking about writing for the last two years. One of my sabbatical goals included learning more about Relational-Cultural Theory and its applicability to librarianship. It’s only natural that continuous reading about the ways in which relationships shape human development and growth would lead to an examination of the significant relationships in my own life. I’m just surprised I didn’t see this coming. I was so focused on the “doing” of a sabbatical that I didn’t stop to think about the ways it would impact my emotional connection to other people.

I’m writing this post from my kitchen table, my usual day-to-day workspace. I admire Maura’s ability to work in new spaces, but unfortunately I’m too much of a hermit to work anywhere outside of a very familiar place, which is almost always my home or office. Since my office is 1,400 miles away, home it is.

Home is lonely, y’all.

My husband is teaching one class at a nearby university and has the luxury of an office space, so he’s usually there to work on his research and meet with students. We’ve made it a point have lunch together regularly, but we both recognize that we kind of need our own workspace. A few mornings at the kitchen table together made us both want to take a long walk alone (who knew typing could be SO LOUD?!?). So we tend to plan maybe one date a week in addition to lunch, but this still leaves a lot of the day to myself.  

The FaceTimes and phone calls with Maryland friends aren’t as regular as I would like, of course. It’s so difficult to plan a conversation with people in a different time zone who work all day, take care of families, and try to find time for themselves. Once my son is home from school the focus is on him, and once he’s asleep I’m usually too tired to hold a coherent conversation. It’s tricky. I’ve managed a few emails, phone calls, and Skype calls over the past few months, and as much as the conversation focuses on our personal lives, it naturally starts to turn towards work.

Merinda wrote about purposefully retreating from colleague gatherings to fully immerse herself in the sabbatical experience. But my St. Mary’s County friends are my St. Mary’s College colleagues (that’s the joy of rural living), and inevitably, talk turns to work. There are always apologies: ”I’m sorry to bring up work” or  “Not to drag you into work drama, but…” It’s only natural. Our work is a huge part of our life, and if I were still on campus we’d be lunching and talking about our last class and that movie we just saw. I appreciate my friends’ attempts at shielding me from work, because sometimes I honestly don’t want to hear it. I can feel my shoulders tensing over the latest workplace incident. But I still want to provide a listening ear. I want to be the friend who will talk them through their crappy day, and I do want to know what I am coming back to in the fall. So how can I do that and still manage to maintain some kind of distance from work? Setting up boundaries about work talk inevitably sets up boundaries in personal talk, particularly for those of us in academia, where work-life bleed is common. That tether to work is something I’ve realized is at times stressful, but necessary to maintaining those friendships that mean so much to me.

As challenging as it’s been to negotiate friendships at a distance, it’s been relatively easy to reconnect with old friends and family in Texas. I’ve already seen my family more in the past 6 months than I have in the last two years and finally made the road trip out to West Texas to see one of my favorite people. What I didn’t anticipate was the need for daytime connection. It should come as a shock to no one that people work during the day. Because my home is now my office, if I don’t make an effort to reach out, I can have a pretty lonely day. My little introvert soul needs connection, too. I’ve managed to create connection by scheduling lunches and after-work get-togethers with local colleagues and friends. But it’s also developed organically in a way I would not have expected: through my research.

The time I’ve had to read, think, write, repeat has given me the opportunity to find and reach out to other academic librarians whose scholarly interests intersect with my own. The critical librarianship and POC library communities, are, as a whole, filled with kind, welcoming, generous people and I’ve found connection through that openness. I’m on Twitter more often, reading and responding to interesting conversations, and direct messaging some of my favorite writers and thinkers. I’ve joined a small relational theory community of practice, and set up Google Hangouts to chat about research ideas and possible projects, and called folks just to brainstorm. I don’t know how vital these interactions are to the people on the other side of the conversation, but they mean the world to me. The reflection time I have had during this sabbatical makes me crave deeper conversation. I was already terrible at small talk, and now the research connection I share with others makes it relatively unnecessary. There’s a familiarity we have with one another from reading each other’s words that makes it so much easier to forge a friendship, and it makes our work better, I think. We’re able to compliment and critique without defensiveness or fear.

I am so grateful for these new and growing friendships. I am hopeful that my Maryland friendships will continue. I wish I’d given more thought to the relational consequences and possibilities provided by a sabbatical. It’s so much easier to over-focus on productivity during a sabbatical, often to our detriment, than it is to think about the personal connections we are making, breaking, and changing along the way. But we should consider this aspect of any sabbatical, whether it’s a year, 6 months, or 3 months. Use that time to work, sure, but spend some time fostering connection as well.  


>> Have you taken a sabbatical? Are you planning a sabbatical? Consider sharing your experience on this blog. 


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