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. 



Day 3 of the Return

Oh. My. Goodness.

How did the time go by so fast?

I am certain that EVERYONE asks this question at the end of sabbatical. Six months ago I felt like time was endless and I couldn’t see my way past the first few days. I fell into a routine and sought to balance work with play. I cherished time with my family and tried to preserve quiet moments for myself. But as I embarked on my final few weeks, I did everything in my power to ignore all things work. I think I was fairly successful, especially since my email is looming as I write this.

Today is my third day back at work. I feel relaxed and softer. I am centered and focused. And I cannot get my mind off this pair of tweets from my colleague Joan Petit*:



Does forgetting your computer login count? JK! I thought this was so insightful and am wondering how I will feel after I’ve been back in the library for a couple of weeks.

Right now my first priority is trying to catch up on email. I am sure that everyone has their own preferred plan for handling the deluge of email that continues to pile up while on sabbatical. Since I was serving as incoming chair of the ACRL Instruction Section, I tried to keep up with messages that needed my immediate attention but I have to admit that the last two months I have ignored more than usual. I kept telling myself, “Surely that can wait a few more weeks?” Yesterday and today I’ve spent time categorizing email more than answering anything. If I owe you an email (or two!) I am hoping to be caught up by the end of next week. I wonder if a future guest writer for this blog will have advice I could’ve used today!

The other goal I had this week was to catch up with colleagues. This was an interesting aspect of sabbatical that I was warned about early on – deciding how much you want to engage with colleagues while formally away from work. Some choose to schedule brief meetings or informal lunches to try and keep caught up on major events. I suppose this is because we all realize that the day-to-day activities of our libraries can change quite a bit over the course of several months. Another colleague told me that for her to fully immerse into her sabbatical, she choose to forgo those get-togethers and stay off-campus entirely. I choose this route and I was glad I did. It’s too easy for me to let the little things consume too much time in my head. Coming back to my office after months and months made it feel new and familiar at the same time. (I’m daydreaming about some decorating changes to emphasize this for myself.) Running into colleagues in the hallway has been fun, too. I had lunch with one of my favorite colleagues today and it was good to catch up on our personal lives and work. As an aside, I can see this look on a few colleagues faces that makes me wonder if they are thinking, “I will give her a few more days but I need to remember to ask her about X very soon.” 

What I wasn’t prepared for were the number of colleagues that would leave for new positions while I was gone. While I was alerted to their decisions via email, I didn’t get to say goodbye in person and there is some emotional pain in that reality. One colleague had been a mentor to me since I was in library school, over a decade of my professional life. There are pockets of emptiness in my heart for those folks.

But there are also many new faces! I taught a welcome session for new librarians, visiting residents, and new graduate students form the iSchool yesterday and that was heartwarming. Lots of welcoming smiles in the audience and I remembered again how much I enjoy sharing myself with new colleagues. And teaching!

My to-do list is growing … and one of my top priorities is to work with Maura to invite guest writers to examine other aspects of their sabbaticals. There are many topics to explore and out hope is that this blog will serve as a planning and reflection device for those who are dreaming of and planning and recovering from librarian sabbaticals. You will soon see us reaching out over a few listservs and we hope if you are reading this that you will consider reaching out. I know there are many sabbatical librarians out there but we couldn’t find much in the way of discussion when we started this journey last winter. 

My last sabbatical lobster in Rockport, MA. 

Next up: Recovering from sabbatical 

*Joan is Associate Professor and the Communications and Outreach Librarian at Portland State University Library in Portland, Oregon. Her sabbatical sounds so much cooler than mine was – she was a Fulbright Scholar at Jimma University in Ethiopia. She will be a guest writer for this blog soon.

Striving for some work and some play

As is probably obvious I’m an enormous nerd, and it will not surprise you to learn that I’ve spent much of my sabbatical working on my various research projects. Which I love! But like many librarians and academics I also find it all too easy to drift into overwork, which sometimes shades into burnout. And for that reason one of my big goals for sabbatical has also been to aim for more balance between the time spent working and time spent on other, non-academic activities: fun stuff, needful stuff, and other stuff.

Sabbatical rule #1 for me is no research work on the weekends, in attempt to reverse a trend that’s been creeping up on me over the past few years as my weekdays have gotten busier and my kid’s gotten older. I’ve stuck pretty well to this one while out on leave, though to be honest this was an easy goal to hit. I’m usually able to stay out of library work — mostly email — and research most weekends during the summer; it’s during the busier academic year that I feel the temptation to grab some time on the weekends for research. There’s always more than enough to do on the average weekend between family commitments, chores and errands, and time for fun, too, so I’m hoping to carry this rule with me once I’m back in the library.

My other non-research sabbatical goals are all additive: I’d hoped to spend more time on exercise, some home organizing/improvement, social/political advocacy, reading, and gameplaying.

Exercise is, frankly, not my favorite thing, though I grudgingly admit to feeling much better when I make the time for it. I live near a big park and botanic gardens and my spouse (who works from home) and I fell into a habit of taking walks there in the late afternoon whenever the weather’s allowed, which has been lovely. I’ve also joined a karate class on Saturday mornings. It’s a small school for women and transpeople that practices a mindful karate with a focus on technique and moving at our own pace, though it’s also a workout. And having the commitment to taking (and paying for) a class has made me more motivated to keep on keeping on, for sure. I have a bike and have long wanted to be more active in riding it around the city, but I haven’t gotten far on that goal yet. It’s summer and hot, which is a deterrent, though the much-publicized NYC subway system woes might be the nudge that I need, especially once I go back to work (my commute takes about the same time if the subway is running well or if I ride my bike).

I’ve been less successful in finding more time to play games. Some of this is location-bound: my favorite games are usually console games (we have a couple of Nintendo consoles and a PlayStation3), which means that I need to be at home in front of the TV to play. But I do have a few games that I enjoy on my phone and laptop, so that’s not entirely it. Gaming is an activity that I love that’s been easier than other activities to let fall by the wayside as my work and research have gotten busier. I’m absolutely sure that this is at least partly because games seem less “serious” than, say, reading, even when what I’m reading is popular fiction, and maybe I feel a little more sheepish about playing games the older I get. But I also think I’ve fallen into a trap of feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the videogame landscape right now (not even to mention board games!), sort of a paradox of choice situation. I did finally play through a game that I’ve had forever, so hopefully that’s the beginning of the end of my game drought (especially since I just got a new game that I can’t wait to play).

I have been overwhelmingly successful in spending more time reading on my sabbatical, which has been delightful. I like to read a range of fiction (especially speculative fiction and YA) and nonfiction (especially on education, technology, and social justice), and while I do read at least a few pages most evenings during the academic year, I’m often too tired at the end of the day to read nonfiction that’s challenging or difficult. During sabbatical I’ve tried to take lunchtimes to read something work-related, either about my research interests or higher education more broadly. But I’ve also just been doing more reading at more times, even, reading an entire book in one day like I used to when I was a kid. More time for reading has meant that I’ve generally been able to have up to 3 books in process at the same time: one fiction, one general nonfiction, and one work-related. It’s been kind of glorious.

Figuring out how to keep my momentum for rebalancing work and non-work is something I’m definitely wondering about as I look at my sabbatical coming to a close a bit later this summer. I’m grateful that I’ll still have some time before the fall semester starts to settle back in.