Short story: In September 2016 I started a part-time sabbatical after a long-term contract ended. Fast-forward to September 2019 and my daily life is very different with the green shoots of new things starting to sprout.
The initial "beautiful empty-brain feeling" of wide-open horizons and unstructured time has long gone. My non-work time is filled, almost to overflowing. Full-time work at least used to restrict how much stuff I could pile on my plate.
I guess transitions take time. I'm still not sure what to focus on but I'm trying to be more open-minded and less prescriptive. I think my September diary (outline below) says a lot about how life continues to change and grow and move in unexpected directions. Three years ago, I would never have guessed this is what I would be doing…
1. Kayak trip
Spent a beautiful sunny Friday evening kayaking the canals of central Birmingham as a try-out for possible volunteering work next year. There is an opportunity to train up as a kayak guide for the National Trust for free in return for a minimum volunteering commitment. I'll probably stick to walking but anyone interested in kayak tours can get more info from the activities officer, Keith Wraight, at the Roundhouse.
2. Birmingham Royal Ballet – class on stage
What does a world-class ballet dancer do to prepare for a performance? I spent a fantastic Saturday morning watching the Birmingham Royal Ballet's class on stage at the Hippodrome. It builds from stretches at the barre to full leaps and pirouettes across the stage.
After dabbling with ballet fitness last year this has totally reignited my interest in the art of ballet, so much so that I have finally set up the home gym and do nightly wobbly arabesques and rondes de jambe before bedtime using an Ikea Lack shelf as a barre. #toptip
Next class on stage is in November and costs £10: details here.
3. GILF Island
This summer I asked Kate Spence, a live artist from Birmingham, if she'd be my art mentor. We arranged a skills swap. In return for her art guidance, I'm her occasional assistant, taking notes, collecting feedback or photographing a performance.
In early September we both took part in LADA's GILF Island, a weekend-long live art workshop about female gender and ageing, invisibility and desire/desirability.
It was a big challenge for me to do something so 'out there' but I guess my perimenopausal hormones are driving me to be more pro-active about this stuff. I frequently find myself angry at everyday ageism/sexism and wanting to be the opposite of middle-age invisible. So here's the big blog post about my live art debut and what happened on GILF Island…
3. Irish passport and a day trip to Liverpool
My UK passport runs out early next year and I'm not sure I can travel on it after 31 October. So I went to Liverpool to put my Irish passport application in. This was not just for practical travel reasons but because I strongly want to remain a citizen of the EU – for peace, prosperity, human rights, animal rights, women's rights and many more things I think will be eroded in the name of British sovereignty under a Conservative government. Irish citizenship is suddenly a big privilege here in the UK – what a change from when my parents were essentially herded into Irish ghettos in the 50s.
The Passport Express service took just 10 minutes so we spent a lovely day seeing (too much) art at three galleries, including Double Fantasy: John & Yoko at the Musuem of Liverpool, Shezad Dawood's Leviathan film series on migration at the Bluecoat, and the Tate's highlights from the nation's modern art collection, including Hito Steyerl's fantastic and funny video installation How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File.
4. Potato harvest
The Irish roots live on at my allotment, potatoes being the only crop I planted this year. This month I harvested half my spud crop. The Desirees were huge, up to seven inches long. Another half to go. Will be in potatoes past Christmas.
5. Bread course
Pete and I spent a day learning how to make sourdough and rye bread at Loaf in Stirchley. More courses in top food skills are here…
6. Dementia group
A longtime family friend was diagnosed earlier this year with vascular dementia. Each week I take him to a group therapy session for carers and those with a diagnosis. I'm really enjoying it despite the serious nature of the illness. We all take part in weekly gratitude and goal-setting exercises, and share our experiences.
I'm learning a lot about how dementia affects people and how to help not hinder. Last week was about understanding confabulation and when to push back against inaccurate memories. This week was all about life story work and using long-term memories to stimulate the brain. There are former lawyers, teachers and tradesmen in the group. Dementia can affect anyone.
I'm proud that Stirchley where I live is aiming to be a dementia-friendly area holding memory cafes and choirs for people to engage in.
7. Bird rescue
Rescued a wood pigeon from certain cat slaughter. Took it to the vets for a check over and it is now in rehab at Ray and Ann Dedicoat's amazing Hollytrees Animal Rescue in Wythall. Bung them a cash note if you can.
8. Digitising old diaries
I have done a load of digitising of the eight months spent in India, Maldives, Nepal and Thailand back in 1997 – have just hit 10,000 words. Those really were some of the craziest times of my life. Meeting a millionaire in India was just the opening gambit. Yes, diaries can be boring but the fact that I can't wait to read my own story is a good sign, isn't it? Here's what the diary project is all about.
Family stuff… Took my great nephew to the Lickey Hills playground with Pete. He is a ball of energy but thankfully mostly likes to sit on the swing and count to a million. Aw. We also did some budgie sitting for a friend – they are so much easier.
10. Spouse birthday
Pete's birthday gave us a good reason to dine out at Stirchley's new Eat Vietnam (banana blossom curry!), drink at the Wild Cat, and have a couple of friends over for dinner. If you see Pete around town wearing a customised 'Trans Lunar Injection Burn' T-shirt, that's from me – with grateful thanks to C2O Clothes 2 Order for replacing my totally wrong-sized order without charging me for the stuffup.
11. Walking conference
Pete leads photowalks for Photo School Birmingham and has used walking as an art practice in the past. I do more informal guided walks and talks for friends around Stirchley perimeters, and might be volunteering as a walking guide for the National Trust next year. So I spent some time this month organising a trip to Plymouth in November, where we will attend a walking conference (!) at the university and take some winter walks along the South West Coastal Path. Pray for sunshine!
12. Analogue columns
This year I've been trying to form better habits through what I jokingly refer to as my 'Analogue Columns Lifestyle Planner Tool' – basically a daily set of columns in a notebook for ticking off stuff I want to do more/less of. Most things have been going pretty well, especially spending time outdoors, trying to catch the sunrise/sunset, having quiet time and exercise (walking and tai chi mostly).
Writing and art have been harder habits to form. This month, for example, I can see I've done 7x writing sessions, 8x art sessions – not bad for me, but not daily. Miscellaneous is often about helping people or getting out of the house and meeting friends. Overall, it's kind of like having a shorthand diary.
13. More book reading
Missing a daily commute meant my reading time disappeared a few years ago. This year I've made a concerted effort to get it back. Bath time is now also book time (TMI, I know). I also rejoined the library, which has been fantastic for even the most recent releases.
In September I read nearly four books: Alys Fowler's Hidden Nature about kayaking on Birmingham's canals; Three Women by Lisa Taddeo, a non-fiction book about three women who have warped their desires according to the men they love; What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding, a travel memoir by Kristin Newman; and Grace Grace Grace – a LADA book exploring gen-age issues. I also spent two hours in the Library of Birmingham reading Marina Abramovic and Sophie Calle not-for-loan art books. Libraries are bloody great. We should keep them.
So that was September. In October, the balance will surely change again. The bottom line of my post-sabbatical life, as ever, is to stay healthy, be kind to others and try to stay afloat financially in the process.