Learning to Listen (to Myself) on Sabbatical

It’s Day 3 of my sabbatical, and I’m already learning a lot that probably would surprise no one who knows me:

  • I overcommit.
  • I struggle to rest.
  • I am trying to do too much for too many people in my life.
  • Care work brings me joy…until it doesn’t.
  • Productivity (in some area of my life according to an invisible metric that I make up) is important to me.
  • I struggle to rest. (Maybe I mentioned that already?)
  • I like to have control and structure in my schedule.
  • I am goal-oriented to a fault.
  • I am deeply loved and embraced by a community that is always willing to hold me accountable.
  • I can dream big if I let myself.
  • I love the people in my life without boundaries and show a lot of consideration for their needs and desires, even to the point that I forget to honor what I need.
  • I struggle with balance.

Here’s what has surprised me:

  • I can dream big if I let myself…in unreasonable ways.
  • I contain a multitude of stories that have been calling on me to write them.
  • No matter how stressful things are, cooking/ preparing food brings me much joy.
  • My community sometimes sees my needs before I ask, and they step into them. They contribute in ways that make us all stronger.
  • I am actually a decent mother.
  • I want to rest, even if I’m not good at it. And I know I need to do it.

I am learning to set boundaries that I’ve never before defined.

When I was a young person, my mother set boundaries for me. She did it because, left unchecked, I would have done all the things. When she died, likely in rebellion and pain and youth and freedom, I did all the things. For all her wisdom in setting those boundaries, she didn’t teach me the importance of how to set my own. I have given lots of reasons for doing all the things and spent much time proving my worth, trying to live up to other’s expectations, trying to live up to my own expectations. I have told myself that I am doing all the things to honor her legacy, although doing all the things is probably one of the exact things she wouldn’t have wanted me to do.

But I can learn. And I am learning. Quickly. Because that I do know about myself. I learn quickly. And I deeply want to build a more sustainable life during this sabbatical.

A Space for Loss

A black and white photograph of 2 young Taiwanese women with their mother and a young Taiwanese man

Back row: My mother, my uncle, my aunt Front row: My grandmother

Today, half a world away, my uncle, my aunt’s husband, died from a brain hemorrhage.

My uncle was in his early 90s and lived a long life. He spent much of his life traveling between China and the US. He got bored and restless easily. He loved my aunt, but he loved himself more. He also loved to gamble. He did what he wanted to without thinking much about the impact on others.

Given all these things, my uncle was far from perfect. But he was nothing if not authentic. He lived the life he wanted to lead.

And now his life is over.

My uncle was someone who took pleasure in life. He loved me, as much as he was capable of loving others. I was most close to him as a child and in the last few years since my aunt passed away. His antics made us shake our head and laugh, knowing that he was who he was, even if we often didn’t understand why he was who he was.

I am sad that my uncle’s life on this earth is complete, but not sad in the ways that I was when my aunt, my mother and my grandmother died. My matrilineal line is my heart. I am an extension of them, in the best and hardest ways. I carry their strength, their struggles, their resilience, their resistance, their legacy.

While it is not an equal sadness, I am sad because in losing my uncle, I feel another step removed from my mother. I have lost another person connected to her for most of her life. My uncle did not always get along with my mom (I don’t think my uncle always got along with anyone, actually), and they had a tense relationship at times, but he knew her from the time she was a teenager. And there are fewer and fewer people who knew my mom from that time who are still alive.

It is a natural part of life that elders die. But when you lose your mother in her middle age when you are an adolescent, and you don’t see through the grief until you are, yourself, middle-aged, and seeking to reconnect with her, every loss of someone close to her feels like another impenetrable wall separating my children from my mother, and separating her from me.

I am sad for my cousin, an only child, who has lost both her parents in the last 5 years. While this loss is not the same for either of us as losing her mother, I know that it is significant for her, and it is made harder by a pandemic which leaves grief open, in an urn that cannot be brought across the Pacific Ocean for many months.

Loss is hard.

Even the loss of those who were in and out of your life.

Even with complicated loss where you can feel nothing one moment and a flood of feelings the next.

Even when we are familiar with it.

But tonight, I honor my uncle. I smile when I think of him. I hope he has peace and rest and comfort.

And tonight, I honor myself. I hold space and grace for the feelings that are here and are yet to come. I take in the kind condolences of friends and strangers. I breathe in gratitude for my life and what remains of it.

In this space, we are together, even when we suffer loss.

Being Sourced by Community

Rows of books in a used book store

Growing up, I was told that asking for help was a sign of weakness.

I am still told that today by some.

Some say it aloud and directly, “Why are you asking for help? Are you so poor? Why are you taking away from those who really have need?”

Others say it implicitly through glances that say, “You should be ashamed of yourself.”

But there is no shame in allowing others to contribute.

Much of my greatest joy in life comes from contributing to those I love.

Whether it is through gifts of time, talents, or treasures, I am blessed by sharing my blessings with others.

Recently, I’ve realized the power of letting others also contribute to those I love and to me as well.

Whether my sister’s transition fund or my son’s school book room, tweets and texts in which I share my vulnerability, or support when I’m trying to do something that I’ve never done before and know I don’t know how to do, being sourced by community has been life changing.

I have always sought to belong.

Belonging has often felt elusive.

But in allowing others to contribute to me, I am growing stronger, and so is a sense of enduring belonging, of greater contribution.

I am speaking back to the voices that seek to silence me, distance me, and tell me that I must do everything on my own.

It is beautiful, beyond what I could dream, to be embraced, held and supported by a community that sees you.