General News

Sabbatical reflections

Fellow(s): Lissa Widoff

Emerging from my three-month sabbatical, I feel as though I am just awakening from a dream. It is often in those first hazy moments when we wake up that we remember our dreams, albeit vaguely.  The metaphor holds as I reflect on my immediate impressions of what was largely an inward-focused time.  The heavy blanket of snow in Maine this winter added to my sense of settling into a cozy world of quiet and peace. 

The three-month break was first and foremost meant to be a time for stepping back from work into rest, recharge and reflection.  The irony of course was that to take this “time out”, there were mountains of “to do” lists and details aiming towards some level of closure or delegation to allow me to circumscribe the time and mental space for a new journey.  It also created opportunities for staff to lead in new ways and making room for that was also a critical part of the preparation.  Then, as I moved towards this imagined freedom of exploration, clearing a path at work and in my busy personal life (I also took sabbatical from a couple of non-profit boards I am on), the universe had other plans for me. 

Within the first week of my break, I was faced with assisting a close family member through a series of serious medical challenges and finding myself in service and support to my immediate family in New York.  In a classic experience of “life is what happens while you are busy making other plans”, I let go of my preconceived notions of the sabbatical. After about a month in New York, being a steadfast presence there, I was able to return home to Maine and settle back into my own journey, while still holding the thread of connection to my family.

Once home, I dove into one of my goals for this time off - to immerse myself in reading the Greek myths about the pantheon of gods and goddesses whose powerful stories describe archetypal human characteristics, both strengths and foibles (as well as leadership qualities, of course).  My interest was and still is for both personal understanding as well as inspiration for creative exploration through artistic forms.  I could see myself in Athena’s strength, insight and strategy, as well as my love of nature akin to that of the woods-dwelling Artemis. The unique creative force of Hephaestus arises in me as well as the hearth-based Hestia, who keeps the fires burning within the home, and the home within ourselves.  And now, I poignantly see myself as Ariadne, holding the thread of connection for a loved one who travels within a medical labyrinth.

What can all this bring to bear as I return to my role at the Foundation? Despite the inward focus, there were so many lessons, even within this brief time.  Besides the reminder that we must cultivate adaptability at ALL times, it helps to know what grounds us in ourselves.  For me, my “stay-cation” sabbatical was just that. No exotic travels, just a settling in to my home, community and a gentler pace and a chance to take stock and reflect.  I appreciated the shift towards letting ideas emerge rather than being driven by my obligations. It was like a deep meditation that allowed me to simply be an observer, and not always the do-er.  It is an important practice to cultivate in our daily lives, not just in the rare occurrence of an extended sabbatical as I enjoyed.

Lately, I still feel most intensely the call to family and healing, and at the same time, this experience has helped me recognize some of my greatest strengths that feed both my personal and professional lives: my ability to listen, have empathy and be a witness or companion on the circuitous journey of a colleague, friend or family member.  It has put a spotlight on how our lives, with all their unexpected twists and turns, require interdependence, compassion and patience. Stepping out of our own expectations can be the very channel that opens us to new insights and growth.  Our best self can therefore emerge in any context.

The Foundation has supported me to be myself, and I am incredibly grateful for the support of this sabbatical.  In turn, I know that my calling remains for me to be that confident ally, companion, mentor and coach to those around me, at work and at home, and to step in and step up when called upon.  When our lives and work find common threads, both are enriched. 

I look forward to rejoining you all as we face the challenges to heal the earth, guide our institutions towards this goal, and support each other with compassion and grace.