The reminder email comes every day: “You have a new document that requires your signature.” It’s my teaching contract for next year. I’m not signing it. After 16 years in the classroom, I’m taking a sabbatical.
The reminders were annoying last week, cluttering up my work inbox, but this week I found they only strengthened my resolve. I’ve been in a classroom 35 years of my life, first as a student and then as a teacher. Right now, I have a meaningful career, quality coworkers, and great relationships with our kids. I also have a 12-month salary, health insurance, and a retirement fund. Why give it up?
Maybe a better question is when: When do you give up what is safe, comfortable, and familiar to do what you believe you were actually created to do? Folks suspected I had my midlife crisis at 35 when I died my hair blonde, dropped to a size 2, and called off my wedding to “Prince Charming” as I dubbed him in my blog. If I die at 70, then maybe that was it. If I die at 80, then sure, this is it.
What if I die next week? I guess that would make my midlife crisis dropping out of Wheaton College and moving to Nashville the summer before junior year. I’d fallen love with Music City while recording a demo. My father was crystal clear: I could stay, but I had to find a college, no taking a year off.
That’s about the time my friend Josh took all his southern charm to Los Angeles. Nobody would have called that a midlife crisis, but nobody saw his timeline ending so abruptly last month, 44 and healthy. He told me once that he didn’t expect to die old. Maybe that’s something you say when life’s gotten away from you, but maybe it’s why he loved so passionately and took so many risks.
Josh’s mom Marci came to town last week to take a road trip to Charleston with Mama Sue. That’s my sister-in-law’s mother that lives near me. The trip was planned before Josh passed away, and it was something Marci had always wanted to do. Time is often unfair in death, in his abbreviated years and in her unmarked path through grief. God is also gracious in friends like Mama Sue when life goes on anyway.
Marci has an eye for photographing landscapes and buildings, and we got some time Friday night to look through the photos together. There were some shots of her and Mama Sue; Marci wasn’t smiling. I asked her about it, and she laughed. It turns out she never smiles in pictures because she thinks it looks more like a grimace. Now 40 myself, I get it! If I don’t smile, there are fewer wrinkles, and my real friends accept that I believe I have a “good side” for pictures.
We talked for hours, sharing stories about Josh prompted by pictures from his collection, quotes he’d written down, and even poetry he’d written in high school. We smiled and laughed, uninhibited by thoughts of wrinkles or grimaces. It was a gift of comic relief to soothe the tension Josh’s absence creates. We cried, too, but against the backdrop of our night, I wouldn’t change a thing.
Marci brought a Christmas card I gave Josh a few years ago. “I love spending time with you,” it said. Sitting beside his mother in Mama Sue’s screened in porch, I felt like I was somehow still spending time with him. It occurred to me that I love spending time with Marci, too, an unexpected silver lining in this season. Marci’s life changed overnight; she’d have him back if she could, but she knew Joshua would prefer his current company in heaven. Her smile is precious to me, though a little less common these days.
I might die at 70 or 80. I might die next week. Josh’s death changed my life, too. It woke me from an ambivalent existence. I feel his unfulfilled dreams. I feel his mother’s grief. I know that tomorrow is not promised. Today, I added my brother David as my Facebook Legacy friend. I got a confirmation email that David can manage my Facebook wall when I pass away, sparing my own mom the heartache.
I’ve got a great career, coworkers, and students, but if I’m being honest, those aren’t the reasons I’m still teaching. I’m still teaching because without getting married, it’s never the right time to write full time. The Dave Ramsey way will always take in-hand this 12-month salary, health insurance, and retirement fund. Financial security has always tipped the scales in favor of keeping the status quo.
Twenty years ago, my dad’s choice not to let me take a year off defined my future in a positive direction. I stayed in Nashville for a year and became a strong English teacher. I’ve been in a classroom all my life, but it’s not all I know. While teaching a couple thousand students to command grammar, style, and voice, I became an even stronger writer. It is, perhaps, because I respect my father’s guidance so much that I’ve waited this long to bet on me, in a financially peaceless way.
When do you give up what is safe, comfortable, and familiar to do what you believe you were actually created to do? For me, it’s now. Josh’s death forced me to reevaluate the life I still have. I cannot, in right conscience, continue to structure my career around a family that never materialized. I cannot, in right mind, wait to meet another man and get married to be a writer.
God alone knows the midpoint for my life, and my heart’s desires aren’t secrets to Him. There is a reason I’m waking up and falling asleep thinking about writing. I’m full of ideas for stories and articles, pregnant with thought, bursting to do what I was created to do. While posting a poem a day for National Poetry Month, I’ve reread hundreds of poems I’ve written through the decades, and it’s a natural gift I want to explore again. While writing for an online magazine, I discovered more ways to monetize my work. Marci even started following my blog.
I didn’t know the answer until now, really, but ultimately, this answers both “why” and the “when”: I have my voice now. I have stories that need to be written, and I have the skills to write for pretty much any purpose at this point in my career. It’s what I’m supposed to be doing. There is a time for everything, and this time, marking my father’s warnings, I’m weighing fulfillment against finances.
Would it seem less like a midlife crisis if I make it six months potentially crashing on friends’ couches? I can compromise. If I can’t support myself by then, there’s always a few teachers that don’t come back from Winter Break, and I can right myself financially peaceful again.
I’ve already had a few couches offered up and even a guest room. Four people in the last week have told me to take this risk including friends, a coworker, and someone I’ve never met. What do they have in common? They read my blog. They believe I have the skills to take these Two-Hour Tuesdays and craft stories all day, every day… like a writer needs to do.
If I live to be 80, there is plenty of time to live safely. If I die at 44 like Josh, I need to have taken this risk now. I’m awake, and, no longer comfortably ambivalent to time getting away from me, it’s time to be a writer. That makes me smile and not worry about the wrinkles. With age comes experience, a writer’s best weapon.
If you’ve stuck with me this long, maybe you have some thoughts about my writing sabbatical. If so, please leave a comment below!
2 thoughts on “Just Another Midlife Crisis”
You are so talented and I am so proud of you.
Hello 🙂 If you’re going to be able to support yourself and live comfortably for YOU… then follow your heart’s desire(s). Take your writing into higher places. Thank you for teaching me/us English at NSA. Live how you want 🥰 you’re amazing!!