4 Things I Learned From 8 Months of Slow Living

In early February I announced that I would blog regularly about my slow living sabbatical. Two weeks later, my health fell apart and blogging was impossible. I’m doing a lot better now. As of September there are only 12 foods that I can eat without having a horrible reaction, but I feel mostly healthy again. 

So far, Covid-19 is one health issue I’ve avoided. After I announced my slow living sabbatical, Covid-19 forced the world into a modified slow living situation itself (though many still have to work, including enormous hours of extra childcare for some, and everyone still has bills to pay). My idea to stay home and live slowly fit right in with the rest of the world. 

Even with 8 months of health battles my slow living experience has been entirely satisfying.

Here’s what I learned:

1 – Taking time to feel my pain is the key to healing

March was a bleak time for me. My head felt like it was going to split open because of an extreme sinus infection, which made me finally notice my autoimmune food intolerance issues that had been getting steadily worse. 

(The food intolerances were related to me adding a few processed foods into my diet last year. Apparently my gut will never be able to handle processed foods.)

I spent hours curled up in a fetal position on my rug crying — the pain too much to bear. In slightly better moments, I paced my apartment, repeating over and over “I’m okay, I’m okay” until the pressure in my head eased. 

Pain has value. It forces you to pay attention to your body. Being so sick made me realize how much I have ignored chronic illness my entire life. 

I saw my childhood and adolescence in a new light. I wasn’t the “hyperactive” preschooler or the “overly-emotional” teen girl well-intentioned people told me I was. I was a human, constantly dealing with pain that the medical community didn’t understand in the 70s and 80s, just a human.

Slow living allowed me to embrace my pain. It allowed me to admit how bad it was and accept it. I no longer saw myself as an adult who can’t seem to finish anything she starts. I now see myself as a chronically ill person who has accomplished a hell of a lot despite being sick.

Slow living meant I didn’t have to worry about trying to go back to work or letting anyone down. It was a relief to be sick and not need to cope with anything but listening to my body, so I could truly figure out how to get better.

I wish every chronically ill person could have the chance to live slowly and listen to their pain.

2 – There’s so much good Art available and it saved me at my darkest

 I can’t take medication because I react to almost everything. Instead I used high quality TV as my pain management. In March, I binge watched Schitt’s Creek (Netflix) seasons one through five — at least four times — while I watched the new season six episodes weekly. 

That show made me laugh and nourished me all that at the same time. I can still watch it over and over focusing on new aspects: Moira Rose’s inventive way of speaking, her ever more incredible costumes, the satisfying character arcs of David, Alexis, and Stevie…

I asked friends on Facebook for their best feel good TV shows and watched dozens of their suggestions. My favorites were Please Like Me (Hulu), Modern Love (Prime), and The End of the Fu***ing World (Netflix). The last one doesn’t sound like a feel good show but it was surprisingly healing and hopeful, despite one or two disturbing scenes. 

In April, my health improved enough to read. I lay in bed for hours reading YA rom-coms with a theme of movies or filmmaking. There are a surprising number of charming YA rom-com novels that take place on a movie set or involve filmmaking.  (Post on this coming next week).

In May, I added listening to Hopepunk sci-fi fantasy audiobooks like Becky Chambers’ A Closed And Common Orbit or Amy Rose Capetta & Cory McCarthy’s delightful space-aged, gender-bending King Arthur duology, Once and Future.

I am thankful for all the writers, editors, actors, and crew that let themselves create. Living the lives all these characters gave me space from my pain. Living in these worlds made me want to create my own worlds. Each and every episode or chapter helped me grow stronger. 

Slow living made me realize the true value of Art and why it’s worth my time to create my own. I wish for everyone to have the time to make their own Art, too. You never know who will need your Art. 

 3 – Intentionally curating my life is the key to a good one 

The vast amount of good Art to choose from was a blessing when I was sick. Like any good medicine, dosing matters. A small dose of something is a cure — too much, a poison. That’s true for the entire Internet. Dosing matters.

When I started my slow living year I wanted to do EVERYTHING. Then I realized Art doesn’t cover everything, it’s super specific. Good Art makes choices. A good life means making choices, too.

I learned I need to pay attention to what I like and what I don’t. Curating is important. 

My past eight months of slow living have allowed me to get really clear about what works for me.

Which people emotionally feed me?

What activities do I get the most out of?  

What’s the right mix between being online and offline?

I began curating every aspect of my life. I need 8 hours of sleep so I have 16 precious hours a day. That’s it. 

 I realized time alone isn’t just something I like, it’s something I need. Time to research, write, read, and time for sensory activities like drawing or playing piano while my subconscious percolates. I’m happiest when I spend most of my day alone.

I’ve discovered I love online learning but need one-on-one or independent instruction. I can handle a small group of 1-3 people but groups of 12-15 others are not a “small” group for me. I can handle a larger group if we’re all together to listen to a lecture, without a discussion afterwards, though.

I’ve also learned how to be intentional about social media. I like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram because I can interact with relatives and friends across the world in short one-on-one interactions. 

But I don’t need to be on each social media platform every day. Nor do I need to spend hours on them. 20 minutes a day works well. 

I’ve realized how much I value having my own blog. Half the value in writing is figuring out what I think. Whenever I get out of my head and put my thoughts into words I clarify my understanding of that topic.

I’ve learned I like following a schedule. When I was sick I did whatever I wanted in the moment, always going for the quick high. I started to miss the slow satisfaction of going for a long-term goal. Scheduling helps me prioritize my 16 hours.

I wish for everyone to have a year of slow living to discover what works for them. I think the world would be a better place if everyone had the time to learn what activities truly feed them.

4 – Embracing the here and now is more important than I thought

I love ideas, theories, and systems. I love figuring out how society can live better. What would a post-patriarchy, post-capitalist society look like? That’s the question that gets me excited. I love thinking about the future. Abstract thought is my favorite place.

My slow living experiment has taught me the value of the here and now. I’ve learned that it’s good for me to take small chunks of time to get out of my head and notice where I am in this moment. 

What does it look like?

Smell like?

Sound like?

Feel like?

Taste like?

Staying in my head and not noticing my body was a coping mechanism for chronic illness, but it also kept me from noticing my when my body needed attention. 

Good Art puts the reader in the moment. How can I create Art if I never pay attention to the details of my own life?

 I’ve started making sure I take time each day to live in the moment — to get out of my head and notice what’s around me.

I notice:

the pink and orange lollipop zinnias on my balcony garden,

the sound of cicadas in the humid DC air,

the feel of the carpet on my bare feet when I do yoga,

how a cool breeze from my fan feels like the ocean air at Assateague Island.

Being in the moment made me realize my apartment walls were bare. I’d been happily living down the street from my spouse in my writing studio for almost two years. (An upcoming post will detail how and why that works for us.)

Paying attention to my surroundings made me want to fix up my apartment. I finally hung art on the walls and organized my things so I could actually see what I owned. 

I’ve been gardening on my balcony and love having a small green oasis steps from my desk.

Before Covid, I’d loved traveling to new cities, walking around the neighborhoods as I imagined what life would be like if I was someone else. Now I visit neighborhoods around me— neighborhoods I’d never really explored in my almost 30 years of living in my Maryland DC suburb — and notice exactly what each neighborhood is actually like in this moment. 

Living in the moment hasn’t cured my insatiable need to understand people or to imagine a better future society. But my new awareness helps me care for my health, so I’m able to do the research and writing I want. It’s given me the headspace to let those facts and ideas germinate in my brain, allowing my worlds and characters to ripen.

Slow living has been the life I’ve always dreamed of— even with months of health issues. Now I wish for everyone to have this kind of life. What have you learned from the forced slow living style of the pandemic about yourself?

4 Reasons I’m Taking A Slow Living Sabbatical in 2020

2018 was a bad health year. In 2019, I was healthy and tried all kinds of new things. It was my Year Of Yes. At first, it was a lot of fun! Then I took on too many extroverted activities and started getting sick again.

For 2020, I’ve decided to take my health seriously. I’m retiring from substitute teaching, taking a break from most volunteer work, and will focus on slow living and writing for the year because…

1- I Want to Start a Sabbatical Trend

I’m incredibly lucky. Most people don’t have the choice to take a sabbatical year, even if they need it. Out of all the things I could do with my good fortune (travel, switching careers) this one appeals to me because I think the world would be a better place if everyone had the option to take sabbaticals.

We are a culture that values being busy. There’s a lot of stigma associated with taking breaks. Taking the year off to live slowly and write sounds pretentious and lazy.

Many people don’t retire until they’re almost 70, which means a lot of people work for almost 50 years. To make the most of five decades of working, you need to take a few breaks to recharge and reevaluate. I’m starting the trend because I can.

I want sabbatical years to be a trend that extends to everyone. When the iPhone was first released in 2007, the only people with smartphones were the affluent. Now almost everyone has a smartphone. I want to make taking sabbaticals as popular as having a smartphone. 

2- I’m Taking My Health & Energy Budget Seriously

Responsible spending means looking at how much money you have coming in, then creating a budget for yourself so you don’t spend more money than you have. Like money, everyone has their own energy budget.

I over-drafted on my energy budget for 2019, and probably for many more years before that. I am an introvert. It took me a long time to realize just how much of an introvert I am because I genuinely like being with people some of the time.

 I also used to blame myself if I did a job and was exhausted afterwards. I’d believe it was because I didn’t do it right. I used to think there was a way I could “work smarter, not harder”. Now I realize there is no “smart” way for me to be around a group of people for an extended amount of time and not come away feeling exhausted, especially with my health situation. That’s my reality and I’m accepting it in 2020.

Now I take the messages my body sends me seriously. Teaching is an extroverted job. The climate change presentations and workshops I did last year were extroverted activities. I believed in the work I did and liked all the people I worked with, so I thought I could squeeze them into my life without any problems.

What I learned is that being extroverted is costly for me. I started having thyroid problems again. I started getting intense hip pain. I tried ice packs and blood tests to figure what was going on. The blood tests came back normal-ish and the ice packs worked some of the time. But I felt awful most of the time. 

Then my last climate change workshop ended and I decided to take the next month off from all subbing, workshops, presentations, meetings, emails, etc. Within four weeks my hip stopped hurting. My thyroid was better. 

Turns out I need HUGE amounts of solitude.

After 30 years of over-drafting on my energy reserves, it was time to listen to my body.

3 – I’m Giving My Writing The Time and Space It Needs

I have always wanted to write but never gave myself permission to write anything beyond journal entries as a kid. As an adult, I expanded my permission to writing stories I thought were publishable. I wrote them ever so slowly, striving to be as perfect as I could. I never wrote stories just because I liked them. Some voice inside my head would attack me the minute I wrote for fun or stopped striving to be perfect.

Doing things for others was my priority. I was a special education teacher, a family daycare provider, a stay-at-home parent, and a substitute teacher. These were activities I got easy praise for. Even when I finally went to grad school to get my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults I continued to be a part-time substitute teacher, despite not needing the money, because it was too scary to just focus on writing.

After grad school I added blog intern, then volunteer climate change presenter to my plate. I always needed to do activities that were helping others so I had a distraction from my writing.

None of these jobs was for the money either, because my partner has a job that makes way more money than I could ever make. Yes, totally and completely lucky! (Though being the person who does all the unpaid labor in the relationship has some real costs that I could write an entire essay about).

I wish I were the kind of person who could do a bunch of activities, then come back home and write as a way of decompressing. That’s not the way I work. My writing is forged out of hours and hours of solitude. The worlds I want to write about are complicated and require a ton of research.

 For 2020, I’ve decided it doesn’t matter if my stories ever get published. What matters is that I give myself the time and space to write whatever I want.

This year, I’m writing some stories that are probably publishable and some that are just for me. I’m giving myself the time to research my complex ideas about the future, and create the worlds I wish to see.

Creating time and space to just enjoy my writing is my gift to myself for 2020.

4 – I’m Committing Myself to One Planet Living

I write stories that take place in the future. I love to imagine how the world might look post-patriarchy, post-capitalism. What would that look like for a kid? For a teen?  For adults? The future is my happy place.

In reality, we can only live in the present and our planet has some big problems right now. I got interested in environmental issues because of my stories about the future. I wanted to learn who had a plan to reverse global warming and Paul Hawken’s Project Drawdown was the detailed pragmatic plan that answered my question. 

 I still want to be a part of reversing global warming, even if I’m not doing Project Drawdown presentations and workshops. But I need to help in a way that doesn’t zap my energy for writing. So I’ve decided to use my sabbatical year to live like we only have one precious planet.

I took a vow to stop flying. Now I take the train or bus when I travel. I rarely drive, and walk or take public transportation pretty much everywhere.

The beauty of taking a year off means I have the time to travel slowly.

I now write Monday through Friday. Saturday afternoons are for outings to museums, parks, or anything that feeds me. Sundays are for walking to my Unitarian Universalist church and for preparing for my upcoming week.

Living slowly means I have time to be a tourist in my own city. So far, I’ve been to the National Cathedral, the National Portrait Gallery, the National Gallery of Art, and the Jane Goodall exhibit at the National Geographic Association. I fill my writer’s notebook with a few words about each place I visit.

Living slowly means I can have adventures in a sustainable way and support the arts community in my own backyard. I go to one live performance a month—dance performances, music concerts, plays, etc. So far I’ve seen the musical Newsies at Arena stage and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at the Kennedy Center. I go by myself and take everything in. It’s amazing how nourishing art can be for my health and happiness.

I’m also taking the time to shop local, compost, limit my plastic waste, and use more renewable energy. Taking a slow living sabbatical means I can have a full life while still maintaining our only planet.

The 2021 Planning I’m Not Doing

I don’t know what I’m doing in 2021. I don’t plan to substitute teach again. I could always be a tutor or a nanny or find another job, if I wanted. Finding a new career won’t be a part of my 2020 though. This sabbatical is all about writing, taking care of my health, creating a low footprint, and filling my spirit. It’s about being using my good fortunate in a way that makes me happy, because that’s what I wish for everyone to be able to do in the future.