15 July 2012

The Gift

I am just about to return to work after a period of fourteen weeks of long service leave. According to sources (okay, Wikipedia), long service leave ‘is a benefit unique to Australia and New Zealand’, and used to be a particular entitlement of the public service which leached out into other workplace environments. Anecdotally, I don’t know anyone who actually takes their long service leave entitlement other than public servants and the education and medical professions.

The last time I did not work for a sustained period, I was in my twenties, six years out of university. I was living and working in London and spent at least four months continuously travelling and the rest of the time supply teaching. As many young Australians have a similar experience at this stage of their lives it’s fairly easy to imagine what a great year I had. Long service leave has been an entirely different experience. Obviously I’m older, hopefully I’m wiser, and I will return to work happier.

This unique experience has been a gift - of time. Something that in our contemporary experience, we are so short of, we’ve even coined the phrase ‘time-poor’ to explain this phenomenon.  Media outlets frequently run stories about work-life balance which discuss the benefits of time off work – even if that’s just the weekend. I’ve been off work for long enough to forget which day of the week it is.

Of course, the reason this time off is a gift and not a burden is because I work in an industry where it is possible to accrue this time and choose long service leave at full pay. I’ve been with the same employer for eleven years and, even if I left, my leave for the most part would be portable. I am not one of the unfortunate Australians who have time on their hands because they are out of work (although there were many stories in the media immediately following the GFC about the unexpected benefits which many out of work Australians came to appreciate).

When I return to work everyone will ask me what I’ve been doing. And whilst I haven’t been travelling as many people do, I have benefited from the gift of time in the following ways:
I’ve spent much more time with my husband – during the week and on the weekends instead of doing schoolwork. I’ve had time to visit with friends, sometimes for a whole day. I was able to see a friend with whom I had not sat down for at least seven years, and it felt like our last conversation was yesterday. I’ve had time to be with my elderly mother, both when she needs me and just to chat. I’ve had more people over to the house in than I have had in the last five years. Twice I’ve made meals for 12 people! With no drama! This leads to my next point …
Always opposed to being the stay-at-home wife because of its 1950s connotations, I found myself well able to fill the days when I didn’t have plans. Who would’ve thought I would read recipe books, watch the odd cooking program, seek out new ingredients in the shops, and generally cook like a trainee domestic goddess? I haven’t begrudged doing housework because it hasn’t taken up precious weekend time. I actually fold clothes which have been washed instead of living out of the basket for a week. I’ve walked my dog - the added bonus being the three cafes within walking distance.
By living, I mean doing the things which make my life fulfilling and which contribute to my well-being. Reading is fundamental to my existence, experiencing other people and other places through stories gives me immense joy. I’ve finished nine books, five of which were over 500 pages and all of them for pleasure. I joined a gym and have attended three to five times a week, with very good results for both my physical and mental energy levels. I have not had even a sniffle – usually a miraculous feat for a teacher during Term Two. And … I have not once been exhausted.
The opportunity to increase self-awareness is central to the gift of time. I knew that through rest and distance from work I would be able to perceive certain thoughts with greater clarity and this has been very true. I have had time to pay attention to my emotions, to experience them in their fullness. I have given due consideration to my future, but not so much that I have it all sown up. And I look forward to tomorrow, whatever it may bring.

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