Notes from Sabbatical, Week 1

two kids along a coastline, stepping on jagged, flat, yellow-painted rocks

Today is day 6 of my sabbatical. I have three months of paid leave—an incredible benefit that Automattic offers to employees every five years. Being at the company for 11.5 years, this is my second one. I had many plans and hopes for my first one in fall 2017, but it ultimately took a different turn; I found out I was pregnant early on and while I could do all the things I’d wanted to do, like traveling abroad, attending a surf/yoga camp, and going on a silent retreat, the pregnancy changed my mindset and I spent most of that time taking it easy, versus trying to check items off a to-do list.

That expectation to be “productive” is strong again this time around, which is sad but also a (by)product of the world we live in. I told myself repeatedly that I’d spend last week—my first full week off—not doing anything. I said to myself it’d be perfectly okay to stare at the wall and let it seep in that I indeed have nothing I need to do. But I quickly realized that this sabbatical will be very different than the first. The 4-year-old still wakes up before 6am, still needs to get ready for preschool, still needs to be shuttled to swim and gymnastics lessons, still throws fits and tantrums, and still needs mama to sit on the floor next to her bed while she falls asleep each night.

The contours of my day, then, are unchanged. Which is not a bad thing—and I’m not complaining about having any form of time off. It just means fitting me time between the lines of our routine, which is something my younger nomadic self would probably find extremely depressing. You have three months and you won’t travel anywhere? Then I read stories in Rest of World and The Baffler about the nomadification of Medellin and Mexico City, and also think about all the tone-deaf Instagram captions posted by an old friend who’s living the expat life abroad, and I question whether I’d actually enjoy a very different life right now.

Most of last week was filled with unglamorous chores and errands—endless laundry and vacuuming; picking Duplo blocks off the floor; and Target pickups, Amazon orders, and toy store visits in preparation for Emilia’s birthday party in several weeks. I realized how quickly these sorts of mundane tasks can gobble up a “free” day, and when I made this comment to Nick, who isn’t working and has been juggling his master’s program with family duties and life, he smirked.

Anyway. It’s Monday and the start of week two, and I’ve finally found time to sit and think about what I want these three months to look like. What do I want to accomplish? How do I go about doing it without feeling the pressure to be productive? Time off shouldn’t feel this way, should it?

For the past decade, I’ve struggled to write. Writing in the sense of writing online, of creating and posting on the internet for the world to see, of thinking out loud and making definitive statements in public. None of this is new: I’ve said it repeatedly over the years, and really, nothing has changed: I remain paralyzed, and I’ve never figured out how to consistently maintain a blog, even after I took a job at a company well known for blogging.

Nick, Emilia, and I spent a recent sunny Saturday at Dolores Park in San Francisco, hanging out with Simon, one of his friends from London. Somehow we started chatting about blogging paralysis and perfectionism and purging our online homes and accounts and all that. Nick is very similar to me in this regard—probably even more so, since he’s since deleted or stripped down his previous blogs and nearly all of his online profiles. He mentioned the concept of digital gardens, which I didn’t quite grasp when we were talking about it at the park, but after reading more about them and seeing examples in the wild, they seem like exactly the type of thing I wanted in the mid-2010s, when I struggled to write publicly and felt the pressure for each blog post to be a finished Work of Art. I won’t explain digital gardening here—there’s enough to read online already, from Maggie Appleton to Tom Critchlow and many others—but I’ll say that I love the thinking behind it about one’s personal online home (and archive of writing and knowledge) as a constantly tended space. (I also think becoming a gardener over the past handful of years makes me appreciate the concept on another level.)

After diving into a bunch of resources about creating digital gardens (like this one), I’d started playing around with a few tools often mentioned for getting started: Notion, typically used as a note-taking tool or task-management space; Obsidian, another note-taking app; and TiddlyWiki, which is called “a nonlinear personal web notebook.” I really love this description—especially the inclusion of “nonlinear”— but when I think practically and realistically about how I’d build and grow such an online space, or try to envision it, I can’t quite see it. Ultimately I’m not convinced that a digital garden is what I want or need, and if it’s The Thing that would help me actively write and think online in public again. But if you have not heard about digital gardens before, I’d recommend visiting the sites of the two people mentioned above—it’s an interesting way of thinking about our digital existences, especially if you’re fed up with our current streams of information (Twitter), linear installments (newsletters), and the traditional and chronological approach of a blog.

Whether I like it or not, this blog is still here, despite the countless times I’ve abandoned it to experiment elsewhere, on Medium or Instagram or Substack. It might be dormant for months, even years, but it’s a space to which I’ve always been able to return.

Week 1:

  • Spent the day at Dolores Park and ate a really good burrito in the Mission (I’ve not been able to find a good burrito spot in Berkeley/Albany, sadly)
  • Read about digital gardens
  • Started watching Severance
  • Edited video highlight reels from Joshua Tree Music Festival (can someone recommend an easy-to-use app to edit iPhone videos—one that doesn’t screw up the color and quality of video files?)
  • Ordered crafts activities for Emilia’s birthday party and spent way too much money (it’s quite strange to order sealed bags of rocks for painting)
  • Went exploring at Albany Bulb with Emilia and one of her favorite friends (see the image above)
  • Planning a front-yard landscaping project with succulents and drought-tolerant grasses

Published by Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Senior editor at Longreads / Automattic

3 thoughts on “Notes from Sabbatical, Week 1

  1. “macro data refinement” has a permanent place in the department field on my work profile (and in my heart).

    ps. i just finished an indie game called “Stray” (, and i can’t recommend it highly enough. you play as a cat. the game is gorgeous and has a great sense of humor.. definitely recommend if you’re looking to detach in between life upkeep.

    1. My colleague told me about this game! Thanks for the reminder. I have never played a game as an adult (games like Mario Kart and etc aside). I sense it’s a whole world I’ve been missing out on.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: