In my previous adventures, the end of the journey has been the most difficult part. When I arrive back where I started, my first thought has been, “Well, I am done. Should I feel a sense of accomplishment or transformation now that the journey is over?” It’s hard to know. For many days and weeks I had one objective, to finish, and the moment I did, I did not have much to say.
“Time to get ready to go home and back to work.” I thought as I strolled through the aisles of a Home Depot store in San Juan looking for the bubble wrap I’d need to pack up my kayak.
It was August 2021 and there had been an easing of the pandemic restrictions. We were allowed to take domestic flights, including to Puerto Rico, and I had spent the past three weeks paddling my kayak around the island.
I was not looking forward to being flung back into the “work from home routine” that the post pandemic life had become. When you have a wife, kids or even a dog, I suppose you have a few more things to focus your attention on than just your work, and some real people to talk to. But when you’re like me, not attached to anyone, the disembodied voices on your Microsoft Teams calls are all you get; day after day.
I handled it fine for a year, but I could tell that the isolation had corroded a portion of my emotional foundation. Will this condition go on for another year? I hoped not.
A few months later, a colleague from work quit abruptly. Before the pandemic we had worked on several engineering projects for the wastewater plants in Miami together. We met at the office nearly every day, swapped ideas and worked through the issues of the job as things invariably came up. These days we mostly talked online via Teams, but still, our familiarity from years of work together was enough for me to feel that at least someone wasn’t too far away. But now it really did feel like it was just me.
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I’ve noticed that being alone paddling in my kayak doesn't result in me being lonely. I suppose that is because being alone is a predicament of a situation, being lonely is how you interpret it. On the kayak my mind is full. I have to think about the next wave coming up, the wind that is changing, and that rocky headland that’s fast approaching. There isn’t a choice to not have your mind on those things; they are coming for you and have to physically deal with them whether you want to or not, and that fills the mind.
People at work are kind of like the waves, the wind and the headlands in a way too. They are there, you have to deal with them, and that fills your time and your mind. But when all you got is the work, then you start to ask yourself, “is the work a fountain of emotional fulfillment for me? If the answer isn’t an emphatic yes every time, then you have a problem. It’s called boredom.
Ironically, I find that it is stressful to be bored. It is like holding all the pressure of a champagne bottle with your thumb. The outward staticness of going through the motions of your work, hides the enormous mental effort that is needed to not let everything come apart all at once.
After some months I mustered the will to make a request to my supervisor.
“Dear Mr. Sharp,
Over the course of the pandemic many of us have, I am sure, begun to feel considerable burnout, both from the isolation and the blending of our personal and professional lives. I had never thought that I would or even could succumb to such hardship, but after a year and a half I must admit that it has begun to wear me down as well. To avoid falling victim to burnout like so many, I would like to ask if the company can allow me to take some unpaid leave in the coming summer for emotional recuperation. I have reviewed my current workload and concluded that after an early June deliverable I will be relatively light on work, and any remaining project responsibilities can be passed on to others. We have sufficient time to prepare the transition. I will have about a month of accumulated vacation time by the summer and was hoping that I could take an additional month off. The tentative dates would be from Monday May 31st returning Monday August 8th.
Please let me know if this is an arrangement that can be worked out.
For so many years after the great recession employees have had little to no leverage to make asks of their employers. Somehow, the pandemic inverted that quite suddenly.
My supervisor called me that same week.
“Hi Felipe, got your email. Yup. I am all for a little work-life balance once in a while. Can’t let people burn out. We can work something out. What adventure are you planning this time around?”
“Another kayaking adventure for sure. Don’t know where yet. I am open to suggestions.”
“How about the Pacific Northwest? Last time I was there I saw a lot of paddlers. Zim, our valve and pipe guy, lives in Tacoma. I know he’s gone paddling in the San Juan Islands.”
“That is an interesting idea. I have a friend who lives in Victoria who is a kayak guide; I’ll see with him what kind of advice he can give me.”
Two years before the pandemic lockdown, I had attended a kayaking symposium in Oregon. There I had struck up a conversation with a Canadian who mentioned to me he’d paddled around Vancouver Island by himself the previous summer. “I did it for my sixty-fifth birthday. At sixty-five you are closer to the grave than you are to the cradle. Today can be the day I’ll leave life behind; I had put off doing the journey for too many years already. It’s a wonderful place, challenging and dangerous, but definitely wonderful.”
“Really, and how so?”
“Well, the weather can be miserable on the West coast. I waited 5 days before I had a window safe enough to paddle past the Brooks Peninsula, and even then, the swells were over 10 feet. But the scenery is inspiring, and you will hardly find a place more beautiful. It’s a bitter irony for me that I have lived nearly all my life in Vancouver, and only really got to discover it so late in life. I started kayaking at sixty. Some things you learn late in life, and then you must rush to catch up on what you missed.”
A New Adventure