Starting The Clock


The grades are in. The teaching studio is packed up. The instructions have been passed on to those covering my responsibilities. The "out of office" message is written. All that is left is to turn it on. I feel like a sprinter at the starting line, waiting for the gun to go off, only I’m the one who is meant to fire it.

I’m going on sabbatical, one of the only aspects of academic life guaranteed to evoke envy among my friends in the outside world. And, rightly so, who wouldn’t want the opportunity to have “time off” from one’s job?

I’m not going to lie. Sabbaticals are a perk. One of the best. They offer the possibility of renewal and creative rejuvenation, the chance to jettison routine, think differently, explore sideroads, take detours, and maybe even reinvent oneself.

The last time I did this was 10 years ago. My son was three years old. I had just become a full professor. The entire department was moving out of our building so it could be renovated. So I wasn’t alone in “leaving home.”

This time feels quite different. I’ve been at my job for twenty-one years now. I am the Associate Director of the School of Music and Theater, with many more responsibilities and threads connecting me to the institution. So it should have come as no surprise that what I imagined months ago would be a clean break has felt more like shutting off a faucet, one slow turn at a time. But it is coming, much as I may be dragging my feet.  

When people hear that I’m taking a sabbatical, they immediately ask one of two questions: 1) Where are you going? 2) What are you going to do?  

I admit that early on I did harbor romantic notions of sailing with my family around the world or pulling my son out of school and spending the year abroad. Then the reality set in that although I am on sabbatical, they are not.  

So, although my travel ambitions for the next year are modest—some performing out of town, maybe a conference abroad—what does resonate is the feeling of freedom that this time period represents. My way of embracing this idea of mobility was to buy a used car to replace the scooter I’ve been commuting with for the past several years. I’m imagining hopping out to the coast to compose or driving up to Seattle to see a concert- just because I can.  

If I’m honest, though, I have to admit to a sense of exile in a way.  Even as my colleagues wish me well, it is clear that they don’t, in fact, expect to see me around, and the appropriate thing to do is to make myself scarce. There is some regret as well, as I think about my students, particularly the ones who are going to graduate this year. I don’t like the idea of not seeing them across the finish line.

The last time I went on sabbatical a colleague told me, probably in an effort to get me to worry less about what I was leaving behind, that no one is irreplaceable. I guess I’ll have another opportunity to reflect on that essential truth.

As for the "what are you going to do” question, I’m not sure I’ve got that one down either. I have a big bucket list. New projects and ongoing ones, things I’ve always wanted to do, and things I feel I “should” do with this precious gift of time.

My initial resolution was to write a book. A strange goal for a musician, I know, but one that felt compelling and the most like a stretch. (Plus, it is pretty much the cliche activity for an academic to do with a sabbatical.) Then there is applying for grants. I got one for a project called 21 Cartas, a song cycle based on letters written by refugee mothers (it will be performed next May). I also wrote a grant to support composing a chamber opera about gentrification in Portland’s African-American neighborhoods. Then there are the things deeper in the bucket: finishing my project of James Taylor songs that has been 20-plus years in the making, touring my Territory Project around the state, and recording an album with my MJ New Quartet. 2019 is also the 25th anniversary of the release of my debut CD as a leader Black Art. I’m hoping to revisit that music with an all-new group. And then there is the goal of getting national performances for the Ruby Bridges Suite, and…

There is daily life.  

I have a teenager in the house now. What a wonderful chance to be around for him during his upcoming 8th-grade year. There are the aging parents. Wouldn’t it be nice to take this opportunity to spend more time with them?  And how about taking a family vacation during my son’s school holidays?

Feeling tired just thinking about your sabbatical can’t be a good sign.  

The other day I had an idea for a simpler measure of success. It has to do with how I want to feel when I return to work. The thing that I want most is to feel transformed—different in some way. And it seems like that transformation has less to do with where I go, or what I do than with how I come to know myself. I think it might come about by noticing how I hold myself in the day-to-day. How present can I be? How open?

I don’t know if I’ll write the book.  I don’t know where I might travel to, or how many of the myriad of goals on my list I will accomplish. I am, however, excited about the opportunity to wake up every morning and think differently. In that way, maybe the sabbatical has already begun.