For anyone reading this who just frowned, let me help. A “Gap year” is a year after high school or sometimes a year after college and before graduate school, where students learn something new, work, travel, volunteer, or a combination of all of the above. The term originates in the UK, but many countries around the world have either an official or an unofficial version of the Gap. For students burnt out on standardized testing, AP classes, the increasingly complex and demanding high school curriculum, a year off to breathe, to mature, to discover interests not because they look good on a transcript but because they sound interesting, leaves many of them in a better position to get more out of higher education. Fingers crossed, a happier university student becomes a more well-rounded adult.
This idea isn’t completely alien to people over the age of eighteen. College professors take sabbaticals without drawing comment. Belgium allows one year of absence from one’s job to prevent burnout. Because this is Belgium we’re talking about, I’m assuming both the burnout and the cure for the burnout revolve around beer. But if you aren’t Belgian or teaching Comp Lit at a private liberal arts college, you may not have considered stepping out of your life for a year. It may sound alarming and, candidly, I’d agree. When you look at statistics about people over 40 getting hired — which is to say not getting hired — it seems suicidal to ask for time off. When Irma hit landfall in Florida, there were reports of Floridians being told if they didn’t continue to show up for work even as the evacuations were being enacted they would be fired. America isn’t always kind to the need for a time-out.
I live the kind of life weirdly suited for this idea. Yes, my salary was spotty and terrible, with my being a writer and all, but I’ve been a writer for ten years. I'm used to a spotty and terrible income. My family pays for its own insurance, so it's not dependant on my employer. As I pointed out, my daughter no longer needs me in the same way. For nearly ten years, I had also been taking care of my mother, but she’s been gone two years now.
But what about Daniel? What about the man I love, the person I trust above all, the person who misses our kid as much as I do but also talks longingly of time where it’s just the two of us? I broached the subject carefully: a gap year, maybe some travel, time together, time apart, THIS IS NOT US BREAKING UP.
[This had to be said, We know several couples we know broke up after their last kid left home. Both breakups began with a whole bunch of “Me time” projects for at least one of the partners. You want to know who isn’t going to make it? See who just splurged on new carry-on luggage.]
Daniel looked thoughtful. “So, like Italy?”
Two years ago, the kid took an immersive Italian class in Rome through a community college near us. Because she was 15, I had to go along as her chaperone. It was just the kid, a cluster of community college students suddenly legally allowed to drink, a small handful of teachers, and me. I speak no Italian. The kid, acutely aware my presence reminded everyone she was a baby, actively ignored me for three weeks. I understand it sounds ungracious to say I had a terrible time in a glorious country, but I had a terrible time. But on the America side of this story, Daniel got tons of work done and renovated large bits of the house. He missed us, was pleased to have us back but make no mistake, he views that as one of the more productive months of the past decade.
Being offered a few of those in the upcoming year caused him to sit up happily, glance at the foyer he’s been threatening to demo for years. He caught me noticing his foyer-glance.“I mean,” he said, composing his face in what he hoped resembled mild sorrow, “If you must.” He then went to his woodshop to imagine all the sawdust he could look forward to creating. I was busy commending myself on my cleverness for having come up with a heretofore-unthought-of idea and decided to do something about it. At some point. In the future..
Then, this past July, I was sitting on the porch of a friend’s lake house in Connecticut, reading the Sunday edition of the New York Times when I stumbled upon an entire article about adults taking gap years.
[Note: I may write a more Caucasian sentence in my life, but I don’t see how.]
It seems that there aren’t many of us, but there are enough adults intrigued by the idea that a company which has spent two decades sending middle and upper-middle class teens off for their gap years has launched a side business of moving their parents around as well. I merrily filled out their application.
Which countries might I be interested in going to? I clicked countries I didn’t primarily associate with bugs.
Which skills did I possess? Sadly, “A mordant wit and parallel parking” were less important than I might have hoped, but I found a few things I could do that seemed relevant.
What kind of things was I hoping to do? I tried to phrase “Amenable to nearly anything, so long as it didn’t involve bugs” in an inclusive way.
I clicked “Send.” Within minutes, they sent back the first date available to talk to a gap year counselor: NOVEMBER? But I needed to get things rolling the minute I get back from dropping the kid off on the east coast. Otherwise, Border Collie brain would set in. I was going to have to do this on my own for a while. As I drove around getting the last of the kid's year abroad-related errands run and objects procured, I firmed up a few rules for whatever I did gap-wise:
1. Ideally, it had to be all-encompassing, either by virtue of my not knowing what I’m doing, or requiring my full attention. From the inside, my brain is most pleasant to be around when it’s fully engaged. Also, while I expect to miss the kid quite a bit, I would love to skirt the avoidable pain. If I’m completely focused — which is to say distracted — I’m going to be happier.
2. I hate traveling but am hoping to travel. There are reasons for both sides of this statement. I hate traveling at least in part because my father died in Los Angeles when my mother and I were in New York and most trips for me are a constant humming dread of a shoe dropping. Like all good phobics, I decided this was such an unpleasant sensation, best to avoid it entirely, which means my life gets smaller and smaller. If I took one of those high school career aptitude tests now, I assume I’d be told I’m a natural to be either a lighthouse keeper or Emily Dickinson. I once read a book about the history of rats in Manhattan and the writer said rats are neophobic, literally afraid of new things. In the perfect-world or fat rodents, a family of rats spends generations living in the same dumpster, skittering down the alley to their favorite food dumpster and then back again. It’s imperative I stop agreeing with vermin.
I also want to travel because, in the past eight years, I’ve buried two good friends, both of whom enjoyed traveling tremendously. I can’t pretend to be looking forward to getting on planes (I forgot to mention I hate flying) but Mary and Gabrielle should still be here, having adventures. Since they can’t, I’ll go places for them and I’ll think of them lovingly while I stand far away from my familiar little dumpster. There is something about giving a eulogy or being a pallbearer for someone your age that reminds you to wake the hell up, look around, and get going.
3. I’m hoping, assuming, most of what I will do will be volunteering but if it isn’t for the benefit of others, I must do something purely for myself. For the past seventeen years, eighteen if you count the pregnancy, my priorities were as follows:
4. My mother (moved up during health crises)
5. Everyone around me
6. That dog I saw briefly walking down the sidewalk without a person that might have been lost,
7. Polar bears standing in miserable confusion on rapidly decreasing ice floes,
17. Sea turtles
18. Pink dolphins which are now extinct somehow thanks to me
25. That person with whom I had an awkward social interaction years ago
I want short-term projects into which I throw myself completely (see #1), but eighteen years ago I happily lost myself in a job. Now, I have to find my way back out again. If what I’m doing could be described as “selfish” by someone who doesn’t like me, I’m probably on the right path.