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How to Take a Gap Year From Your Life

I said goodbye to my high-powered magazine job with no particular plan, just a desire to be free and a vague notion of maybe becoming a basket weaver.
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About a year and a half ago I ditched a glamorous, well-paying job as a magazine editor, where I had not only creative freedom but an ample budget with which to realize my ideas. I bid it adieu with no particular plan, just a broad and burning desire to be free and a vague notion of maybe becoming a basket weaver. (Yes, that’s right.) Having toiled for a half-century on other people’s schedules (parents’, schools’, jobs’), I wanted to be not the boss of others but of myself, my time accountable only to me and those I loved.

I longed to read more, and more haphazardly, allowing one thing to lead to the next. I wanted to travel and learn more about beautiful objects created by people of different cultures and traditions. Plus, I wanted to do work not just with my mind, as I always have, but with my hands, as well, which I never had. It’s not that I had no ideas about what I wanted to do—I had loads—just no sense of what it might look like, or how it might all go down.

When we start out, so much is possible, even who we might be. We end up utterly specific.

Our lives inevitably narrow as we move through them. When we start out, so much is possible, even who we might be. As we make our way in years, each choice precludes others until—surprise!—I am not some transcontinental femme fatale moving from one torrid love affair to another but a 53-year-old lady who likes to garden, lives in downtown Manhattan with a husband and two kids, and has spent her working life in the magazine industry. We end up utterly specific.

But what if, when we’re older, we can light out again on the open road? Over the years we have cleared a lot of metaphoric brush. We know what makes us happy and what annoys the hell out of us. We’re more confident, less stupid, and maybe even a bit richer than we were in our youth.

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Some people, of course, assumed my saying I was leaving a job to weave baskets was akin to “I want to spend more time with my family”—a way weirder but equally platitudinous cover for having gotten canned. But many people harbor thoughts of a break or respite from their day-to-day lives. I can’t tell you how often I heard, “Oh, how exciting! You’re having a gap year!” Or “It’s Eat, Pray, Craft!” Yes, well, kind of, only without the stable bookends of high school and college securing the space between, or much soul-searching, or any random sex. But a few saw this as I did, as an open-ended exploration punctuated by occasional work projects to keep it, and me, going financially.


Daniel Day-Lewis stopped acting for five years to practice shoe-making and Michael Jordan stepped away from basketball to take up baseball.

For those who maybe interested in the nuts and bolts of bolting, I spent close to a year weighing things out, making lists, thinking about what I might miss, what I would need to set myself up, what my fears were (a sloth in pajamas 24/7), and what I still wanted to suck out of my career before I left it.

While fairly frequently I wonder, “WTF am I doing?” I have yet to think, “WTF have I done?”

The word from the other side is this: You can totally chart a new course or conquer new frontiers. This may sound like daft mysticism, but the doors open to you are those you can open yourself. You might be able to bust through ceilings or push down walls, but if you’re jazzed by conventional notions of status or success—a desire to be more famous or more in demand, or to make more money—a midlife 360 might not be the best idea. But if you seek something more like the benefits of a gap year, only it’s your life, have at it.

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Marcel Duchamp stopped making art to play chess and Elizabeth Gilbert took a year off from writing to travel.

A quick tally of costs: The party invitations and swag ceased with breathtaking efficiency. My bank account hit zero way faster than I thought it would. (Thank you, husband, and even father, whom I hit up for the first time in about 20 years.) And I now work for people who used to work for me. (I write articles for the magazine I used to run, and there are people who are quite happy to let me know who’s not the boss now.) While fairly frequently I wonder, “WTF am I doing?” I have yet to think, “WTF have I done?”

I concede that my first notion of leaving magazine editing to become a basket weaver, growing and harvesting my own willow and then spending my days alone in a barn, weaving my wares, may have been an overreaction to what felt like an overdose of the world of fashion, in which I felt like a spoiled pawn in a luxury chess game, being shunted around the world forever more extravagant shows and parties and spectacles. (I know, you feel awful for me.)

But over the past year and a half I have dabbled in learning the techniques of basketry, tapestry, weaving, fragrance making, broom making, and natural dyeing. It’s been nothing short of revelatory (in part because my ignorance was so great—I couldn’t have told you how sheep wool really became a sweater or a flax plant a hand towel). Although I learned a lot, a dilettante of many skills is, of course, a master of none.

I have also traveled to villages and towns in countries I had never been to (and to parts of this country) and have been blown away by the diversity of lives and cultures still amazingly extant, and by the people I’ve met, craftspeople who, whether through choice or the lack of it, make remarkable objects day in and day out.

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Will I find a way to be useful, to share the bounty or help resolve the problems I have witnessed?

I have come to appreciate the way these objects are inseparable from the communities and cultures in which they are created, which either adapt or disappear in unison. But what will I do with the privileged access I’ve had? Will I find a way to be useful, to share the bounty or help resolve the problems I have witnessed? I don’t have a clue. I don’t know what my next move is or whether, when I figure it out, I’ll be able to pull it off. But in my otherwise rather staid and stable life, I find that exciting.

Getting to go back and start over on a road not taken is an existential do-over, a high-end, First World path—albeit one not paved with gold—open to a lucky few. But if you can bear emptier pockets, the lack of a quick dinner-party response to what you do, and people leaving you the hell alone because you’re no longer useful to them, you can have...wait for it...time. And, really, that’s the gold.

This story appears in the August 2018 issue of Town & Country. 

*This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com
*Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors

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Deborah Needleman
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