On our most valuable commodity: time.

What are the two things we complain about most? Lack of money and lack of time.  But when you get right down to it, we aren’t even complaining about lack of time anymore.  We just believe that we have no time and live accordingly.

Money is where we focus our attention, for good reasons (often).  There is a threshold of “enough” money below which we experience real suffering: not enough food, not enough medicine, no winter boots, a car that can’t get us to work reliably.  The problem is that “enough” is a very thin line and a hard one to recognize, because a) we have no cultural standard for it (indeed, we have lots of cultural standards that say it doesn’t exist), and b) we ourselves perceive it as always receding, like the horizon.

As soon as we have enough to eat and enough to keep warm and healthy, we want a nicer car.  Then a bigger kitchen.  Then private school for the kids.  Then a little cabin somewhere on a lake, because hey, our friends have one.  Some days it’s hard to remember how fortunate we are because our cultural methodology for happiness involves training our eyes on the next thing we don’t have.  Happiness isn’t something we HAVE, it’s something we pursue.  Like hounds, panting, barking, giving chase.

You could argue the same basic truths apply to the problem of time.  We have no time because we’re rushing to get everything done: meet a deadline, make the meeting, get the kids to school, run the errands.  And when we DO have time, we don’t know how to deal with the time itself OR with the fact of having it.  We figure having time means we should be doing something (and Facebook and Pinterest feel like we’re doing something, right?), and/or the fact that we actually have time means there’s something we aren’t doing, something we should have done.  And this isn’t even counting the many professional cultures where you would never dare admit that you weren’t incredibly busy, where busy is the measure of your worth.  Sigh.  It’s quite a burden we choose to haul.

But it’s also clear that many of the solutions to our many problems involve, at bottom, more time.  Organizational culture is about time together; community is about time together; all forms of education are about time together and alone; overcoming fear takes time; developing creative solutions takes time; doing all the work that needs to be done to keep our systems running takes time. Answers to poverty are in many ways rooted in time: to grow things together, to care for one another’s needs, to build relationships that help us teach and learn and share.  The impetus behind the industrial revolution was about time, a fact we conveniently forget: the goal was not to “save” time by replacing people with machines so that more of us could live in poverty and/or do more menial work for less money; the goal was to save time so that we could spend it with our families, our communities, our churches.  Imagine that instead of a small group of overworked wealthy people and masses of unemployed, we had most folks working three days a week, or every morning, or whatever the arrangement.  With the necessarily reconfigured salaries, we could actually have our cake and eat it too: rewarding careers AND a life, albeit a less monetarily-driven one.  We could play in a band. Go to soccer practice, or watch your kid’s games.  Volunteer.  Build things.

Right now, most of us either don’t have time or we’re ashamed of having it.  That’s no way to live.

I’ve struggled for a long time to come to terms with my own life choices — leaving a hectic and important full-time career for mostly mommying with part-time consulting and teaching.  I made my choices because everything else felt wrong, but that’s not to say that this felt right.  It’s taken me a long time to see that it doesn’t “feel right” for two reasons: 1. Because it IS right, for me, and I find it very hard to accept and choose to live in that kind of basic happiness; and 2. because it affords me so much time.  I have 2.5 days a week with both my sweet boys and 2.5 days a week for my writing, board work, consulting, teaching, creative endeavors, and household management.  It’s a thing of beauty, and four years in, I’m just starting to be able to describe it to others with joy and pride instead of bashfulness and self-justification.  The money part is hard, I grant (almost as hard as the gendered nature of relying on my husband’s income and insurance) but I have faith I’ll be able to bring in more when more is necessary, and meanwhile the tightness encourages lifestyles I love (mostly): thrifting, cooking, growing, eating largely vegetarian, and DIY for whatever we can.  (Talk to me in another six months when my fifteen-year-old station wagon dies, and you’ll hear another story…)

This newfound appreciation of the life I’ve chosen has led to some other useful realizations: time is precious and it is mercurial.  We imagine we can chop it up into segments (this bit for exercise, that bit for meetings), but it messes with us.  The twenty minutes on the treadmill take FOREVER (unless you have a good book and then it’s not long enough); the meeting can spend an hour in a bad twelve minutes and then fly through the next forty-eight. The gift, I find, is that time stretches when we let it, and then all kinds of life can step in and pull up a seat.

At a recent board meeting, some of us were five or ten minutes early; most folks were on time; one key leader was fifteen minutes late.  For two folks carrying great tension, the wait was visibly painful.  For those of us who always regret not having time to catch up with others, it was (I hesitate to say it) something of a gift.  We CHATTED.  About jewelry, and clothing swaps, and how we love it when an object we’ve cared for but no longer need finds a new home.  About grandchildren and winter and the sudden discovery of a loved-one’s need for heart surgery.  Suddenly we were whole people around the table, bringing all our gifts and selfness, all because we had a stray fifteen minutes put to good use.

I’m rereading Wendell Berry’s beautiful novel Jayber Crow (if you haven’t read it, do), which is all about time.  I mean, it’s ostensibly about a young man’s journey to find home and build community, but that of course means it’s about time.  He’s a reader and a wanderer and a listener.  His sense of the world comes from being out in it, without rush or agenda, with instead a deep curiosity and an openness to what is.  Never mind that the voice of the novel feels as if you’re sitting at your beloved grandfather’s feet near the fireplace on a cold evening; everything about it evokes a time when we had time.  Men sit in the old closed-up town store playing an endless game of gin runny to while away the winter hours during the war.  Jayber himself, the town barber, recognizes that his shop is as much for loafing and talking as it is for the commerce of haircuts and shaves.  The land itself, through flood and storm and gentle new growth, has needs that the good farmers seek to hear and to meet, not only through work but through slow walks around their properties and long conversations with neighbors.

The writers I love, the PEOPLE I love, are those who honor time.  They stretch it out like taffy with stories and music, meditation, board games, nature walks, floating in lakes, observing birds in flight and at rest.  They unfold it like a warm blanket over anyone in their presence, with careful questions and unhurried listening.  They understand how much they don’t understand, and they are willing to listen, to learn, or simply to be present.  These are my chosen ways, now that I can see they are choices.  They fill me with hope.

 

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On doing one thing at a time.

Like many of you, I struggle to be all things to all people.  Rather, I’ve given up EXPLICITLY trying to do that, because I’m too smart to keep at the impossible (sometimes), but I’m not smart enough, it seems to give it up entirely.  I still worry, when I’m parenting, that I’m not bringing in money.  When I’m bringing in money, I worry that it’s not building a career.  When I’m having conversations about building a career, I’m worry about the experience my kids are having in daycare and wondering what I should give up on in order to be more present somewhere, sometime.

But the bottom line is, we have to choose.  Most of us, as the self-help books point out, choose by default: we limp along in agony until eventually we fall on one side of the path or the other.  It’s unpleasant but surely saves on decision-making.  I am rather a master of this skill.  Case in point: a pretty fantastic job appeared recently at an institution near me, and I sweated for a week over whether or not to apply.  But every time I turn the decision over again, filling the wee hours with my remorse and trepidation, I arrive at the same place. I am not ready to go back to full-time work yet.  I want to spend more time in my children’s lives.  Other people may not; I may not eventually; but right now, I would feel sad and cheated and resentful if I could not spend these two-and-a-half weekdays with my boys.  So I will honor that and choose not to apply for full-time work.

The hard part, of course, is less making the choice and more living with it.  I have always believed in a keep-all-doors-open policy, which makes perfect sense if you are not sure where you want to go.  And so I mistrust my own clarity when I do have it.  But enough sleepless nights, going around the same circles, and even I come to see that my conclusions are always the same.  So the math leads me to believe what the soul has been trying to say all along.

This macro-dynamic of too-many-things shows up everywhere, of course.  In college, I changed majors four times, the last time in the middle of my junior year (bad idea, in case you wondered).  When designing courses, some people think about what reading and assignments to include; I have to think about what to leave out, because there’s SO MUCH great stuff to work with.  Last month I purchased no fewer than eight sample cans of paint in order to decide what color to paint the kitchen (and please note: they were all shades of white.  The kitchen is white).  My any.do app which I use to manage to-do lists typically includes eight or ten things under “today” and a similar number under “tomorrow”; never mind that any ONE of these things might be (was, in fact, today) enormous: making curtains for a friend.  (FYI, that project involves cutting and sewing ten panels of various lengths, hemming on all sides and creating top pockets for the tension rods she will use.  The fabric is a gauzy linen; the sewing machine is a temperamental thing with a bad attitude about tension.)  What special form of self-flagellation leads me to put all these items on a single day?  I realize it’s mostly a commitment to keeping the doors open, in case circumstances direct me to one or another of these things, they are all right there for the doing.  And on an average day, I probably do cross off three or four things.  But…three or four out of eight is kind of depressing.  I want to feel more efficient than that.  I want good reasons to tell some of these nagging voices to pipe down.

So as part of my commitment to Peace in All Things (a mother of two under four: bwahahaha), I decided today that come hell or high water, I would achieve SOMETHING.  I was not going to spend my available time on Pinterest and Facebook, planning and pining.  I was going to find my way into that beautiful, soul-soothing creative space and emerge without having done everything but having made something.  Because that has to be enough, and I have to practice it.  And so I did.  Four panels only, but that’s something for an afternoon.  Small hands may have helpfully pushed each pin all the way into the pincushion (“I like the colors, Mama!”), and even smaller hands may have spent quality time measuring my chair repeatedly (“My measure tape!  I measure for you!”), but I was able to be and do together.  This feels like spiritual practice.  It feels like good work, one thing at a time.

On getting off the couch (or not).

I have this strange rhythm to my life, with two days a week of daycare and all my “work” crammed into those two days.  I say this not to discount the important work of homemaking and childrearing and keeping our lives moving ahead that fill all the rest of my days; I say it because I’m guessing lots of other people struggle to differentiate between paid (or pay-able) work and the other critical unpaid occupations of our lives.

Anyway, I jam these childcare days FULL of expectations.  I schedule appointments and meetings and regular commitments; I plan major writing initiatives; I intend to do research and also tackle the big household projects I can’t take care of with kids around.  But then I end up overwhelmed.  My task management app, Any.Do, invites me DAILY to “manage my to-do’s.”  Clearly it thinks I’m overwhelmed, too.

Today, for example, I left the house shortly after 7 am to take Ezra to a specialist appointment in Portland.  An hour down, fifteen minutes with the doc, and an hour back.  I make good use of the time singing endless rounds of ABCs and “Three Little Birds” with Ezra, so that feels fulfilling, at least.  And then I go straight to the gym after dropping him at daycare.  (Let me stop right here to say that I’ve contemplated saving time by skipping the gym, but apparently I have the good fortune of a crappy back that causes pain if I skip my lifting regimen for more than three days, so I guess I’ll run with that.  But don’t mistake this exercise commitment for either Virtue or Vanity.  It’s simple self-preservation.)  Anyway, I’m home, dripping with sweat, by 10:30, and I’m so starving that I have to eat right away rather than shower.  So then I’m disgusting but dry, and I figure I’ll Get Things Done before I shower, and that lands me on the couch with the computer, and from there on out, my friends, it’s game over.  I’ve cleaned out my inbox; followed up on old business; drafted letters of recommendation for former students (in my head).  I’ve played innumerable games of Bubble as I strategize my next move, and I’ve strongly considered showering.  And napping.  And Doing things.  But to consider, alas, is not to do.  And when I get this tired, there’s a whole phenomenon of not-caring that kicks in.  I need to mobilize to CARE and then I’ll do things.  Or I can just get really hard-nosed about it all and force myself to do things, assuming the caring will follow…the arranged-marriage version of life-planning.  Huh.

And there, you see, is the rub.  It’s a considering kind of day, not a caring kind of day.  I want to loaf about.  I want to read novels and watch bad tv and sip cocoa.  Is that so wrong?  Am I allowed to just DO that?  It feels like no, not with the board meeting tonight that I need to present at, the upcoming discussion group I need to plan and write an email to, the three novels by my bedside I need to finish before I can finalize the discussion group work.  Not to mention the excellent contacts I need to get back to regarding the Possibility of Paid Work.  Sigh.  Perhaps I should organize my day into segments: gym; computer; existing work; board work; potential work; house/yard work.  Maybe that would get me off the couch.

Or not.

On wading in: Day 26. Wading out.

I’ve decided that my capacity to control my relationship to the interwebs is waning.  I mean, the WILL is still there, as are the specific forms of revulsion that keep me out of most of it.  But apparently something has damaged my ability to wade back out of the mire that is my email-facebook-pinterest-wordpress-cool-articles-someone-posted world.

I’m a really minimal tech-user, by which I mean that I’m a strongly utilitarian tech-user. I like to communicate; work; keep up with friends; read interesting stories; find new recipes and craft/DIY projects.  I rarely get sucked into shopping; I hardly ever watch a video (except for on Netflix, which is a whole other beast and entirely under control).  But even my mighty commitment to mindfulness can’t seem to turn back ON the energy that gets cut off when I head into this little loop of consumption.

Strategy goes; creativity goes; higher-order processing goes.  The reflex action (moving to whatever screen I’m not currently on) kicks in as soon as the self-loathing alerts me that I’m stuck.  “Oh, okay.  I’ll just see if I have new email and then I’ll shut this thing and go do some work.”  Yah.

The real problem is not even the time drain.  It’s the loss of meaningful initiative and mental bandwidth.  Today, for example, walking home across a  beautiful college’s campus from lunch with a friend, I was filled with the joy of sunshine and the sense of productive possibility that a good walk and a good friend can provide.  I noted the cormorant drying its bat-wings above the water in which it lay; I saw the raggedy juvenile male mallard with his head-feathers not fully in, and I thought to myself, Adolescence is a bitch. I felt the flow of good ideas within me: scraping and painting the old iron bench; working up the proposal for the new book project; calling an old friend for a conversation about work and life.  But I get home, “check my email real quick,” and suddenly it’s 20 minutes later and I have no idea what I’m doing.

Sad but true.

Sometimes I want a sabbatical from technology, but more often I just want to reclaim the purpose of my work with it.  Perhaps post-it notes on my screen to remind me of my goals?  Perhaps giving myself permission to curl up on the couch with a novel, which is really what I seem to be avoiding most of the time?  Perhaps zen-ish questions like that on my new desk-side bulletin board (what are you avoiding?  What would fill you with joy right now?  Who do you want to connect with?)?  Maybe I’ll try them all.

Did I mention my new productivity strategy?  To preserve my freedom of choice in field of work, I’m using an old trick in a new place: distinct lists for ongoing work; new work; house work; fun/fulfillment.  My spiffy new/crappy old bulletin board will store the lists in plain sight — or maybe inside pretty cards? — so that I can have them present where I DON’T NEED TECHNOLOGY TO FIND THEM.  That’s a cruel sideline to the whole e-document system…you get in to do work and find yourself lost in the preparation for working.  Sigh.

So yes, wading in is what we’re about here, but also wading out — freedom, fluidity, and finicky discernment about what to do next.  Sometimes the next best move is to sit still with your face turned toward the sun.  But here on my computer I’ll never know, will I?

On wading in: Day 19. The Joy Plan.

There’s the Happiness Project, Your Happiness Plan, The Wholehearted Life, The Purpose-Driven Life, Authentic Happiness, and a host of others.  They all tell you how to be happy.

Then why aren’t we?

Happiness seems a little overwhelming to me.  Like it’s a constant state of whistling and skipping, and there’s lots of yellow everywhere. There’s no room for my bad moods, for a rainy day playing hooky from all the productivity, for the kinds of mistakes I make and then brood about.  Not like it’s a hobby or anything, but still.  I don’t want to be FORCED into some kind of mandatory cheerfulness.

I find it easier to think about joy than happiness, because joy is always with me.  It underlies everything else, and it shows up at strange moments in the form of gratitude, pleasure, rest, peace, or harmony.  But still, joy eludes me often; it’s not a chronic state, and sometimes it shows up infrequently, leaving me to wonder harder where it got to and what I did to drive it away.

This, I suppose, is precisely the point.  Joy only shows up when you let it, and the kinds of worrying/planning/spiraling/self-loathing/anxiety-mongering behaviors I specialize in don’t give it a whole lot of room.

So I figure I should develop a Joy Plan of my own.  It will involve, first and foremost, a concerted and ongoing effort to notice when I start spiraling, sorting, “doing,” and to take a deep breath.  I want to remember, at those times, that I’m here, now, and that I get to do the other things another time.  That’s going to be my catch phrase: I “get to” do it later.  It will apply quite seriously to the aspects of my life I like, such as planning public humanities programming or finishing a novel or an article; it will apply ironically to the habitual aspects of my life I’m working to release, like self-flagellation or inventing elaborate responses to absurd and painful situations that have never happened and probably never will.  Later, I’ll say.  Right now you can play with your kids in the sun; tonight you can come back to that unpleasant FAKE argument you were having with someone IN YOUR HEAD and really finish it off with a sweet one-liner. That’ll show ’em.  Er, me.  Whatever.

The Joy Plan will also involve chocolate, which goes without saying.

It will involve more walks with people I like; more singing; more saying “yes.”  It will include baking and dancing and reading good books and making things out of cloth and yarn.  I’ve really slowed down on my crafting lately, and it can’t be good.  (I will confess, I made Ezra a pair of pajama pants from dinosaur fleece that he chose, but they’ve gone unreported because, well, they’re a little wide in the leg.  Suffice it to say that Len thinks they look like the goat leggings from Dragnet.  And he’s not wrong.)

It will involve writing more of the things I WANT to write (polemics against current policy; fake dialogues with people that really need to get out of my head and onto paper; poems, poems, poems).  I will worry less about what I imagine people want to hear and more about what I want to say.  They tell me that’s how it works best.

What else is involved in joy?  I’d like to get back into running, if my shins will cooperate — it just feels free and easy and energizing.  I can do anything when I run.
Most of all, it’s an attitude thing.  I want a list of good questions to ask myself every day: what am I most looking forward to?  What am I most grateful for?  What is the most beautiful thing I’ve seen today?  What surprised me the most?  What can we make today?  What can I help someone with today?  How can I challenge myself today?  How can I share myself today?

What other important questions are there?  What other great resources for cultivating joy?

On wading in: Day 7. Gettin’ it done.

I am a big list-maker.  But as we’ve discussed before, I may not be proficient in the most USEFUL kinds of list-making: the kind that actually spell out your tasks for the day.  Today, in typical over-achiever fashion, my list said this:

Pressure washer (code for: rent one; use it on all external surfaces of the house; borrow a ladder from somewhere to get up high).

Wash windows (code for: all of them.  Inside and out.  We have three floors with TONS of windows).

Edge  beds (we have nearly three-quarters of an acre, and much of it is landscaped with perennial beds…all of which need edging.  NEW edging.  Not clean-up edging).

Mulch beds (see above).

There was something else on it, but I forget what.  Because this list embodies what should be, oh, three or four days worth of work.

But you know what?  Turns out that when you stop worrying about how ridiculously over-ambitious the list is and just DO things, things get done.  It’s startling.

I suppose this is kin to being in the moment…just embracing the work before us without trying to strategize a better way or bundle chores for greater efficiency.  We just DID it.  And loved it.  And we’re amazed by how beautiful the house looks now.

There’s a subtext here about stewardship…one of my chronic self-disappointments is not taking good enough care of the wonderful things I have.  (And Len’s laid-back attitude doesn’t always help, if you see what I mean.)  But it seems that actually DOING things is far easier and less stressful than worrying about getting it done.  (And of course we didn’t do it ALL, but we did a great deal and it feels delicious.)  Who knew?

(I know.  You did.  Whatever, smarty-smarterson.)

Even better was that our post-cleaning, post-mulching, post-mowing trip to the garden for kale for dinner involved a little spell of flower-picking, too, and Ezra wanted to carry them all into the house.  He knows how to take care of their tender stems, he says.  And then we made three bouquets which are gorgeous, and then Ezra said we had to have a Celebration at dinner.  Because of the flowers.  To celebrate the flowers.  So we did.  My heart is smiling all the way down to my toes.

On wading in: Day 5. Quieting the critic.

The problem with having an active, well-educated brain is that you tend to use it more often than you need to.  You tend to think of it as a problem-solver…of ALL problems.  But in my reality, that brain causes a lot of problems, too, and I need to be careful how I use it.  (And when.  Mindfulness practice mostly happens at 4 am here at my house.)

Example: yesterday’s hopes for “going under.”  I enjoyed the day, but I wouldn’t describe it as immersive.  I stepped from stone to stone across the river rather than dive right in.  Which is fine.  I mean, I’d like to have accomplished more, but it was fine then, and it’s fine now.  And that fine-ness, that relaxation with how I’ve been doing, is what enables me to keep moving forward. (And trust me, this is an atypical response.  I must be growing up or something.)

Here’s a more typical pattern (see if you recognize any of this!):

1. Make a vast and impressive list of really critical things to take care of;

2. Spend most of the available time alternately re-organizing the list and eating chocolate on the couch;

3. Accomplish one important thing off the list and get halfway into another;

4. Spend the next three days in an analytical downward spiral over why I never get anything done.

My physical therapist is trying to convince me to use a lacrosse ball to release trigger points in my back.  You stand with your back against a wall with the ball between you and the wall and you roll around, leaning on the ball.  It’s transformative.  It’s painful.  It’s illuminating.  And, apparently, it’s necessary, because you can’t really strengthen muscles that are all tied up in knots.

See where I’m going with this?  A relaxed, forgiving attitude toward failure turns out to be not only not a problem — it’s a positive solution.  That’s right.

And if you get your head around that before I do, let me know.  I’m still working on it.  But I realize it’s true, my BODY knows it’s true, even though (because?) it gravitates against most of the self-evident “truths” we get taught: that lists are made so we can check things off; that our job is to check off as many of them as we can; that discipline is next to godliness (or something); that NOT checking things off constitutes failure; that failure is bad.

Today, instead, I’ll try these on as truths:

1. Lists are made to help us see clearly our commitments and desires.  It’s a vision exercise as well a form of task management.  I need to know which is which.

2. Our job is to live wholly and well, fulfilling our many commitments and desires (listed or unlisted) over time, and that may mean RESTING.

3. Discipline is useful and necessary and it is also a skill we practice and, at times, eschew.  We get to be the deciders.  And we can TRUST ourselves, trust our desires and whims.   Discipline alone is only one avenue toward achievement.

4. A revolving to-do list may indicate failure — but of which kind?  The delicious kind that suggests we had much, much better things to do, which have filled us with glee?  The painful kind that indicates we had to spend our time doing things not on the list (doctor’s visits, soothing troubled children, plumbing)?  The mundane kind that tells us we really don’t WANT to be doing the things on the list, and maybe we’d do well to delegate or let go?  The terrifying kind that might tell us the list is not specific enough, since we’re totally paralyzed and overwhelmed?  The exhilarating kind that means we’re onto something big here and a list will never contain it?

5. Failure is not bad.  It means we’re learning something.

“SEE?” my inner critic gloats.  “You USED me for this, and look how much it helped!”

“Yes,” I say.  “Thank you. Now go lie down.”