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.

 

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 27. Just about done.

There are days when it’s fine and good to push yourself.  You set goals and try to reach them.  You hope your kids can reach them with you.  Or you make sure everybody else is at daycare because you have Things To Do.

Then there are other days.  Most days, in fact.  The best you can do is hope to keep people happy and try not to rock any really big boats.  I kind of hate those days.  And of course, today was one of them.

It started out well: playing at home, making dinosaur fossils in play dough and generally making a cheerful mess in the kitchen.  Then a friend texted and we went downtown to the big park and playground to hang out with her and her kids.  That, too, was fun.  Lunch/snack at a nearby favorite eatery; much gawking and admiration of the 150′ crane that’s helping put lights onto City Hall; general merriment with the many statues and walkways and columns in our beautiful downtown landscape.  (Jack Johnson’s “Jungle Gym” played in my head the whole time.)

But once naptime came and went, it was survival of the fittest.  And none of us is very fit.  It occurred to me, again (this happens a lot lately) that I/we need a vacation.  And I mean, from all of it.  From the bustle, the worry, the job-hunt, the child-management, the being-managed.  And of course, we’re like the most utterly privileged people in the world, so that makes me feel bad for needing a break.  But still…

What does a break look like?  What does it mean to take time off when you’re a family and there’s no such thing?  How do we find the downtime we so desperately crave?

It occurs to me that things change so unbelievably fast — from tired to wired in the two minutes it takes to drink a quarter-cup of mango juice.  From wired to tired in the one minute it takes to get out of the tub.  And for us grown-ups, too — at 6 pm I’m enjoying a glass of wine, wishing the kids were down so we could watch a movie and catch up with each other and maybe make brownies or something fun.  And by 7, when the kids are actually down, I just want a quiet cup of tea and no conversation at all and a little time with my current novel.

Which brings me to my current dilemma: this blog.  I’m finding the mandate of daily posting surprisingly rewarding, and I’m thrilled at the resourcefulness I’m able to marshall (shut up!  It’s hard doing this every damn day! Of course it’s not Steinbeck!).  But I’m also looking forward to October and the end of the mandate.  Once I’m no longer “required” to post daily, what happens next?  What do you other writers do?  The discipline is useful, but it honestly feels like an imposition when I insist on putting something out there every day.

Anyway, these are the forms of “just about done”: with kids, with parenting, with being awake, with being civil, with writing, with posting, with processing the world in so many ways at once.  It’s just plain hard to be always on.  What do you do to let down, to “be done”?

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 23. Transferable skills of parenting.

This has been a thing of mine for a while, this issue of the transferability of parenting skills.  Folks seem to think that when you “step off the career track” you’re losing ground all the while.  Everyone else speeds on without you.  But people don’t pay enough attention to the vast array of really critical work/life skills that parenting develops.  So I do. Some of them are these:

1. The ability to balance your own interests with those of others.  Nothing short of a screaming toddler or a third night-time waking will so thoroughly test the limits of your own needs  while simultaneously requiring you to manage the needs of someone else. It’s cruel but entirely usual, and frankly, it’s the best training I’ve ever seen for raising consciousness about the depth and dimensions of our various interests.  We have to get creative, and eventually that creativity becomes a habit.  Bam.  Leg up on the non-parenting competition.  (This obviously applies also to less-critical issues like going to the grocery store vs. going to the playground — an even better analogy for the workplace negotiations we will now be able to rock.)

2. The good sense not to ask a question if you don’t care about the answer.  Ezra, can you pick up your toys?  “No.”  Oh.  But you simultaneously develop much keener skill at asking good questions and really hearing their answers.  Malachi, are you ready to go to bed?  No.  That means he wants to nurse more, which often means he’s thirsty.  We’ve addressed that by giving him a sippy cup of water, but he sometimes forgets it’s available…so after a few more minutes of nursing, I can TELL him (not ASK) that it’s time for bed and ask him if he wants some water.  The analogy here, of course, is the workplace environment where employees are invited to think their input matters, whereas in fact it does not.  Brutal.  But good leaders and colleagues (and parents) will ask genuine questions and learn from the answers; good assessment (and parenting) asks smart questions we want answered and then makes meaningful use of those answers.  Win win win win.  Win.

3. The capacity to be patient with, and even fascinated by, processes different from your own.  This is a tough one for me because I’m an efficiency hound and I generally figure that my way is the best way.  (It generally is.  Objective studies have proven this.)  But the very small among us of course have different rules and capacities, and they’ll never get anywhere if we keep doing for them.  So breathing in and out while watching them do what they do has to become a kind of sport.  And it’s actually brilliantly amazing if you build in the room and the time and the safety nets in case of accident.  In the workplace this one is tougher because, well, sometimes there really aren’t as many ways to get a certain task done, and usually you’re dealing with adults who can reasonably be expected to both seek and attain a degree of efficiency.  But still: to be willing to watch, to hand something over, and to have planned enough that you can truly be free with it, is a rare gift to everyone involved.  No other experience teaches that as well as parenting.

4. The inclination to wonder, to question, and to celebrate.  Adult life is dull enough, thanks to our cultural training in what’s expected: sober attitudes, cautious approaches, polite responses.  And these are good.  But what happened to exuberance?  What about those glorious peals of laughter we used to emit?  What about our innate desire to spend hours face-down belly-up to a tide-pool, watching its tiny inhabitants craft their world?  Children remind us of all these things, and they remind us that life is short and sparkling and way more astounding than we can imagine.  To carry that awareness into a work environment is a thing of beauty as well as a boost to productivity.  Example: in a discussion recently about an area non-profit’s many programs, I pointed out that people receiving some services may not be receiving others.  The challenge was raised that it may not want to advertise some services where there are limited resources, like home heating fuel assistance, because we don’t want to build a market where we have no solution.  But “no solution” sounded wrong to me, trained as I am in the vagaries of childhood mentalities.  Surely a deficit of money to give to folks to buy heating oil is not the only way to help a state heat its homes?  What about creating local industries around new, high-efficiency wood-pellet stoves and the manufacture of wood pellets to burn in them?  “No solution” is an adult’s response, and one we’d do well to get past.  We may not SEE a solution; we may not HAVE one yet, but we can keep dreaming and studying and asking and working until we get some better ideas.  Am I right?

I’m sure there will be more of these as I move ahead, since it’s been such a theme for me for so long now, but I just wanted to get these off my chest.  There are a million reasons why time away from careers, devoted to parenting, is in the best interests of everyone and everything, but not enough of us talk about how it makes us better when we go back to work.  You WANT parents stepping back on the track when they feel ready: you want to hire them, to work with them, to live near them.  They bring skills and assets that just don’t have room to blossom in most full-time career-track folks.  Yes, time away is a privilege — and one that can serve all of us.

On wading in: Day 22. The things I’m still avoiding.

It is clear to me that this month has involved a lot more wading into life than usual.  It shows up in the games we play with the kids, the conversations we have together, the increased singing, the greater appreciation of what’s around me, the enhanced interest in our slow-food processes of homegrown goodness.  (Today, for example, we started off with pumpkin-oat waffles; enjoyed a fabulous leftover white-bean-and-buttercup-squash soup for lunch; found a rack of lamb in the downstairs freezer that we roasted with garlic and rosemary, accompanied by sliced broiled delicata squash and kale sauteed with garlic.  It’s a hardship.)

These are the areas of life that soothe me, that fill me up and calm me down.  And I’m glad I’ve learned to love those, to try to live within them, because for much of my life I would have coded such satisfaction as “boring,” not understanding the depth of joy and contentment and the peace that they bring.

But every so often I am reminded that there’s more to me than this.  There are big important issues that I want to work on, skills and gifts that ask me to do more.  I tend, lately, to suppress those, to nod and smile while focusing elsewhere.  It’s the spiritual equivalent of facebooking while your kids are talking.  And it’s one of the things that needs to change.

See, I’ve assumed all along that the Big Important Stuff cannot peaceably coexist with the daily habits of joy.  But it also seems true that perhaps they cannot peaceably coexist without one another.  So now I ask, again, what it looks like to bring them together.

Some aspects of that are already in place: public humanities work that seeks to explore how we can talk civilly with different others across disagreements; other public humanities work that offers novels as a way to understand our relationships to land, culture, and food; board work that tries to open new avenues to social impact instead of just programmatic outcomes.  But there’s more.  I wonder: would more and different kinds of writing be a way in?  A new blog on the horizon, this one focused on the professional concerns I seek to address?  Who knows.

For now, I am glad to have this discipline here and this set of lenses through which to examine the life I lead.  But I also see that I can rise to the risk I set for myself.  Perhaps it’s time to pose a new challenge: go to the heart of what matters in professional life as in personal.  It was my way for fifteen years; there’s no reason it can’t be again. The fact of being a parent makes me a better person, a clearer thinker, a more compassionate human.  And it also helps me see more clearly what matters and what doesn’t.  Instead of feeling pushed out of my professional world (as most of us do, who “step off the track”), perhaps I can just speak my truths wherever I am, whatever they may be.  Scary — but after all, what’s the alternative?  I worry about arriving at the end of this stage of life and feeling that I bottled up too much, that I didn’t participate in conversations I needed.  Fear of rejection, mostly, is what keeps me mute, and fear is what I’m most ready to release.

Sigh.  We’ll see how this shakes out.

On carnage

(And for those of you from war-torn parts of the world, please understand I mean no disrespect when I use the term “carnage” in the context of these very first-world problems…but carnage it is.)

So today I learned that squirrels are nest predators.  They eat (and by eat, I mean kill, disembowel, distribute widely, and eat very little of) baby robins.  Who might be, say, nesting on my pergola under the grapevines.  Right near my deck.  Where I’m finding their dismembered bodies.  The greatest mercy here (to me) is that my sons neither found any of the carnage nor know of it; the greatest mercy I hope for (for the robins) is that they were all killed at once.  I will stop that train of thought right there.  I want you to sleep tonight.

These are the same squirrels, I might add, who in previous years would dig up tulip bulbs in order to take single bite and then leave the damaged, useless remainder right on the bench where I like to sit.  Len was once actually mooned by a squirrel (I confess, he had just been throwing walnuts at it), but that was in Iowa.  These East Coast squirrels just give you the finger and eat everything you care about.  And they all seem to have gone beserk at once: we coexist peacefully for most of the year, and then all of a sudden they kill all the baby birds AND remove a full third of the peaches, still green on the tree.  The pits are now littered across the swing set.

In other news, we have another groundhog.

Son of a #%*(^@#?!.  For real.  Those $&%#&*@$?!!s.

You want to know the really neat thing, though?  I recently turned down two adjunct teaching jobs because it’s increasingly clear that I need room to build my work.  And that’s amazing and freeing and terrifying and beautiful.  More on that later…but I’ll add here that I’ll be starting a support group for the people who are crazy enough to step off the beaten path and believe they can make their own way.  There may be drinking; there will certainly be chocolate.  Join us (online or in person) if you can.