“A happy man is too satisfied with the present to dwell too much on the future.” Albert Einstein
Note jotted to self on the edge of a cryptic crossword: One day you’re 30; the next, you’re 60, and yet 10 minutes can seem like forever.
Time. The thing that waits for no man. The tyrant that keeps on ticking, ticking, ticking into the future. A specter that haunts, often causing us to feel when we’re doing X, we really should be doing Y.
Case in point: Being a writer, I have a zillion connections to other writers out there. Mostly what I hear falls into one of three camps.
- I’m not writing right now.
2) I’m not writing enough right now.
3) I’m writing 2,000 words a day right now, but the rest of my life is going right down the toilet.
These may read like mere declarative sentences. Trust me, they are not. Each one is packed with enough angst to blow the pin right out of a grenade. What’s missing from these words, but explosively present is: Time.
Let’s take another look at these statements when we give voice to the elephant in the room.
1) I’m not writing right now. It worries me that so much time is going by without my writing. How much more of my life will I waste not writing?
2) I’m not writing enough right now. I write too slowly. Stephen King writes like 200 pages a day. I’ll be 90 when this book is done.
3) I’m writing ten pages a day right now, but the rest of my life is going right down the toilet. I don’t have time to write and have a family. What am I going to do with the kids? The dog? We can’t live on take-out forever. Oh god, I missed the car payment again. And I don’t have friends anymore. No time.
Well, other than the fact that Stephen King writes six pages a day, not 200, the stress about time expressed here is very real. I hear it often from others. I feel it every day myself.
Tick, tick, tick. Time is fleeting. Tempus Fugit—there it goes!
In the Age Before Time
When I was a kid, in that golden era after the invention of the wheel and before the advent of Facebook, my friends and I used to spend whole afternoons in the garage looking for the little key that tightened our roller skates. If we found it before dinner and got time to actually skate, that was a bonus. We were together, hanging out. What more mattered?
Sometimes we rode our bikes around all day, just seeing what was up at our regular haunts: the school playground, the little park six blocks over, the drugstore, the ravine. We weren’t disappointed by what we found—usually nothing. We were just cycling through our world, enjoying the freedom of independence.
Like most kids, I had a few chores. Setting the dinner table. Cleaning my room. I didn’t enjoy them, but I didn’t dread them. My mom would call, “Time to set the table,” and I’d have to put down the book I was engrossed in, or pack up the game I’d been playing with a friend, and go slap down those knives, forks, and spoons. But I never watched the clock. I never thought, “Oh crap, I’ve just blown ten minutes setting the table.” And I certainly never thought about those tasks when I wasn’t doing them. I just did them and resumed what I’d been doing or started something new.
Just taking things as they come—when does that change?
Does time start to feel like the enemy when our responsibilities expand beyond laying out the flatware?
I carried a full load of courses throughout college and worked 30 hours a week, but I don’t recall ever feeling harried by the clock. I didn’t even own a watch. When I was at work at the Student Union Grill, I was at work, chatting with customers as I flipped their burgers and fried their fries. When I was in class, I was in class, talking literature and history, psychology and feminist philosophy, enjoying making connections among the zillions of new ideas bombarding my brain. If I had a paper due, I started in around midnight and worked through the wee hours until I handed it in at class the next day. No biggie. Occasionally, I slept. I didn’t count the hours.
There’s a cartoon from those days. A friend clipped it for me. “This is exactly you,” she said.
But really, it was all of us. I never heard anyone angst about time. There was a healthy sense of We’re here to explore life. We worked. We played. Wherever we were, we were there.
Out in the “Real World”
Entering the REAL WORLD: Is that when time lays a stranglehold on us?
I remember going for my first big-girl job interview. You know, the one where you suit up and park your personality in neutral. The interviewer began with this zinger: Where do you see yourself in five years?
Five years? I didn’t “see” myself at the end of next week. I knew I was a writer. I knew I wanted to always be writing. But I had no timeline for my dreams.
I also knew the interviewer expected me to detail how I planned to climb some ladder I hadn’t constructed and didn’t care about. So, I gave him some garbled gab about ambitions, probably cobbled together from TV shows and articles I’d read about bright young things “going places.” Then I left. Quickly.
After that, I went out west for a while, where I discovered I need deciduous trees and seasons. Then, I came back east for grad school, which I left two years later after some serious #MeToo harassment from a prof, in a time when women were still being advised to “suck it up.” I wrote my first novel. None of this felt like wasting time.
At my second “real world” interview, for an editor’s job, the company focused on my skill set and portfolio—in short, my ability to do the work—and didn’t ask ridiculous questions. (Wherever you see yourself in five years, I can almost guarantee that’s not where you’ll be.) I got that job, and the job came with strict deadlines. I was responsible for planning, sourcing, and writing a monthly publication.
Surely, I must have felt the pressure then—time as an anvil waiting to drop on my head, like Wile E. Coyote in a Road Runner cartoon.
Not really. When I was watching Late Night with David Letterman in, say, March, I never worried that I wouldn’t make deadline on the April issue. When the company started sending me on the road to give seminars for our client subscribers, I didn’t panic about finding the extra hours to prepare a presentation. I was psyched about the travel, meeting new people, and staying at legendary hotels like The Palmer House in Chicago.
Bring it on. Everything was an adventure.
Of course I didn’t have kids yet. Is it family responsibilities that send us into a tailspin, time spiraling out of control like a plane losing fuel fast?
Parenthood: Who Has Time to Think About Time?
I don’t think there are many parents out there who would argue that having kids is the busiest thing you’ll ever do. There’s something going every minute, and that’s on a slow day. Often, it’s a three-ring circus. You’re making dinner and baking cupcakes for the school fundraiser while helping with homework and maybe adding the finishing touches to a Halloween costume. I recall the blissful peace of doing my work (I was a copyeditor for Elsevier at the time) at the kitchen table after the kids had gone to bed.
Actually, kids keep you very much in the present. Their needs are of the immediate kind, rising in one moment, taken care of in the next. I never had time to worry about time. I took care of them, played with them, ferried them to friends and activities. Once they were in school, I went back to school, too, and became a teacher. By the time I had a classroom, the kids were able to do their own laundry and clean their shared bath. We did takeout one night a week. Everything still felt manageable. When I was doing one thing, I wasn’t tortured by the feeling I should be doing something else. That would come later.
What the Hell is Time Anyway?
It seems like a good moment to pause here and consider the nature of this beast we call Time. A brief Google search informs me that:
“Time is a very curious thing. Ask anyone on the street if they know what time is. They are sure to answer yes. But then, ask them to explain it to you and they will almost certainly be at a loss for words.” (David Lewis Anderson)
“The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.” (Albert Einstein)
“Time is the measurable unit of movement concerning a before and an after.” (Physica IV, 11, 219, b1)
Now that we’ve got that all cleared up, I’d like to offer a little perspective here.
The Earth came into being a tad over 4.5 billion years ago. Geologically violent in its infancy, and constantly bombarded by meteorites, it took 2 billion years for things to settle down and the continents we know to materialize. Latecomers to the party, it would take another 2,499,800,000 years for us to show up, and then we took our sweet time—another 145,000 years of it—to invent the wheel.
Things take time. Some things take massive amounts of time. Even on our puny human scale, it takes a long time to become a virtuoso at the violin, write a book, lose 20 pounds. We need to find a way to not only accept that, but to embrace it, enjoy the journey, and stop looking over our shoulder at all the things we haven’t done, aren’t doing, still have to do. The hour we fuss and worry that we should be doing X while we’re doing Y is an hour we won’t get back again.
For my birthday last month, my husband gave me a writing retreat. I booked four days at a hotel in the Berkshires, packed my laptop plus my current read, and left home. I set no goals—word count, number of pages. I just wrote. Not only was the time highly productive, it was tremendously relaxing. The real gift, I discovered, was not feeling like there was anything else I should be doing. I was where I was.
An Hour is an Hour
The hour we had as a child is the same hour we have now. It has neither expanded nor shrunk. So the difference in our perception—this perpetual sense of being squeezed—must lie in our expectations.
Maybe it’s not our life stage or chronological age that makes us feel we should be moving through everything at lightning speed, but the age we live in.
Less than a hundred years ago, the journals kept by farmers recount a day’s events as what happened in the morning, the afternoon, the evening. They had much to do and few “labor-saving” tools to help with the load. But they just plowed or planted or harvested as the seasons dictated and understood that when night came, the workday was over. They had to accept their limitations.
And there’s no evidence in their accounts that they fretted about what they weren’t getting done. No Oh god, I’m out here hoeing and I should be churning butter. But how am I ever going to get the peaches canned if I churn the butter? They went with the rhythm of the year—a much larger, more forgiving time unit.
I grew up in a more exacting age. We moved through life by the hours. The school day started at 8:30. We went home for lunch at 12:15 and had to be back at our desks by 1:00. Bonanza was on Sunday nights at 9:00, and the library closed promptly at 5:00.
My children grew up with the nanosecond. Their sense of timecrunch is manifest in the way they watch a movie—while texting, Facebooking, chugging down dinner, and prepping for a work conference call.
But we are still just people, and an hour is still an hour. If we try to cram three hours of to-do stuff into every hour, then we’ll always fail. If we insist on doing it all perfectly, we’ll go flaming nuts.
Very likely, there isn’t time to do everything. But doing everything is a mad goal anyway. So, forget about covering all those bases. Ignore the benchmarks “everyone else” is measuring themselves against. Stop watching the clock. Everything takes as long as it takes. Perhaps, fretting about time is the only true waste of it.
A passage from a childhood book about life in the 1860s sticks with me. The 11-year-old heroine goes to talk something over with her father. He’s repairing a clock. Scattered over his work table are springs and cogs and levers. “He was absorbed in the task at hand.”
The word on the street is that when you’re dead, you’re dead a long time.
Time is not the enemy. Time is life. It’s all we’ve got.