Everything Takes as Long as It Takes

“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. 

  1. 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?

Expanding Responsibilities 

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.

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24 thoughts on “Everything Takes as Long as It Takes

  1. Fabulous, Amy. I like the way you examine subjects from different angles.
    I think about “time” quite a lot, in the sense that I find it hard to believe that I’m as old as I am. The grains of sand are winding down. That’s life! Indeed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad, Tom, that this post gave you what you needed in the moment. Also, wonderful to see you at the reunion. I was only sorry that we got to talk so briefly. Safe travels home, friend.

      Like

  2. I love this, Amy! I, too, was fortunate to have a carefree childhood with no time constraints. My experience as a young mom was similar, also. Because it was a very busy time, there wasn’t the angst or the luxury of deciding the best way to “spend” the hours. But now, I’m guilty of watching the clock and stressing about time. Thank you for reminding me that, “everything takes as long as it takes!”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Cindy, for your kind words. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stopped to remind myself “Calm down. Everything takes as long as it takes,” since I wrote this post. I think most of us need the “chill” mantra.

      Like

  3. I think your article makes a good point in that people can’t really enjoy their time unless they are absorbed in an activity, not distracted by a zillion bits of modern life. Maybe schools should focus more on helping students learn their passions rather than dividing their school time into 50 minute segments that distract and stress students. And then there’s the whole subject of cell phones … aieeeee. I’m really glad we didn’t have smart phones when I was a kid!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was in NYC for the weekend and I can’t tell you how many people I saw, absorbed in their smartphones, heading straight into traffic! True focus, being exactly where you are, turns out not just to be a sanity-saving idea, but a life-saving one, too. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

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    1. Glad you found this post useful, Clarissa. People frequently mention mobile phones as a “disruptive” presence to being present. I tend to leave my phone buried amid a pile of papers on my desk. For me, e-mail is one of the great culprits. I get about 400-500 emails a day begging me to save the world from one scourge or another–all worthy of attention, but just trying to manage this Inbox onslaught constantly takes me away from focusing on the task at hand. There literally aren’t enough hours in the day, so I am working on reminding myself to do what I can (goes for Twitter and FB, too), and when I start to stress about time flying, to remember that I cannot save the world single-handedly and accept my human limits.

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  4. I always feel as if I don’t have enough time. My kids and I recently talked about time, because my 13 year old said summer goes so fast now compared to when he was 8. I told him it was his perception, and the way we think of time. A day is a day-24 hours-and we have to do what we can with that time. I love your analysis of the, “I’m not writing right now.” I say that too much and let too many other things get in the way of my dream. It’s time to stop that. Thanks for this thought provoking post, Amy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Lauren, for your kind words. One of the things I really cherished when my kids were growing up was the summer vacation from their school schedules and homework and after-school activities. There are lots of jokes about how parents brief a sigh of relief when the school year starts up again, but I always felt wistful about it. The summers were so lovely.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Kyrian for your kind words. If you remember roller skates that you attached to your shoes and tightened with a key, I think we are definitely in the same demographic. Mimeograph machines?

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I like how you’ve broken down our perception of time – though I can also say that I think the timeline has moved up for my generation. I remember lazy days as a kid and not being worried about it. I think the advent of Facebook has added a second layer of time crunch – besides the time people spend on it , we see what everyone else is “accomplishing” and wondering why we can’t match that.

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  6. I came across your blog when looking for a picture about a “frustrated writer.” And then I stayed and read. You’ve made my day. I actually exhaled for the first time today after reading this. Time is time. Things take as long as they take. No truer words were every spoken Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So glad you made your way here, Eva. And very happy to hear that the post helped you to breathe easier. Times change. Our world is in high gear. But people can only go so fast. And to try for more is to risk doing harm to ourselves. Keep breathing.

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