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Time, time, time and its worth
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Days here have a different rhythm. Perhaps it’s because they are spent on foot, backpack strapped on, the work of getting from here to there apparent; perhaps because the daylight hours are shorter; perhaps because I have so few friends to fill them up with; perhaps because everyone I know back home is asleep until sometime in the afternoon, so the mornings feel sacred and quiet and sort of lonesome, almost like I’ve woken at 4am to write. Perhaps simply because: the school day is blessedly, blessedly long.
For the last decade, my days have been cut off sometime midday. Like so many, many mothers, I have attempted to fit in part-time and then pretty close to full-time work in the hours of 8am to just after lunch (and many, many evenings and weekends). By the time we left LA, I was sort of…toast? My back had slowed everything to a halt, probably because I was so overwhelmed with all the pressing parts of being an adult and a parent, and I couldn’t hold onto a thought for longer than a few minutes.
It is no surprise that my dominant genre these last many pandemic years has been the short essay. It was truly all my mind could wrap itself around. I can get from A to B in an hour or two. Forget counting on more time, or deeper thoughts, or more complex storylines. Just get it done. Get the thought down before it evaporates, or gets sucked into a pile of laundry or a grocery list or a text from a friend in crisis or my boss needing to talk about next year’s workshops or a child home from school because there’s a global pandemic and guess what she’s not going back for over a year and now you’re her only playmate.
I’ve been joking that when my husband gets an actual, you know, prestigious fellowship, I get the Husband Fellowship, which is basically just as good without the prestige, money, or loads (truly, loads) of paperwork, and here I am, ten years since my last Husband Fellowship (then the Boyfriend Fellowship), getting more time to dive deep into a longer project. It’s the reward I get for getting through being the primary parent for a decade or something? The kid is in school from 8:20 to 4:20 (!); lunch and dinner are provided by the college. Everything is within a 5-20 minute walk. Yes, it is — I won’t lie, and I’m sorry? — heavenly.
It is, don’t worry, short-lived and not all heavenly. (Hanging out with basically no one other than your family again is perhaps not totally sane?) But it has made me think so much about how little time I have allowed myself, how little I have prized my own mind and my own ambitions; how easily, after the birth of my daughter, I folded them up and tucked them away into a little folder titled “Later” or “Maybe Not At All” or “Can’t Quite Deal.” How I have, instead, congratulated myself on all I’ve built these last few years — classes and community, newsletters, essays, of which I am truly so proud — and not thought: what would actually happen if you had, you know, long stretches of time to write and think and dream and invent? If you weren’t constantly in a mad dash from one thing to the next?
As my kid veers sort of maniacally into preteen-dom, I will say that I regret none of the decisions I’ve made with my time. I have wanted to pick her up after school, to spend afternoons getting ice cream and library books and schlepping her to dance and the doctor; I’ve wanted to be the person with whom she has spent so much of her life that she can come to me with anything, especially as she moves further and further away from me. If a sacrifice had to be made — and it always always does — I am happy that for the last ten years, it’s been made in the direction of her, for the benefit of our relationship. I feel honoured that the foundation is set. (I say this, of course, knowing there are myriad ways to mother and to parent, so this is not a judgement on how anyone else has done it! This is just what’s worked for us.)
And yet. Now, with so many hours that are mine alone, I am struck by what an insane, exhausting puzzle it has all been (and this is with one child); how much of myself has been sort of cut short. And I’m wondering about how I might hold onto some of the spaciousness of this time when we return to a life that will, invariably, fill up in a chaotic flash: driving to and from school and after-school activities, much earlier pickups, cooking, cleaning, shopping, meal planning, dance class, friends (I miss friends!), faculty meetings, taking care of my body, etc. etc. etc.
When the deeper work of being a writer is so often unpaid and not guaranteed (you can work on a book for years that comes to “nothing”), it is hard to feel justified in carving out the necessary time to get it done, but I see now — now that I have it for this short stint — that it is not a luxury at all, but a necessity. I do not know how a person writes a novel or a memoir in tiny spurts — and meanwhile, I say this having written almost everything I’ve ever written that way, but the “luxury” of letting your mind stretch out is, it turns out, vital; to leave the world of do-we-have-enough-milk and what’s-the-weekend-plan and should-we-buy-more-socks for the ephemeral one of the mind and the imagination. For years, I’ve not allowed myself to go deep enough to even imagine it. But now that I have this time, I don’t know quite how I’ve written anything without it.
Look: plenty is written in half-hour stints. Toni Morrison famously wrote in the hours before her kids were up and before going to her editorial job at Random House; Aimee Bender worked in her closet for two hours a day (pre-children). Other people choose one full day a week, or weekends here and there. Lots of people do it over lunch, at night, in the car during soccer practice. When we return, I, too, will work that way. It is how I’ve always done it.
But — and I do have a point here — what would happen if we demanded more? Of ourselves, our partners, our kids? What if, every few months, I said: I’m off! And I turned everything off and returned to myself, to the world I am building, to the unknown, to the pleasure of just making something? What if?
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