Five-Acre Almanac: Good Time

Week 12

I’ve been thinking about time this week. This started because Monday was Alaska Day, which meant that I got an extra day added onto my weekend. I spent most of the day alone at home. I wrote in my journal. I spent some time in the garden mulching and picking carrots. I even made a batch of cottonwood salve. Because the house was already clean and I’d already written my blog post for the week and I didn’t have to go to work, the day had enough space in it for me to follow my whims and do whatever I felt like doing. I even let myself imagine what my life would be like if I had more days like that. Would I squander my time if I were suddenly given more of it or would I make good use of it? And what does it mean to make good use of time?

When I was a kid it was pointed out to me more times than I care to remember that I was slow. I didn’t know how to use time wisely. I was the slowest to get the chores done, the slowest to get ready for church on Sunday mornings, the slowest to get my thoughts sorted out before speaking, the slowest one in the bathroom I shared with my older sisters. In general I was the slowest at everything and was reminded of it often. I dawdled. I lollygagged. I putzed around. It hurt to be labeled that way, especially in the context in which it was usually delivered, but it was true.

The truth is that slowness suits me and it’s unfortunate that as a child I was given the message that moving through life in a lower gear was somehow bad. It means that I’ve had to learn how to make peace with this fundamental trait of mine and I’ve had to forgive myself for not being able to fit as many things into a day as some of the people around me. I’ve also had to quiet that inner voice that is always criticizing, always hurrying, always comparing. In a society that measures success in terms of productivity, I’ve had to remember that there’s value in just being.

As part of my practice of spending at least twenty minutes outside each day I’ve been taking the opportunity to sit beside the old birch tree in our yard when I have time in the mornings, or go to the beach on my lunch break, or stand out in the dark for a while and gaze at the stars. Originally my goal was to be outdoors in order to get some fresh air and to add some variety to my days during this time of year when it’s easy to spend so much time inside, but as valuable as the fresh air and change of scenery are, I’m learning that they are greatly enhanced when I place the emphasis of the experience on the being itself. The temptation is to multitask—make phone calls, exercise, write in my journal—anything to make me feel like I’m making good use of my time outside. But multitasking would only diminish the moment. What I need is to be. Where I need to be is outside. At least for a while every day.

I’ve only been deliberate about being outside for a while each day for a couple of weeks, but it’s something I’d be wise to continue. When I’m feeling hurried or overwhelmed I have a still point to reference and that still point comes to me even when I’m not intentionally trying to summon it. There’s also an unexpected sense of intimacy that comes with surrendering my thoughts and ambitions for a few moments to nature. Even when I’m alone I don’t feel alone.

Then there are the gifts that are not necessarily given as much as they are received simply because I’ve put myself in a state to receive them. Like the silence of morning before the neighborhood gets busy. Like the cool and damp air settling on my face at dawn. Like the seal that popped up to say hello a few feet away from me at Bishop’s Beach on my lunch break. Like the three shooting stars I saw the other morning because I happened to be out and looking up at the right time.

The automatic response to these kinds of gifts is gratitude, and the beauty of gratitude is that it has the ability to push aside desire. For a while I’m not thinking about the things I want to get done or the ways I wish society would change or the time I wish I had. I can’t help but think that this is how time is meant to be spent. Free of wanting, deep in gratitude.

A Simple Notion

Back in July I was sitting in a room full of fellow MFA students I’d just barely met when Richard Rodriguez was introduced to us.  He walked slowly to the front of the room to deliver his keynote address.   His appearance alone commanded my attention.  He’s a small man, with dark skin and Native American looking features.  He wore a perfectly ironed, white shirt—something already out of the ordinary in Alaska, and black trousers.   His brown skin against the white was striking.

Before the residency we were required to read Rodriguez’s book, Brown, and discuss it online.  I have to admit, much of his book was lost on me.  I had to look up lots of his references in Wikipedia.  Sometimes I found his prose hard to follow.  Because of my experience with his book I wasn’t sure what to expect from him as a keynote speaker.  When he opened his mouth though, and started talking to us, any preconceived notion I’d had about the man was gone.  In a matter of minutes I was fighting the tears and by the end of his talk I’d long since given up on trying to hold them back.  I was a little embarrassed that I’d lost it that way, in front of these people I’d just met, but when I looked around the room I found I wasn’t alone.   Any devices we’d summoned in order to protect our egos before the residency, any doubts about the validity of our decision to pursue writing, any worries about entering into a career path that comes with absolutely no guarantees—they all were gone, at least for a while.  Richard Rodriguez had gotten to the heart of why we were all there.  He reminded us that “there is only one thing that should interest you as a writer:  What it means to be alive.”

Why did that simple notion cause me to have such a strong emotional reaction?  Well part of it was in his delivery.  He’s an amazing public speaker.  But part of it was how he made the average life out to be a thing of beauty.  So much writing is filled with ostentatious jargon, or it’s sarcastic or it’s shallow.  Richard Rodriguez challenged us as students to write about what is real.  It’s harder than you might imagine.

So then, what does it mean to be alive?

Obviously it means different things to different people.  All I can speak with authority on though, is what it means for me to be alive.  What do I spend my time doing and thinking about?  What consumes me?  What inspires me?  What makes me want to carry on?

There is no doubt that sometimes life is hard.  For example, right now we are going on three weeks without running water.  The inconvenience of not having water is one thing, but the stress of how we’re going to pay for the repair of our well is something altogether different and more daunting.  There’s more.  Sometimes in my family there are hurt feelings and disagreements.  People don’t always behave the way I think they ought to.  The house is never clean enough.  Time is constantly scarce.  There are always chores that nobody else will do.   Recently a close friend was diagnosed with cancer. Sometimes my kids are hurting.  Sometimes I’m hurting.  And the news, it’s full of terrible, hopeless stories of people going through things a thousand times worse than anything in my life.

Is this what it means to be alive?

The answer is yes, and yet there is always another side.  Right now, as Thanksgiving approaches, I’m trying to think about that other side.  I’m reminding myself of the unconditional love I get from my friends and family.  I’m thinking about my husband’s job and how it allows my son and I to get an affordable education.  I’m thinking about my house—it’s modest and it doesn’t insulate very well, but when the woodstove is thumping and it’s cold outside, there’s no place cozier.  I’m thinking about the freedom I feel to express myself.  I know that some of the things I write are hard for my family to read, but the fact that they love me in spite of our religious and political differences gives me courage.  I’m thinking of the view out my window—the very existence of the mountains and glaciers helps put my problems in perspective and the bay reminds me that life is a changing thing.  Mostly though, I’m thinking about how lucky I am just to be here at all.  I get to watch my children grow.  I get to live with the man that I love.  I get to laugh at the funny things and cry a cleansing cry now and again.  It’s worth a lot just to be able to think and breathe and feel.