“Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time.”
This is borrowed from the wise writer and podcaster Debbie Millman, and as if to further emphasize the point, this essay has stayed in gestation for a long while. Not that it’s any great strokes, but there is a good bit here I’ve been nibbling on. To be honest, it’s been more of a teeth gnashing that I don’t have veto power over the whole time-takes-time thing.
My impatience probably looks like yours, like many people’s. It’s applied in a non-discriminatory, blanketing fashion over everything from fitness to personal development and career goals to traffic. And like worry, it’s a totally ineffective emotion. I suspect that even when I press both palms flat against the dashboard, lock my elbows, lean forward and push from the passenger seat, it doesn’t make my husband drive any faster.
I yearn and seek and pine and push forward—and find yielding and waiting impossibly hard. Sometimes it’s the pushing forward that is called for, or to borrow from a friend, “Sometimes opportunity looks a lot like work.” My challenge is – I haven’t muscled up on learning when and where to downshift.
And – annoyingly for hoppy eager planner rabbits like me, knowing when to gear-shift and clocking the emergence of something worthwhile can sometimes only be viewed from the rearview mirror. When I moved back to my hometown in Shreveport, La., it was for a 2-3 year “tour of duty” for my husband’s career and to enjoy a slower, cheaper life while our kids were tiny. Coming to terms with grief over my parents, moving closer to a stronger marriage and bringing in a third child quickly moved onto the agenda, although they are line items that don’t show up on my resume and each was brought about by enough precipitating hardship that had I had a crystal ball I would’ve never put a toe across the Louisiana state line again. Just to be safe. Thankfully, the rear view mirror is sometimes the best one.
But it’s not that anything worthwhile takes any random, mindless stretch of time, right? Like, just wait around and watch your favorite “stories” on TV until something brilliant drops in your lap. That’s the sort of banal thinking that gets cross stitched and hung in our great aunt’s bathroom, God bless her. No, I’ve been thinking about how, for me anyway, some portion of the terrain must be quality time. That is, in the great arm’s length of a valley that brings about something worthwhile, that births something whole and lovely and new, there must be time and some of that time must be time in real connection with your own self.
I think this time can look like healing, like an endlessly long and desperate night of the soul, like silence, like contemplation, like being sick under your grandmother’s quilt while everyone is out playing in the sunshine, like taking a “forest bath” in nature, like sitting still and trying to listen and open. But essentially, it is time spent enlarging ourselves by going within.
In my life, it is where I stumble onto or create these quality pockets of communion time that I find meaning or move closer to my own truths. And often, inspiration for finding these times can be surprising and emerge from the ordinary. My friend J and I have been having a year-long conversation about how we move closer towards, and then through, grief. Not just the loss of someone, but the loss of part of yourself, a time or an attachment. We recently went to our local Dios De Las Muertos festival, a colorful, bright Day of the Dead festival with sugar skulls and paper roses and shrines that made us stop and gawk. There were shrines for everyone from “mama” to a beloved cat to Prince lining the park. And, unlike the sad-eyed saints with somber thin candles in the shrines of my Roman Catholic youth, these shrines featured funny pictures, magazine cutouts, Mountain Dew, movie tickets, a bag of Zapps potato chips – anything that was the whimsied or serious favorite of the person gone. Although preference seemed to be for the whimsy. They were raucous and joyous and funny! The kind of thing you might create on your best friend’s locker in high school just to embarrass her on her birthday.
I’d had on my mind a post I had seen earlier that day by a dear friend struggling on the one-year anniversary of her mother’s death, asking how do we all process grief? The anguish in the simplicity of her question caught my heart. Maybe here is a place to create intentional time, quality time by way of ritual, however borrowed. How might making a shrine for my own mom – as bright and playful as she was, with a Baby Ruth inside and those horrible butterscotch cookies she loved – lighten my own grief and bring her more into my daily life?
I need contemplative time for inspiration and meaning, but the “making” of life is walked out in millimeters every day. Most of the time, it feels and looks to me like nothing is happening or I’m just playing out a long repeated loop of putting away the groceries, responding to emails and calls and filling up the dog’s dishes. But the tedium of the days is the seedbed for creation and transformation.
Parenthood is rich with both the laundry and the heart swells. And it seems I rarely get both in equal share half the time. This is where the long view is important, especially when motherhood feels fundamentally at odds with creativity and sustained thought in real time.
But we take it as it comes, right? Whenever it comes. As Annie Dillard famously said, “how we spend our days is how we spend our lives.”
Last weekend, I went out to a friend’s place in the country for a Halloween hayride. The weather was beautiful and I hadn’t seen many friends in a while, but all I could manage to take in was the bonfire reflected my friends’ faces. There were too many kids running around us and needing food and attention (especially the highly verbal 40-pound one on my hip) to do any more than that. No real ability for conversation, to think through a few looming issues or dig into a big how-are-you-really conversation. We put hot dogs on sharpened sticks over the fire while the kids played chase in the pasture, bumping into our legs as base, and did our best to keep the beers and Sprites from knocking over while also not losing the wieners to the fire. All of which was challenge enough without attempting conversation. The older kids swung their legs over the edge of the porch and a few climbed a huge oak tree, creating a gauntlet of long tween legs like fringe along the short path to the table with the ketchup and Fritos. We gave each other little shoulder squeezes and hugs between the fray, placeholders on the heart. With my physical being focused on the kids and the fire, but my mind free, I watched these people I’ve come to love circling the orange glow of the bonfire, with their struggles both so near my own and so uniquely theirs. The stress of small children, the strains of marriage, the job uncertainty, the worries around possible moves. All this bound up along with the light and the October air, and as we all fed whatever children were near, whoever they belonged to, and kept the little ones away from the road, my heart nearly burst with love for these people who I can’t finish a conversation with.
After the hayride through the cemetery, my daughter, hopped off the tractor and said offhand – in efforts to impress her friends with how not scared she had been – “I want my money back!” I took her hand, “It was free. More than free – it was a gift.”
It’s all a gift – all free and unbidden, unsolicited, undeserved. And we take it where we can.
Right now I am picking up the gifts by living in the long arc of a mountain valley – domestically frenetic, intellectually and creatively hamstrung or slowed, pastured, rolling, lovely, tedious, and, for me, personally fraught with much interior work. I don’t know yet what meaningful thing is being born with this effort, but I am trying to keep my rabbit paws off the gear-shift to give it time, I am creating the pockets for silence and shrine making, I am wading through the granular details of the days.
I think in the time-takes-time equation, it’s one part quality, intentional time, one part quotidian daily tedious time, all multiplied by something far longer than I would like…but hopefully yielding something far greater than I can foretell.