The gift of time
“The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.”
- Henry David Thoreau
“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day I can hear her breathing.”
- Arundhati Roy
In March, after San Francisco’s stay-at-home order was extended and I’d received various emails about cancelled events, closed businesses, and travel restrictions, I opened our family’s shared Google calendar and began deleting things. Wednesday night swim classes for Gigi, gone. Saturday soccer games for Ev, gone. Our spring break trip to Maui, our visit from Kaite and fam, our summer trip to New Hampshire: gone, gone, gone. The calendar, once full, was suddenly an empty expanse, unblemished by activities and commitments. Part of me was a little giddy: Look at all this free time! And the next moment, panicked: Look at all this free time…
In Zadie Smith’s new book Intimations, written during and about Coronavirus and lockdown, she says in an essay called “Something to Do”:
“If you make things, if you are an ‘artist’ of whatever stripe, at some point you will be asked--or may ask yourself-- ‘why’ you act, sculpt, paint, whatever…[No explanation] sees fit to mention the surest motivation I know, the one I feel deepest within myself, and which, when all is said, done, stripped away--as it is at the moment--seems to be at the truth of the matter for a lot of people, to wit: it’s something to do.”
She goes on to observe that now, in quarantine, we are all left with what she describes as “life served neat,” empty days and hours where we have to do something. So we assemble 1,000 piece puzzles, we rewatch the entirety of What We Do In The Shadows for the third or fourth time, we make croissants from scratch. This of course doesn’t fully apply to the experience of the working parents who are now faced with second simultaneous full-time jobs as stay-at-home personal assistants to our kids, but I recognize that there is an element of time-filling that most of us must contend with in a new way. Every night at home, and every weekend too. Nowhere to go but here.
That’s one kind of free time, the kind in which we have no agency, nothingness forced upon us because so many things have been taken away. But I’m simultaneously experiencing a different and very welcome kind of free time because of sabbatical. In my first newsletter I wrote that this sabbatical was one of the best gifts I will ever receive. Spencer read that line and suggested I elaborate, but at the time I thought it was self-explanatory. Aren’t we all always wishing for more time? Who doesn’t dream of days with the freedom to do whatever they want?
This kind of free time is unfortunately (infuriatingly) a luxury that is often only afforded to the very rich. I’m reminded of this episode of Who? Weekly where co-host Bobby recounts the morning routine of Wholebrity Julianne Hough, which begins with lemon water (of course), a lot of “breath work,” and 20 minutes of meditation, all before she even rolls out of bed. (It’s honestly wild and if you want you can watch here). Bobby’s co-host Lindsay’s reply: “Must be nice!” And you know what: It is nice! I know it’s nice because I currently have a little taste of that freedom myself. Last week I shared my own routine, an account of how I spend my newfound free time: morning pages (30 minutes), exercise (30-45 minutes), meditation (10 minutes). I have never in my life dedicated this much time in my day to my own inner life or physical and mental health. It feels amazing. It feels like something everyone should get to do.
I have about two weeks left of sabbatical, and so the question of how to hold on to some of this magic once I re-enter the real world is looming large in my mind. And my primary, perhaps childish, impulse is to ask: Why is this the real world? Our lives have been made so small by what has long been considered normal*: an eight-plus hour workday, a long commute, the reduction of pleasure and joy to a few off hours here and there, the fetishization of productivity, capitalist definitions of ambition and success.
Before my sabbatical, spending my time doing things like meditating, drawing, or writing for no reason other than I enjoy doing it seemed unrealistic if not impossible. I simply didn’t have the time. But you know what else seems unrealistic and impossible? Lots of things, big and small, that have come to pass in the last six months. Shutting down the country, closing schools, clearing our personal calendars of all social obligations, eliminating commutes and physical offices, opening up major city streets to pedestrians as we’ve done for Slow Streets in San Francisco. In this interview with Jia Tolentino, she rattles off a list of things that the pandemic has helped her learn, ending with the observation that “the way we live is not inevitable at all.” This line has been ringing in my ears since I read it. The way we live is not inevitable at all. If Coronavirus has shown us anything it is that our lives, our society, and our culture can be redesigned. If my sabbatical has shown me anything, it’s that in an ideal world, it should be.
*And here I want to recognize that this is only one very upper-middle-class U.S.-centric experience of work/life balance. That I can even interrogate the structure of my workday and complain about a 40-hour work week (working at a job I like and where I feel valued, no less!) is 100% a luxury and a privilege, especially right now when so many are jobless or job insecure. I guess the question I’m asking is whether this system, even in its best iteration (which it feels like I have) should be good enough for anyone.
THE WEEK IN WORK
I caught up on Week 5 of The Artist’s Way which is all about abundance and kept up with morning pages every day.
For my Artist’s Date I went to the de Young Museum, which reopened this week. I was so grateful to be there. After looking through the galleries I sat by the lily pond outside in the sun and remembered going to museums alone in other countries in the Beforetimes and felt like I was on vacation.
MAY I RECOMMEND
When I think about carving out time for ourselves amidst the demands of normal life I think about this extremely good comic by Carolita Johnson.
I’ve been listening to a lot of Enya on Spotify and I will not apologize! It is very soothing, and not distracting for when I’m writing or trying to concentrate.
For a while during quarantine I was getting adventurous in the kitchen as a way to keep things interesting while preparing meal after meal after meal. Now my enthusiasm for experimentation has waned a bit, so I’m returning to old stand-bys like these simple and delicious meatballs from Julia Turshen. Kid friendly, easy, yum yum. (They are even a little better in my opinion with half pork and half turkey but the original is also very delicious.)
This is another piece, like the Jia interview, that has been rattling around in my head, particularly this quote about the myth of the meritocracy:
“I used to believe that other people had it more together than me, and that’s why they were in charge of big important things like justice and leadership and owning companies. I thought they had all studied harder than me, earned the respect of their peers, and had a passion for what they did that made them suitable to be in charge. I’m laughing!”
I’m laughing! And I’m crying! 2020, baby!
Thanks for reading! Do you have thoughts about time, capitalism, meatballs, Enya, or anything else? I really do love hearing from you! Reply to this email and let me know.