When I was in college, I remember standing in a library feeling overwhelmed by its bounty and the realization that there were so many more amazing books in the world than I would ever have time to read. I’ve been thinking a lot about time and how I spend it lately–and even the way we use the word “spend” to refer to our relationship to its passage. It suggests, like the money we also “spend,” that time is a kind of currency, a limited resource, one we should use wisely.
One of the fears that’s dogged me since my first diagnosis is that I will not have enough time to do or see or write all the things I want to in this lifetime. As the library example shows, this concern did not originate with cancer–and anyone who’s ever seen my craft room knows I have enough projects-in-waiting there alone that even if I live another 35 years, there will be things left unfinished. So my recent preoccupation is not the result of having been given any kind of timeline or prediction. I don’t know anymore than the next person when I’ll make my exit, although, statistically, I reluctantly acknowledge there’s a reasonable chance it will be earlier than I’d prefer.
Steve and I spent last weekend visiting my parents in Georgia, and one of the calculations I made about spending time (perhaps you noticed?) was to skip last week’s blog post and devote all my time and energy to enjoying their company. It filled my heart to hug them once again. It’s only the second time we’ve been able to see them since the start of the pandemic, and the first since we’ve all been vaccinated. It was such a joy to visit with them, and also to have a picnic with my brother, sister-in-law, and one of my nephews. My parents have recently settled into a lovely apartment in a retirement community, and this was mine and Steve’s first opportunity to see their new home. They’re still sorting through the objects collected over a lifetime, making decisions about what to keep, what to pass on, and what to let go.
It’s in part my participation in that process that has led me to think about time, and about where value inheres in a life, where it holds. Objects may serve as a window into the past–recalling a memory or experience–as well as providing beauty or use in the present. In some cases, they also project a future: the statue that once stood in the flower garden at my parents’ house was wrapped and transported to our Virginia yard, with an eye toward some landscaping upgrades we’re planning. I also selected some fabrics from my mother’s stash to bring back, with the idea that I’ll have and take time to make something from them. The same is true of the fabric I’d bought long ago that she helped me cut for a quilt: it now holds the memory of our shared experience of cutting, as well as a projected future of several afternoons at the sewing machine.
All of this to say that sorting through objects and making decisions about them is–despite what all the organizing gurus and minimalist advocates tell you–a complicated task. It calls up not only memories and experiences from the past but also raises questions about the future. When the future is already marked by so much uncertainty, that’s a lot to process on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
None of us can know how much time we have remaining. But have I used the time that I’ve been granted wisely? I’d like to think so, though I do have that list of things I still want to do. I’m glad, at least, that the things I fear I might not have time for are in fact things I want to do, not things that others would prioritize for me. I’ve gained a lot of clarity about the difference over the years. Americans live in a toxic productivity culture, and it can be difficult to separate out your own goals from the goals others, who may define success differently, urge you to adopt. Take my academic career as an example. Publication is one of the primary markers of success. I’ve published a few short pieces in writing center studies I’m proud of, but I’m not widely known as a writing center scholar. Though some of my colleagues might see the fact I’ve not published a book in the field as a failure, I never wanted to write such a book. I wanted to create a strong writing center on the local level and focus on building an excellent resource for the tutors and students at my college, and I wanted to focus my writing on creative nonfiction. So that’s how I deliberately distributed my energies. It rankles sometimes that others may judge my career as wanting, but arguably, my blog on navigating cancer has had a far greater impact than any essays I might have penned on tutor education.
I suppose I’ve always been aware that energy, as well as time, is a limited resource. These days, as my energy has been increasingly sapped by treatment and I’ve been frustrated by my body’s inability to keep up with my desires, I’ve taken, some days, to writing a reverse “to do” list. Instead of starting the day with an (inevitably overly aspirational) list of things to do, I make a list at the end of the day of all that I’ve accomplished. I try to be generous in giving myself credit. Once I sit down and reflect, I often find I’ve done more than I realized.
I decided applying that strategy in a larger sense might help me with my worries about not having enough time to do all I still want to do. What if I shifted my focus, and thought instead about all I had already accomplished and experienced? I suspected–partly as a result of toxic productivity culture and having been steeped in others’ ideas of success for so long–I hadn’t given myself enough credit. I suspect that’s true of most of us.
It’s been an eye-opening and reassuring exercise. Just as my daily lists reveal, I’ve done more than I thought. Going back to my writing center work–okay, so I’m not a renowned scholar. But I started a writing center from scratch, and over a period of seven or so years built it up to serve over 500 discrete students in over 1000 tutorials per year, repeatedly. That’s a full quarter of our student body that we engage. I haven’t managed a creative nonfiction book yet, but I wrote and performed a one-woman show to acclaim, created two blogs that have reached thousands of readers, and served as an artist-in-residence with a healing arts program, one of the most meaningful experiences I’ve ever had. And then there’s the stuff-I’d-never-thought-I’d do list: Mountain biking. Rock-climbing. Zip-lining. Add in things like falling in love, laughing with family and friends, adopting and caring for amazing animals. And that’s just a fraction of the full list. All in all, I’ve given this life a damn good whirl.
And I’m not done yet. There are still things I want to write, make, learn, places I want to travel. I have a wonderful life, so I’m greedy for more of it. I’m glad of that, even if it means that, 5 years or 35, I’ll likely leave some things undone. Having aspirations makes me feel alive, makes me want to keep going, even on the tough days.
What would you include on your own list of the experiences and accomplishments you value? If you have a tendency, like I do, to feel defeated by the things you haven’t done yet, making a list offers some perspective. It’s also an excellent exercise in gratitude.
I’ve been known, cat lady that I am, to say “Time spent with cats is never wasted.” I stand by that, of course. But I think that phrase is a good metric, overall, to use when deciding how to prioritize time. If I can say “Time spent _______ is never wasted” and mean it, then time spent doing whatever I’ve filled in the blank with is time spent on something I value.
There will always be laundry, dishes, bills to pay. But the more often we can prioritize spending time on experiences that nourish our selves and do good in the world, the happier we’ll be with our investments.