I have two days off to spend exactly as I wish. No shifts at the hospital, no trips to see my beloved, just a weekend with no plans. It’s been months since that last happened, and I hardly know what to do with myself. Now it’s 11:30 on a Saturday morning, and here I am: ramped up on good coffee, listening to the “Avenue Q” soundtrack and pondering just how luxurious it is to be de-calendared, unscheduled, with nary a deadline on the horizon.
I have a list of things I’d like to do this weekend, of course. I want to do a long run tomorrow morning, go to see a movie, slog through a little economics homework, make pesto and bread, maybe even read a real book for a while. But I know I don’t have to do any of those things, and that feels pretty damn good. I don’t regret filling my life with the things that feed my spirit. I don’t mind that these open days come along as infrequently as they do. I’m thriving on my busy schedule, testing my mettle and exploring my limits. I find the energy just keeps coming, fueled by good food and long runs and deep sleep and the love of my tribe. Could it be perimenopause? Global warming? Long-delayed adulthood? Resurging adolescence? I’m not asking any questions or taking any of it for granted, not by a long shot. I’m too grateful for this chance to operate at full capacity for a while: grateful, too, for this lull that lets me take it all in.
I used to be a stay-at-home mom, and a homeschooling one at that. Time meant something different in those days; there was a rhythm that mirrored the biological and pragmatic patterns of everyone in the family. Our days were built around the goals of keeping all parties rested, fed, occupied and amused appropriately, with only the demands of my husband’s job to be considered—which affected the rest of us indirectly, for the most part. There were loose parameters placed on our time, but the hallmark was flexibility, the ability to accommodate and compensate for unanticipated changes in circumstances or need. My husband was able to devote himself to his professional life because there was another adult fully engaged in the details of keeping the family and household humming along smoothly. Time never felt short or limited to me then; it was the element in which life happened, telescoping and contracting as needed.
Fast-forward 15 years and everything has changed. The children are grown and gone, needing a far different kind of loving support. That husband is gone; I no longer see much point in having one at all. I share my home with an adult who is engaged in the details of keeping our household running smoothly while I work. Some tables have been turned, others have shifted beyond recognition, but nothing is the same. My job requires that I spend a good bit of time traveling, so I have gotten used to sleeping in strange beds, finding my way to new places, making conversation with strangers, responding quickly to unexpected situations without appearing flustered. It couldn’t be more different from the placid, mostly-homebound routines of early motherhood. If my 2002 self were somehow able to see the future, she’d have been simultaneously flabbergasted and terrified. The idea of today’s life would have seemed utterly foreign and not a little repugnant to her. Yet here I am, the same person at my core.
I’ve heard my whole life that time speeds up as we get older. The 15 years before 2002 seemed like a lifetime as I lived them; the 15 years after feel like a hiccup, the flip of a page. With attention, I can recapture single moments in my memory, and the growth of the patterns and habits that are the bedrock of how I live today. Although the sense of coherent flow is strong, it is at best a hopeful guess. I do try to pay attention as I go, to slow down the hurtling speed of change, to savor and wring some meaning from the moments as they zip past, but I don’t know that it makes the time pass any more slowly. Part of the reason for this is, I think, that there is far more to pay attention to now. 15 years ago I had made a quarter-lifetime’s fewer mistakes, learned a few easy lessons and hardly any hard ones. I had no idea what shadows lurked under my surface, or what hell would break loose when they were disturbed. My father was still alive, and my place in the universe was unquestioned and unexplored. I was deep in the early stages of adulthood, fulfilling the internalized expectations of others and tasting the first miraculous draughts of seeing my children blossom into people with things to say. I was wrapped in layer upon layer of privilege, unable to imagine lives without the comforts I took entirely for granted. I was a new Quaker, just beginning to see what gifts lay in silent, open waiting upon that still, small voice.
Now, although it is streamlined by habit, there is far more to be borne in mind than there used to be. Am I repeating mistakes? Setting myself up for something I already know I don’t like? Am I missing clues? Overlooking warnings? Being willfully blind and deaf to what I don’t want to see and hear? Am I walking a sustainable line between safety and freedom? Am I ignoring promises I’ve made to myself and others? What am I avoiding? Forgetting? Are all these fluttering questions getting in the way of real thought and action? This seems the central work of these midlife years: the application of our experience to shaping a life of authentic meaning. A decade ago we didn’t have enough experience. A decade hence we may be too set in our ways to uproot our habits and start a new chapter. We have children of varying ages, partnerships of various kinds, careers that span the spectrum of human activity. All of these have a place in crafting the trajectory of the next half of our adult lives, but none is as important as our willingness to spend our time paying attention, even as the speed of life around us continues to accelerate.
Paradoxically, the more attention I pay, the more my life seems to direct itself into channels that justify that attention. As I examine what I do and why I do it, I am—often imperceptibly—drawn to do more of what resonates and less of what doesn’t. As I strive for mindfulness and detachment from specific outcomes, I find that I am increasingly satisfied by the outcomes that present themselves. Though time is short, my enjoyment of it becomes longer with practice. This day of untrammeled wallowing in time needn’t happen often to do its magic. My young self might have missed it entirely; my middle-aged self knows to plunge in headfirst and splash around while I can. Time may be master of us all, but why not dance with it while our footsteps are reasonably sure and our ear is still good? Next time the calendar threatens to drown me, I know how to recreate the glow of today, and that just might make all the difference.
©Mary Braden 2016