This is not a dress rehearsal…today is the only guarantee that you get… think of life as a terminal illness, because if you do, you will live it with joy and passion, as it ought to be lived.–Anna Quindlen
For much of the past month, I accomplished little, succumbing to a nasty case of bronchitis that left me hacking and wheezing for nearly a full month. Boredom was my companion after the first several days of my illness. I didn’t feel well enough to do much except read or nap. The regimen of new physio-therapy exercises for a case of Achilles tendonitis quickly fell by the wayside, and classes, social events and appointments were all canceled, rescheduled and canceled again as my illness lingered. Then it changed. Abruptly.
I finally recovered, and eager to resume a life, I’ve quickly jumped on the treadmill again–but not, unfortunately, the one at the gym. It’s the other treadmill, the full of appointments, lists of “to dos”, deadlines and making up for the activities lost during a month of illness. Without realizing it, I’ve begun to feel as if I’m running as fast as I can from one thing to another, but there’s little to show for it at the end of the day.
My online calendar has become an annoyance of sorts. While I’m grateful it issues daily reminders of whatever I’ve planned, committed to, or have to complete, it seems as if it’s gone from being a benign virtual presence in my life to a relentless taskmaster. But it’s no one’s fault but my own. The truth is, I’m over optimistic about my time, and routinely pack too much into my days. When this happens, I veer into negligence: not noticing, not being present and enjoying the little moments in my daily life.
It’s nothing, of course, for the time taken up by a cancer diagnosis and the way in which it dominates every waking moment–even one’s dreams. Time seems interminable as you wait for test results; there’s the time it takes for doctors’ appointments, getting referrals to the necessary specialists, preparing for and recovering from surgeries, chemotherapy, and a host of other demands on your time and energy that extends well beyond one’s initial treatment. Life, as you once knew it, disappears, and your time, it seems, is dominated by the demands of living with cancer. Months pass by; you barely notice anything around you for weeks at a time, until, as Barbara Crooker describes, “in the middle/of a life that’s…complicated…/struggling for balance, juggling time…”
One day you look out the window,
green summer, the next, and the leaves have already fallen,
and a grey sky lowers the horizon…
Each day, we must learn
again how to love, between morning’s quick coffee
and evening’s slow return. Steam from a pot of soup rises,
mixing with the yeasty smell of baking bread.
From: “In the Middle,” In: Radiance, 2005)
Each day we must learn…there’s more to that phrase than we think. Whether we’re choosing to fill our lives with busy-ness or forced to fill it with the details of cancer treatment and recovery, we slip into habits, feelings that we’re constantly “running out of time,” and forgetting to pay more attention to how we use the time we have each day. To step off the treadmill suddenly might send us flying; the landing would be abrupt and hard. If we can learn to slow the speed gradually, however, take a few deep breaths and pay attention to the world around us, the rewards are great. The re-learning, though, takes time and attention.
We are what we repeatedly do, Aristotle once proclaimed. I came across this quote in a 2014 post from Brain Pickings Weekly that explored how long it takes for us to form new habits. If Aristotle is right, and I continue to constantly overbook my life, building internal pressure and stress, do I become that harried, rush-rush, stressed person? Apparently so. William James, one of our first psychologists, agreed, stating: Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to here conduct while in the plastic state. For most of us, our “plasticity” isn’t as great as it was in our youth, but change is still possible, if we’re serious about slowing down, noticing life around us, and paying attention. It takes more than just resolving to say “No” to an overscheduled self.
According to the article I read in Brain Pickings Weekly, it takes more than resolve for a new habit to take root in a person. According to a study conducted at University College in London, it takes 66 days of consistent behavior before a habit is formed, and in cases of well entrenched and complex behaviors like my tendency to constantly overbook my time, it could well take much longer!
I’ve often written about paying attention, the act of being fully present to our outer and inner worlds. It is the writer’s work, yet even though I consciously try to pay attention to life around me, I can get pulled in a dozen different directions before I realize it. I’ve gotten better about this in the past few years, but I often have to remind myself to quiet my mind, notice and be attentive to the gifts life offers. It’s harder than we think to slow down and pay attention when we’re so used to the busy-ness in modern day life.
Ted Kooser, former poet laureate and a cancer survivor, knows even a poet can be distracted by life’s demands and by cancer. Winter Morning Walks: One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison, published in 2001was created from postcards Kooser began writing and sending to his friend as he recovered from cancer surgery and treatment. He described how the book came to be in the preface:
“In the autumn of 1968, during my recovery from surgery and radiation for cancer, I began taking a two-mile walk each morning…hiking in the isolated country roads near where I live…During the previous summer, depressed by my illness, preoccupied by the routines of my treatment, and feeling miserably sorry for myself, I’d all but given up on reading and writing… One morning in November, following my walk, I surprised myself by trying my hand at a poem. Soon I was writing every day…
The poems reveal a touching portrayal of a man recovering from the ravages of illness and treatment, whose spirit and sensibilities were reawakened in his habit of making time for morning walks and once again, noticing the life around him, slowing himself and time down to take pleasure in the beauty of the natural world. Cancer is mentioned only briefly, for example:
…filling my lungs with hope
on this, my granddaughter’s
birthday, her first, and the day
of my quarterly cancer tests.
Instead, Kooser nourishes his spirit and his poetry by slowing down and paying attention to the small moments of beauty and delight in nature. The final poem in the book celebrates the healing that has come with his habit of walking, slowing down, and paying attention, capturing those small moments in poetry. In his final poem in the book, Kooser writes:
How important it must be
that I am alive, and walking,
and that I have written
This morning the sun stood
right at the end of the road
and waited for me.
Kooser’s poetry inspired me to embark on a different habit several years ago. While my days can still become exercises in racing from one thing to the next, I very seldom miss taking time in the early morning to sit in quiet and write, usually beginning with one observation of a single moment in nature. It helps to quiet my mind when life feels lopsided and too demanding, and more importantly, it helps me remember gratitude and the importance of paying attention.
”Where has the time gone? It’s a question any of us may find ourselves much too frequently. Think about what time can offer to us if we truly pay attention, because, as William Stafford reminded us:
Time wants to show you a different country. It’s the one
that your life conceals, the one waiting outside
when curtains are drawn, the one Grandmother hinted at
in her crochet design, the one almost found
over at the edge of the music, after the sermon…
Time offers this gift in its millions of ways,
turning the world, moving the air, calling,
every morning, “Here, take it, it’s yours.”
(From: “The Gift,” by William Stafford, In:The Way It Is, Graywolf Press, 1999)
- Write about time: What are you doing with yours?
- What demands do you encounter daily on your time?
- Explore how time seems to run ahead of you, how you may be squandering it–
- Or how you have learned to slow down and make your time each day more fulfilling or meaningful.
- What practices do you find helpful to making time for yourself?