“If you go slowly enough, six or seven months is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”
Rick Bass, Winter

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Albert Camus

Monday, January 30, 2012

Day 54: The Search for the Perfect Schedule, Part I

First, there's the dream life:

Time enough in a single day to pay attention to matters in the world at large, while living at full throttle doing what we do in our home communities.  Year after year, I search for the key.

A life as full as this shop window in Paris: books, art, prints, thoughts, ideas and inventions that expand to fill a room and encompass the world.

bookseller on the Seine, in Paris
Time to read for pleasure.  And while we're at it, time to read books in other languages.  Which means, of course, having time to become fluent in at least one other language.  Which means, of course, time (and enough income) to travel.

Time to walk every day, and I'm not even counting the workout at the gym or the run or bicycle ride.

photo by Tara Freeman

Time to create.  Inventing every day.  Whether it's literature and art, or new ways to do what we do at work while investing ourselves with our full creativity.

Time not just to smell flowers, but to walk through them and maybe even plant a few.
Time to enjoy at least one lunch out during the week with your best friend, instead of just nibbling a sandwich at the computer, or not eating lunch at all.

Then there's reality:

In the U.S., for those of us who are lucky to be employed--and so many are not, and we're not hearing the true numbers in the news--we work too much.  Most of my colleagues and I log in about 60 hours a week or more.  (Sometimes we can get away with 50 hours, but that's considered a "light week.")  Teaching only takes about 9 hours for some of us, double that for people who teach art or theater or a lot of lab courses, and teaching is the part that's the most fun.  We get to be with the young.  We get to talk about and share our passions with them. The rest is grading papers (rewarding when they are naturally talented or are quick learners and we see that we have taught them a trick or two) and quizzes and exams, meeting in office hours (I love this part too, although often, someone cries), going to meetings, reading to prepare for class (fun when we love what we teach), crafting lectures and discussion group prompts, and so on.  It's all great work, work most of us feel humbled by and lucky to do--but it takes time to do it well.

I have it easy because I don't have small children at home like many of my friends do (including a lovely friend who had twins at 40, has to drive 90 minutes to two hours each way to get to work, but still manages to publish, attend conferences, edit a journal, teach amazing courses, work out, eat healthy dinners with her husband and toddlers, and is one of the most chic, elegant women I know.  And she never complains about how many times she has to wake up in the night.  She just does it.)

And when my colleagues and I are not teaching summer school, sponsoring independent projects, or at a writers conference, we do have a big chunk of the summer off to do our writing and research.  And some of us get sabbaticals every seventh year.   I'm on one this semester.  Please don't hate me.

And we don't work as much as doctors and lawyers and business executives.  We don't work the long days my friend Sandy does.  The at-risk babies in her hospital all have to be seen the day they are born.  She wakes up at 5 AM, contacts the night staff to find out what happened and how she can help them before she comes in at 7 AM, and she can't go home until everyone has been seen.  Sometimes it's 7 PM or later.  She has a hard time finding a minute to use the bathroom.  She has stayed so thin all these years because she never has time to eat.

And if she screws up, a baby could die.

If I give bad literary advice to a student, or I'm off my game in one class, or I forget to bring something I needed for class, the world won't end.

Sandy loves her work, and she's really good at it.  On her days off, she rides her bike through the Ohio River Valley, she runs, she makes quilts, and she is devoted to her family.  These activities and people give her more energy so that she can do well at work, and being good at her work gives her energy that feeds these other activities.

And Sandy is constantly taking courses, acquiring more degrees, and doing community service work.  Another case of: How does she do it?

When I want to feel bad about the 27 papers I have to grade in 24 hours, I think of her, and I think of all the other people I know who work really hard but still have great senses of humor and have created beauty in their lives.

And then there are all the people who work several part-time jobs, and still have no health insurance, for whom eight hours of sleep, let alone a paid vacation, are the stuff of dreams. 

We can think about people who seem to have it made, and we can think about people who are suffering, and we can think about acquaintances who make the great balancing act of work/family/lifestyle all look far easier than it probably is, but in the end, it's just you, and it's just me, trying to figure out how to work within the constraints we have, and to hope that when we're old and we look back on how we spent our days, we won't have too many regrets.

And hence, my lifelong quest continues: How to fit in enough beauty and joy into a demanding career, and not waste a minute whining?

What had to go for me:

1.  TV--we don't have cable.  But, we have Netflix.  There are still dangers there, but I no longer depress myself with channel-surfing.  I'm telling you--it made me exhausted and grumpy, and I won't ever do it again.  And now I have an elliptical machine at home so I can do my workout while I indulge in my latest guilty pleasure from Netflix.

2.  Socializing that I know isn't going to be fun and joy-producing, when I know I'm likely to find myself going home feeling drained, or saying something I'll feel guilty about later.  I try to surround myself with supportive people who have good senses of humor and deep wells of kindness.  Generosity of spirit is key.  We might need to vent about a hard day at work, but there's a difference between people who cheer themselves up by recounting a day's dramas to friends, and people who just need to spew in a poisonous way.  People who are mean-spirited, jealous of others' accomplishments, judgmental--they sap energy instead of buoy us up.   I don't have anyone in my life who fits into this category, but I hear tell they are out there--or at least I've seen versions of them on my guilty pleasure show on Netflix.

3.  Bad food, too much alcohol, bad vibes: overloading on anything that will affect my sleep and sap my energy and strength and optimism.  To have a good life is like athletic training.  If I know my body will suffer later, then I know it will affect my mood, and hence, writing and teaching and everything else.

A lot of artists live more like monks than like wild party animals, but I happen to know, from my travels to monasteries, that monks still like to laugh.

The quest for the perfect schedule continues this week . . .


  1. I feel the same way, setting boundaries, making priorities. and laughing, and finding beauty.

  2. How wonderful to read your blog and see me in it. I was not able to see it sooner because of the busy days at the hospital as you mentioned. I think of your life as an artist/writer and wonder what it would have been like to have chosen that path. But then I think of how I love to help people, especially women and children, how creative it really can be in a living, breathing sort of way and I know that it suits me.

    I love to see you walking in the New York woods, far from the clouds that hung so low for you in Cleveland, writing beautiful words and ideas.