In science that day, Dr. Pavlica had mentioned the speed of light, and I'd heard "the speed of life." While he was going on about E = mc2 , I was thinking again about how crazy it is that life just speeds along, sunrise after sunrise, season after season. Whether you're totally miserable or insanely happy, the months keep coming, crashing like waves. There are no do-overs, no backsies, and bad stuff happens. But then I thought, Wait. Good stuff happens too. And sometimes, even a kiss can slow time down. — Carol Weston, Speed of Life
THE TIME PARADOX
I look upon time as no more than an idea. —Mary Oliver, "When Death Comes"
One July Friday not long ago, I woke in a hotel room in the little town of Bar Harbor, Maine. My husband, Michael, and I had originally planned to go on a work trip for him that weekend, and so my mother and aunt had come to watch our four small children. Then we found out he didn't have to go. We seized the opportunity to take a grown-ups-only hiking trip in Acadia National Park. I took the last flight from Philadelphia on Thursday night, and drove through a midnight storm from Bangor to the coast. Michael, coming from Seattle, planned to meet me there around lunch the next day.
So on Friday morning, I was by myself. I drifted awake, put on my running clothes, and took off to explore. It was a gorgeous summer morning. The newly risen sun had washed away all traces of rain and fog from the night before. I ran in the direction of the ocean, and entered the town proper as Bar Harbor was waking up. Breakfast smells drifted out of the restaurants. Just as in Robert McCloskey's children's book One Morning in Maine, I saw boats, evergreens, the hills. A light wind blew off the waves. This mist made the July heat gentle on my bare arms. It was so pleasant as I pounded along the narrow path by the water, full of rocks and flowers, that I was thinking of little until the usual sensation popped into my head: OK, what time is it? What do I have to do next?
But there was no required next thing. I was free to do what I wished. I recalled a phrase from the summer when I was seventeen and taking dinner orders at Fazoli's restaurant on Indiana's State Route 933. Come the end of my shift, I would punch out to a liberated state: I was off the clock.
That sense of time freedom is magical. It is also, for many of us, a rare and fleeting feeling. Though my work has become shockingly cushier since that $4.90/hour summer, other obligations—such as those I was fleeing in Maine—have conspired to create a reality where I can name the few days in recent years when I have felt this total freedom. As I wrote in my journal of one such day I'd managed to create on a trip to San Diego:
I can't say I had any particularly deep thoughts... Just a lot of staring at the ocean and reading and thinking. And walking 20,000 steps. It was nice to feel unhurried. No clock ticking in the background, no one waiting for me, so I could watch the sunset in peace. All of it. I think that has been the aspect of having kids that is the hardest—being constantly accountable for my time.
Any busy person can sympathize with that feeling, and I suppose my life falls into this category. My husband and I both have careers that involve clients and travel. Our children—Jasper, Sam, Ruth, and Alex—are, as I write this, all age ten and under. With all the moving parts, it makes sense that I would need to know where the time goes, but because I make my living speaking and writing about time management, which makes a virtue of accountability, I must grapple with my mixed emotions more intensely than most.
Feeling off the clock is exhilarating. It is a key component of human happiness. And yet a life is lived in hours, and living the good life requires being a proper steward of those hours. This stewardship often requires choices that come from being mindful of time. My free morning in Maine required figuring out the logistics of childcare, flights, and car rentals. Being off the clock in San Diego demanded similar logistics. It also meant bringing myself to that transcendent ocean rather than scrolling through social media posts on other people's transcendent ocean experiences. More broadly, it is hard to relax and enjoy time when there are looming projects whose constituent parts have not been mapped out, or amid the malaise of knowing swaths of your "wild and precious life," as the poet Mary Oliver puts it, are lost to the vague anxiety of traffic, aimless meetings, and such that the brain doesn't even catalog in memory.