We returned from our fall break in Paris; like every family we know here in Berlin, we took advantage of the time off and traveled to a neighboring European city (easy to do when most are closer than Chicago is to the Twin Cities). Some went to Amsterdam, some to Nice, others to Istanbul. We did what we were supposed to do.
Walking back into our apartment building with suitcases in hand, we ran into our neighbors, the couple from two floors above us. They were carrying bookshelves and boxes down the stairs, and they were slightly out of breath. They set down their things on the hallway floor to talk to us, but only for a moment. After they returned from their week in Amsterdam, their daughters went to stay with the grandparents for a few days. The parents had taken this opportunity to rearrange the twins’ room and refurnish it. They were taking the old things down to their storage area in the basement.
They were scurrying about; their kids were scheduled to pull up any moment in the grandparents’ car. They were in a rush, and an alarm bell of recognition went off in my head.
At home, that would be us. We are always rushing around in St. Paul. We rush to the grocery store; we rush to pick up the kids from school. We rush to violin lessons, cello, piano; we rush the dog around the block; I rush to the boathouse. I rush on my bike to get to work. I rush the push mower around the yard. I rush through conversations with neighbors I love.
In St. Paul we know what we need to do each day, where we need to be, who we need to take where, and there is always something or someone waiting for us. There is no time to dawdle. Every day is scheduled and maximized and there is very little room to stop and sit and think. We may say we don’t like the mad rush that characterizes our lives, but the way we conduct ourselves suggests otherwise.
Here, we have nothing but time to stop and sit and think. We don’t rush around, other than the few minutes before the girls head off to school.
It’s hard to know how to handle this incredible luxury of time. We feel the pressure to use it mindfully, sparingly, not waste it. We put pressure on ourselves to do something meaningful with it. Go see the sights of Berlin. Get tremendous work done. Read great books.
But I wonder if that’s our regular life talking, telling us, Get up! Move! Go do stuff! Make the most of this time!
And our current life, which is not so normal, but is what we have, is a blank canvas of nothingness, it’s ours to fill with as we wish. We put off signing up E for violin lessons because the commitment to regular practicing seems too much like home. Having so recently given up all commitments, we are reluctant to allow any new ones to lay claim to a few hours of every week. We are loathe to let any of those hours go. Yet we don’t know what to do with them all.
If we somehow granted ourselves a year’s sabbatical in our own house in St. Paul and wiped the slate clean, would we know how to stop rushing? What would that even mean, to wipe the slate clean? Would I stop volunteering at the school? Not host an intern? Row less? Work less? Let the garden go to seed? If I granted myself the luxury of not looking for a job for a year, as I have by leaving the country, would I use it mindfully?
The hard but honest answer is no. I would not. I would not have the stomach to wipe the slate clean unless we went very far away from everything we know. Which is what we have done.
So as uncomfortable as the absence of things and schedules is right now, there is value in embracing this moment of discomfort. Wallowing in it. Stopping and sitting and thinking and writing about it. Because this suspension of duties is temporary, and its time is now. When we return next summer, the machine that is our lives will crank itself right back up again. Work, school, music lessons, recitals, kids’ sports, school events, rowing, doctor visits, house maintenance, dinners with friends, social obligations, kid birthday parties… It goes on and on and on. They’re all things we’ve chosen, things that matter to us, that we can’t imagine living without, and yet, the accumulation makes us so busy, all the time, just like pretty much everyone around us.
We’ve lulled all that, artificially maybe, but we’ve done so.
What will we make of this time?