When we view time as a gift that expands and contracts, we can open it and create within its flow.
“How did it get so late so soon? It’s night before it’s afternoon. December is here before it’s June. My goodness how the time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon?” ~ Dr. Seuss
I was about to walk into the room where a Hospice patient lay in her bed. The nurse read my face and said, “Don’t worry, you’ll be great. You’ll know what to do. Just remember your training. And pay attention…she is going to teach you how to live.”
I nodded, took a breath, and walked over to the bed.
The nurse followed behind me and brightly announced my arrival to the woman. “Mary, this is Susie. She is here to read to you and talk, if you like. Would you like that?”
Mary smiled at me and said, “How nice. Yes.”
I pulled a chair over to the side of her bed and looked over to the bedside table closest to me. A brown, hardbound book without a dust cover lay next to a plastic cup containing ice chips and a small, plastic spoon.
“Is this the one you’d like for me to read?”
“Thank you, darlin’. Yes.”
Her hands clutched the comforter under her chin in an expectant and joyful pose. I lifted the book from the table and paged over to the bookmark. I read the first line of the chapter to myself and sat up straight as if I had a board in my spine. Recognizing the prose, I turned to the front to see the title.
“Oh! Steinbeck! The Pearl is one of my favorite novels!”
“Isn’t that perfect, darlin’? Oh, I am so pleased you are here.”
I swallowed hard, trying to stall tears. “Yes, ma’am. It is perfect.”
We sank into Steinbeck’s story together, appreciating—savoring—the language, the imagery, the craft in each paragraph. Mary stretched her left arm out toward me and lay her hand on top of the comforter near me. Without breaking reading stride, I fanned the book out in my right hand and placed my left hand on top of hers.
“So nice, darlin’,” Mary said with her eyes closed.
I read on for an hour or so. The atmosphere in the room was sacred, soft. Mary’s face was filled with delight, letting the words wash over her like they were her favorite music.
I saw the nurse appear in the doorway. She stood, silent, while I finished the page. I looked over to Mary and then to the nurse.
Mary opened her eyes. “So nice. Thank you, darlin’.”
“Mary, Susie is going to go now, and let you get some rest,” said the nurse.
“Yes,” said Mary.
“It was a pleasure to meet you, Mary,” I said. “I’ll be back to read some more another time.”
Mary dozed off before I had returned the chair to its corner.
The nurse thanked me, walked me to the front door of the building, and said, “I’ll see you next week. Thank you again.”
I barely made it to my car before I broke down into sobs. I knew that that would be the last time I would ever see Mary. A couple of days later, the nurse called me with the news.
Floating in Nothing but Now
I thought of little else over the course of the next few weeks. Our hour together. How appreciative, calm, and peaceful Mary was in the final days of her life. She wasn’t afraid, nor in a hurry. She floated in nothing but Now and let the small waves of what she loved keep her buoyant and without concern over how her voyage would play out. Beauty, connection, joy, and love were her life (and death) raft.
“Pay attention…she’s going to teach you how to live.”
When I lose my footing, get off track, sink into fear, or clutch at control, I think about Mary. She had every right to be in a state of struggle or panic, but instead she chose to completely surrender and continue to cherish and enjoy the life experiences she held most dear.
Mary helped me see time as a gift.
I wanted to understand better how the process of mindfully embracing one’s death could impact and improve one’s life. After a bit of research, I found the perfect book: A Year to Live: How to Live This Year as If It Were Your Last by Stephen Levine. Reading it was a holy journey of discovering how to deal with and resolve unfinished business, examine my priorities, and change my view of the world to one of appreciation.
The healing tonic of the book’s process stayed with me for many months, but over time, slowly faded and disappeared.
Now, almost 25 years later, I find myself wrestling with time, as if it were an alligator spinning me in a death roll under water.
Time as a Gift that Runs Out
There are moments when I am confident and clear I will emerge…sopping wet and exhausted…but victorious. Feeling that time is ultimately on my side—expansive—filled with possibility and snacks for the journey.
There are other moments, when I’m deep under water—disoriented and sure that I am running out of time—that I feel that I’m woefully behind and caught in a string of days on repeat where I accomplish little.
My experience of the accordion of time expands and contracts, expands and contracts.
Instead of ricocheting between the two extremes, there had to be a way to hold the paradox of the accordion of time in such a way that I could find a state of calm confidence and create from a place of clarity and strength.
I remembered Tim Urban’s wonderful blog post on how to visually lay out and understand a human life in terms of not only years, months, weeks, and days, but also activities like enjoying seasons, sporting events, hobbies, and eating favorite foods.
For example, Tim noted that when he mapped out how many more times he estimated he would swim in the ocean during the course of his life (60 more times), the image looked like this:
Immediately, we can see the number of potential ocean swims that Tim has over the course of his life, how many he has “used,” and how many remain. A sobering awareness lands as we take in the limited number of future swimming experiences Tim will enjoy.
There is a part of our brain that likes to experience our time as a gift never ending (which both delights and comforts us); we have all the time in the world to create what we wish.
There is another part of our brain that frets and paces with the worry that there is never enough time, no matter what.
And there is still yet another part of us that can find some days, weeks, or hours to be unending and unrelenting…the feeling that time has held its breath and stopped.
With Tim’s imagery, though, we can center ourselves into the reality of what is and create within those constraints to our highest purpose.
I find energizing relief inside Tim’s depictions that represent clearly a stretch of time, making it real and easy to grasp, without striking blows of fear. Awareness that brings peace and an ability to delight in creating, as well as delight in other’s creations.
Not unlike Mary (knowing without knowing how much time she had remaining) listening to her favorite author’s words, penned 5 decades ago.
I can shake off the alligator’s claws and fling myself up onto the riverbank, safely out of the death spiral.
What Will You Create with Your Gifts?
When considering my creative projects for 2020, I can decide to represent the remaining number of weeks in the year (36) as gifts. 36 beautiful presents available to me to open as I see fit. 36 packages of time within which to create, complete my book, and ready the runway for a successful book launch in 2021.
When I view the time remaining in 2020 as discrete and finite packages of weeks, I can fully grasp and appreciate the limited number of such opportunities I can “open” between now and December 31st. Rather than there being a yawning expanse of time that feels too unwieldy to get my arms and attention around, I can at-a-glance begin to map out and strategize my approach to doing my work.
I can devote one gift per chapter which puts my Shitty First Draft being completed by the end of the 8th week. Another 8 gifts devoted to edits/rewrites. 4 more gifts for the final polish. 12 gifts for pre-release publicity work, guest blogging, podcast interviews, etc. 4 gifts for rest!
What is it that you want to absolutely get done (once and for all!) this year? What do you want to allocate to each of the 36 gifts available to you?
We can honor the preciousness of time as a gift, while getting to the work without rushing. We can look at each time packet or future experience with a sense of compassion, empathy, and possibility.
We can surrender and sink into the accordion of time, pull the comforter under our chins, and relish the experience of creating—inhaling and exhaling. Accumulating progress through the power of compounding and the incremental realization of our vision.
We can hold ourselves fast to the star points that guide us, while staying buoyant and joyfully expectant inside the paradox of the time accordion.