Do You Have the Time?

April 11, 2011

Last night, a few hours after our April Voluntary Simplicity meeting, I came across a passage in Haruki Murakami’s memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running that perfectly expressed some of the ideas we had discussed during the meeting. This month’s topic was time, a subject I addressed here only a couple of weeks ago. In the passage, Murakami describes how when he was thirty-three he reordered every aspect of his life around his focus on writing novels. He started going to bed early and waking up with the sun. He realized he could concentrate best in the morning, so he decided to write during that time. He ran and did errands in the afternoon and spent his time in the evening relaxing, reading, and listening to music before bed.

Murakami didn’t just revamp his private, working life, he reconsidered his social life too. He writes, “We [Murakami and his wife] also decided that from now on we’d meet with only the people we wanted to see and, as much as possible, get by not seeing those we didn’t. We felt that, for a time at least, we could allow ourselves this modest indulgence.” He had been running a jazz club for seven years; for seven years he had had to greet whoever walked in the door with “a friendly smile” on his face. So, you (well, those introverts among us, at least) can see why he would want to cut back on his social visits.

Yesterday our Voluntary Simplicity group didn’t talk specifically about “this modest indulgence.” But we did talk about finding time to cultivate our most important relationships. Sally shared a story about spending time with her daughter. She has started driving her fourteen-year-old daughter home from high school in the afternoons. When they arrive home, her daughter makes the two of them a cup of tea, and they sit together in the kitchen and talk or read for a while before the planned activities of the evening. This daily ritual was Sally’s daughter’s idea—one afternoon she asked Sally out of the blue if she would like a cup of tea—and over the past few months it has become a mainstay of the family’s routine.

Such rituals don’t always come so easy. Murakami writes, “I’m struck by how, except when you’re young, you really need to prioritize life, figuring out in what order you should divide up your time and energy. If you don’t get that sort of system set by a certain age, you’ll lack focus and your life will be out of balance.” A few of us in the group occasionally feel out of balance (which is probably why the Voluntary Simplicity group appealed to us in the first place). It can be hard to find consonance in your life when odds and ends and responsibilities and social pressure start piling up. They can distract you from your initial purpose. Murakami endeavored to reduce the noise and set his own priorities. What I like about his story is he leads a simple, deliberate life without identifying it as such. He just lives the way he wants to live. We should all be so lucky.

Although most of us in the group occasionally feel distracted or rushed, we all also enjoy moments of what psychologist Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi calls “flow,” or the “state in which action follows action according to an internal logic which seems to need no conscious intervention on our part. . . . We experience it as a unified flowing from one moment to the next, in which we feel in control of our actions, and in which there is little distinction between past, present, and future.” I’m sure you’ve experienced this; I’m sure you’ve been so immersed in a task you’ve lost your sense of time. For me, this feeling comes when I run or write or sew; Helene once found flow in a two-day art class; Sally, a teacher, has encountered it in the classroom; Judy and Bernice experience flow in their gardens; Nan finds it in the mountains, on a hike. (Several in the group experience flow while cooking or baking, but I find I lose myself more in eating and in the conversations that come when friends or family—or just Channing and I—gather around a really good meal.)

I pulled a couple of lessons from our discussion yesterday. First, we all have only twenty-four hours a day, and it’s up to us to make the most of them. This doesn’t necessarily mean packing in the experiences until we’re used up and burnt out. It just means savoring as many of those moments as we can. Second, the hobbies, the work, the relationships that, as Jay Bookman put it in “Caught in the Current,” “pull together the various pieces of our fragmented self and focus them again on a single purpose, a single goal, a single activity”—they are what’s important. And we should take every opportunity to bring them into our lives.

The whole group was there this month! Thanks to Bernice, Helene, Judy, Mary, Melissa, Nan, and Sally for the thoughts and stories that found their way into this post.

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