Monday, April 06, 2009

dividing time

in The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh, there is a story about Alan (or is it Roy?), a father of young children, who had the most amazing revelation when he stopped dividing his time into categories (time for the children, time for the wife, time for work, time for Alan) and realized that all time was his time. i read this story for the first time a couple of years ago, at the peak of our 'time division' era (more on this below), and i remember feeling that this story was my koan. i could feel that it held the wisdom i needed, but for the life of me, i couldn't crack it. i mean, of course, wouldn't it be wonderful if all time was my time? but where did that leave 'time for the children', 'time for the husband', 'work time', 'cleaning time', 'social time' and all the rest of it?

a year or so after the birth of isabelle, and strangely coinciding with my bout of post-graduate obsession with feminism in all its forms, i introduced the category 'time for myself' into our lives. soon, it turned into a deity. many idols came and went, but 'time for myself' was inviolable, and much was sacrificed to it. marc and i experimented with various systems (half a day for him/half a day for me, splitting weekends, week-nights being divided between the two of us, hiring baby-sitters, etc.) over the years, and although it often felt as if we were somehow missing some point somewhere, neither of us could figure out what or where. and don't get me wrong, it wasn't bad, those were my most productive years here on the blog and in my studio. but somehow, there was a vague unease and disatisfaction about the whole thing (not to mention the incessant bickering involved in defending one's 'time zone').

in the meantime, of course, the koan was doing its work on the inside, steadily and with stealth.

one of the first times i met Mirjam, i happened to mention the 'time to myself' issue, and she said something along the lines of (please feel free to correct misquotes) 'not really wanting time for herself because it seemed to her that if she had any, she would end up wanting more and more of it'. that pissed the hell out of me...

... which is usually a sign. of truth and wisdom (nothing pisses me off quite as much as truth and wisdom...). i went home and thought. and came to the painful realization that this was true for me too. that the problem with 'time for myself' was that i never ever EVER seemed to have enough of it. and the more of it i had, the more i wanted. i also realized that there were so many things i wanted to do in that time for myself that it was seriously vying for the position of 'most stressful time'. finally, i was forced to conclude that far from making me happy, my 'time for myself' usually resulted in me feeling disconnected, from myself and everyone else, grumpy, impatient and mad.

but it sounded so right, this 'i need time for myself'. so what was wrong with it?

and then, unanounced, Alan's (or Roy's?) story made its reappearance (when i accidentally borrowed The Miracle of Mindfulness from the library, having confused it with another book and having forgotten that i actually own it). reading it again, the koan cracked over my head like a ripe egg. and i got it. just like that, i knew what was wrong with 'i need time for myself'. the answer is: time and myself.

consider the latter first, since that's the one Thich Nhat Hanh illustrates so well: if i divide time into categories, and one (only one) of these categories is 'time for myself', that implicitly means that all other time categories are not mine. and that in turn means that the more categories there are, the more areas of my life, and hours in my day, are not mine. no wonder my to-do list for those few hours was insane: i was trying to cram an entire life into a few hours per week! no wonder i felt unhappy and unfulfilled 'the rest of the time', since all my needs always had to be postponed until i had 'time for myself'. no wonder this made me feel depressed and gave me the feeling that 'my life was not my own'. it wasn't. i had given it away. with one little well-meaning sentence: 'i need time for myself'.

deep down (and close to the surface too), i wanted all of life to be 'time for myself'. of course i did. and the irony is that it was, and had been all along. the time i spend with my children, with my work, with my husband, with my meditation cushion, with my paint-brush and my toilet brush, with my friends and family, all of it is time for myself. it is all, in the most real sense, my time.

and then there is the 'time' thing (i did warn you, didn't i, that i am obsessed with this...). 'i need time'. what does that mean? time is always here. in abundance. if i want it, here it is. it never goes away (if it is there at all), every second follows and announces another second, every hour, every week, every year brings more and more of itself. what is there to need? saying 'i need time' is like standing on a beach and saying 'i need air'. ok. done.

but by saying 'i need time', i am creating the illusion of scarcity. and if i create the illusion of scarcity for something that is so intangible, so all-pervasive, and in the end so utterly inexistant as time, i am in for quite a ride, aren't i! suddenly, that which is all around me has to be carved, shaped, measured and divided. using the image of air on the beach once again, i can see how utterly pointless this is. i can also see that it is more than pointless, it is toxic, because it succesfully disguises the real need underlying the utterance 'i need time', which then goes unnoticed and unmet.

so what do i mean then, when i say 'i need time for myself'? any and/or all of the following:

i need solitude, i need to work, i need to read, i need to do yoga, i need to connect, i need to disconnect, i need to day-dream, i need to crawl under the blanket, i need to sleep, i need to meditate, i need to stare at a blank wall, i need to think, i need to rest, i need quiet, i need music, i need to dance, i need to love myself, i need a bath, i need to draw, i need to write, i need to take a photograph, i need to listen to the birds, i need to lie in a hammock, i need to walk, i need to do absolutely nothing, i need the beach, i need the forest, i need a snack, i need to plan a meal, i need to play, etc.

(note that of these, only the need for solitude actually strictly requires, in and of itself, the absence of other creatures. which is not to say that many of these things are not gorgeous lovely when experienced in solitude. but how do they feel in the company of two adorable under-six year-olds? in view of my life's circumstances, it's certainly worth finding out...)

if i let 'time' off the hook, i can begin to experience its sheer endlessness. if i learn to formulate and express my real need, i need not postpone its fulfillment. instead, i can concentrate on creative ways to meet my needs right now. right here. in this time of mine.


Josh said...

what wisdom, woman!
ik wil graag het boek lezen, soms is het zo moeilijk om er te zijn, in het moment (met een grote puberzoon, een man die zeven dagen per week aan het schrijven is, een dochter met thuisonderwijs ...)

elianne said...

daar help je mij ook erg mee,zo waar maar ook zo lastig om dat ook zo te leven.
keep on writing!