Friday, April 19, 2013
This morning I went over to my friend’s house to see two tiny foster kittens she got yesterday. (They were spotted by a passerby in a ditch near a street corner, their mother nowhere to be found, and brought to the animal shelter; my friend is fostering them for a month until they’re big enough to be adoptable. For about forty-five minutes she, I, and her nine-year-old son crouched on the floor and watched and commented on the kittens' every move: two tiny little fluffy things tottering around on bow-legs, staring out at the new world through round blue alarmed eyes. They’re excruciatingly, unbearably cute: they have the super-power of cuteness, as another friend’s son said about my cat when she was a kitten.) Yesterday afternoon I took time out from my day to make a pasta dish my friend told me was really good (it was good, even with tofu substituted for chicken), and later today I’m going to stop whatever else I’m doing and clean my bathroom. I’m happy that I’ve learned how to harness my time to do those things -- peacefully, mindfully, without guilt or rushing to get to them or through them. Happy that these days I actually do them.
I’ve been harnessing time for a few years now, and one of many important things I’ve learned from it is that the little things we do purely for pleasure, just for ourselves – cook something new, go for a walk with friends, sit and sketch, take a nap – matter a lot more than we usually think they do.
Time, as I keep saying, is like the wind – an incredible resource we can use to accomplish anything if we can harness it and use it for our own purposes instead of walking into it or letting it blow us around. I harness time by consciously deciding how I’m going to use the time I have every day, and by calling my time partner (another friend of mine) and telling her what my plan is. My friend tells me her plan too, and we tell each other in detail how our days went yesterday -- what did and didn’t go according to our plans.
It was through this sharing that I learned what I know now about the importance of the little things. I realize, of course, that I’m not the first person to say that it’s the little things that count; it’s been said so many times before it’s practically a self-help cliché. But it wasn’t until I started planning my days and, in particular, hearing my friend’s daily plans, that I felt the truth of it all the way down to my bones.
I love finding out every single thing my friend plans to do today and what she did and didn’t do yesterday – how she wants to use or did use her daily allotment of twenty-four hours – but I’ve noticed that I really perk up whenever she says she’s going to do one of those little, just-for-the-pleasure-of-it things. (I highly recommend doing daily harnessing time check-ins with a friend; see Harnessing Time with a Little Help from My Friend and With a Little More Help from My Friend.)
Day after day, I’ve noticed that I get a light, airy, open, happy feeling whenever my friend tells me she’s going to do some little thing just for herself, and through that noticing I’ve come to see, to really believe, that those things are not just merely fun, not just guilty little pleasures, distractions from the real urgent necessary work of the day – they’re important. They redeem us and spiritually feed us; they might even be what we remember when we look back on our weeks, months, years, lives.
(Will I remember this a month from now? I try to ask myself that whenever I’m in a twist over something, and almost invariably the answer is no.)
For a while, about ten years ago, I made two lists in a notebook at the end of every day; on one list I wrote ten things I was grateful for or that went well that day and on the other I wrote ten things I felt bad about. It turned out that the things that were going right in my life were almost exclusively big and enduring, whereas the things that were going wrong were all stuff that wouldn’t matter in a day or so -- in a month at the most. And yet the bad stuff was what I was focusing on, if not outright consumed by; it was commanding almost all of my attention on any given day.
And I sort of think that when we focus on what we have to do instead of what we want to do, something similar is going on.
I have this theory that when we’re really, really busy – feeling totally overwhelmed by everything we have to do – there’s a good chance that we’re doing something, maybe a whole bunch of somethings, maybe even everything, not really for our own sakes but because we think someone else wants or needs us to do them. We feel like we have to do those things because someone else will… suffer, get mad, be disappointed, fire us, reject us, think badly of us, not give us what we want (choose one of the above or make up some more). (And for more about this idea See The People-Pleasing Trap.) When I was writing down all the bad things that were bothering me, most of them had to do with other people too: someone was mad at me, or some potential boyfriend had abandoned me, or something I had written was being rejected by someone, et cetera.
All of this is leading up to why, I think, doing those little things that are good for us and only us, feels so good. And maybe why doing everything we have to do feels so bad, or at the very least urgent, hectic, and un-fun.
I’m not suggesting that we all toss aside our obligations and just do whatever we want all the time. Most of us couldn’t do that even if we wanted to; there are people, places and things in our lives that require our attention, we need to have jobs and do them effectively in order to survive. And even if we do have all our time to do whatever we want whenever we want, as I did for a while, sort of, when I had money from a book contract and nothing else I had to do but write, we can still manage to feel overwhelmed with everything we ought and need to do; when I had all my time at my own disposal I worried constantly about whether I was writing long enough, whether I should be doing more to clean my hour, fix my house, etc. It was as if I was trying to make myself stay busy, and feel busy, because if I didn’t I felt guilty.
So that’s the bottom line, I guess. It’s all about attitude, all about what we do inside our heads, whether we’re the busiest person in the world or someone with absolutely nothing we have to do. That’s great news because we can work on changing our attitudes. And in the meantime there are some simple easy measures we take that in and of themselves might change our attitudes. We can look at how we’re going to spend our day today and decide to throw in one or two little things we want to do instead of feel like we have to do. Things like reading a novel, hanging out for a while doing nothing, going to a friend’s house to play with some kittens. And when the urge comes to toss those things aside because it turns out we’re just too busy to do them, we can ignore that urge, do whatever nice thing we planned, and see what happens. Maybe nothing bad will happen if we take a little time off and do something fun just for the hell of it. In fact, more than likely something good will happen.
And maybe, just maybe, it will turn out that we do have time for ourselves after all.
-- Mary Allen