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Tick Tock

How landing a long-awaited dream job forced me to rethink—but not remake—my relationship with time.

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I’ve just gotten my first, salaried, “real” job. At 41, I come a bit late to this particular endeavor, having thus far escaped that path via lots of part-time work, freelancing, living cheap, and having other priorities: writing books, volunteering, raising kids, activism, and my dearly held desire for free, quiet, daydreamy time.

This new job is not a 9-to-5, clock-in-clock-out type of gig—thank the heavens, because I plan on dying before I get one of those. My life on this planet is fleeting, and, as they say, there is no wealth but time. What this job does require: For me to be at a certain place, at a certain time, and to teach a certain number of students a certain curriculum. That makes me nervous. It’s not laziness. I’m an annoying, conscientious overachiever. And it’s not that I fear I won’t be good at it. I love teaching and have been seriously seeking a community and a job like this for a good five years.

No, what scares me is time—or, rather, the way I seem to move through it. Which is, to say the least, not in an incremental, linear way. I’m usually not even aware of time, or that it is supposedly passing, tick by tock, second by second. That’s just not how it feels to me.

Philosophers have been debating how we perceive time since Socrates, and it seems to me that they’ve only come to the not-so-startling conclusion that the human sense of time is subjective and variable. Modern psychologists, neuroscientists, and physicists have weighed in as well. Wikipedia, too. According to its entry on Time Perception, which I checked when I found out I got the job,* there are four types of personalities: Organizers are achievers who are highly aware of time; crammers are similar, except they procrastinate; relators have “low time urgency” and are more in the present; and visioners also pay little attention to time, although they do have future goals. After reading up on this—and going off to daydream for awhile—I decided I was a hybrid organizer and visioner. And therein lies my problem: I am highly aware of the general presence of time at the exact same time I want to free-flow through it.

Most of us feel like Odysseus resisting the sirens at some point. We fight the luring call of something in order to stay true to ourselves. This can be exhausting, as our culture is built around schedules and times. Bells ring at a certain hour. Breakfast is served from 7 to 9 a.m. And as a writer, I’m forever trying to meet deadlines.

Still, I struggle. I can stare out windows, then furiously write, then walk, all for lengthy periods of time, and all in a meandering fervor. I like hanging out with my brain and listening to it yammer. As Thoreau wrote, “Nothing was ever so unfamiliar and startling to me as my own thoughts.” Not that my thoughts are brilliant, but they do keep me occupied. Stopping to consider how this one particular meadowlark has a wacko song; or realizing what I’m hearing is the first canyon wren of the year; or lying outside on my yoga mat and staring at clouds, then jumping up to clean house, grade papers, or realize that I’m hungry and I’ve forgotten to eat—all while listening to my brain reflect on all this input. These are things I enjoy, the things that make me me.

Of all the siren calls we hear, the one that asks us to keep checking our watches and to be aware of time is the one I’ve avoided most consciously. I’ve protected my relationship with time like a mama bear protects her cubs. The list of things to which I’ll give my time is short: My family. My friends. My planet. My politics. My appointments. (Despite what I’ve just said, I hate being late to anything.) And now, my students.

This idea—of having my teeth brushed, and my hair more or less done (good thing I go for the windblown natural look), wearing a clean shirt, standing before 25 students from exactly 9:30 to 10:45; from 11:00 to 12:15; from 12:30 to 1:15, and so on—freaks me out. I haven’t led this kind of life since college, and part of me is hoping the cellular memory of those years will kick in to steer me through it.

If you want to prepare for the stressors of time management, try parenthood. My kids are supposed to be at school at 7:15, at soccer at 1:30, and at violin lessons at 4:15. They seem to be hungry a lot, and they tend to be cranky if they’re not in bed, lights out, by 8:30. More than anything, children have forced me to be time-aware, and have thus forced my brain into difficult mental contortions, something along the lines of, Crap, I didn’t realize it was 2:30, but here comes the bus and oh my god I have to get some kind of food prepared, please let there be something healthy in the refrigerator. Hey, I forgot to eat today, didn’t I? I wonder what Kierkegaard meant when he said, “We create ourselves by our choices,” and I also wonder if that’s similar to my mother’s saying, “Activity manifests the essence”? Wow, check out that cool cloud—dammit, concentrate on dinner and is today violin? Hey, what day of the week is it, anyway? Why can’t I be more organized?

Although it seems contradictory, years of such controlled chaos have (I hope) allowed me to hang on to the ability to move through time as kids seem to: with a little obliviousness and a lot of impracticality. So they want to randomly start a garden in a brand new spot, rather than in the garden that’s already established? OK. I’ll wander out there with a hoe and help them turn over soil, even though I know it’s all a waste of time because the deer invade this part of the lawn. For a kid, and for me, it’s not really a waste of time. It’s us hoeing and planting, blanking out on the passage of time. Which, of course, is the happiest way to spend it.

One thing I know for sure is that it will be fantastic to teach, to have the privilege of educating students about beautiful words and sentences and paragraphs, and about writing the raw and real stuff of their lives. I will listen less to my own mind and more to the minds of others. I will stare out of windows less and into students’ eyes more. I will learn to keep track of time somehow. Perhaps I’ll buy my first watch, or learn to check my cell phone more than once a day. I will carry around a toothbrush and a hairbrush for the days that I forget, although I’ll probably be too busy and oblivious to care. Most days, I will still be there when my own kids get off the bus, and I will still wonder why I hadn’t thought about dinner until so late in the day. And then I will probably look at a cloud and daydream.

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