I meant to stay away from this space until after the new year, thinking I’d want to spend my time in other ways, but this morning Jill of Open Space Practice shared an article on Facebook about the choices of a man dying of glioblastoma–which are the choices all of us make, every day, whether we know death is imminent or not.
This man, who chose to begin an important creative project (knitting a sweater for his son) even though he knew he might not finish it before dying, made me think of a conversation I had this week with an old (from college) friend. We acknowledged that we are moving into a new stage of life, one in which time feels short in ways that it never has before. “I find myself wondering what I want to do with what remains,” I said to her.
It brought to mind, too, a piece that Kate shared on her blog this week, The Satisfaction of Practice in an Achievement-Oriented World, in which the writer, Tara McMullin, makes a case for doing things for the experience of doing them–not for accomplishment or some byproduct that doing the thing might provide, but simply for whatever benefit we get in the moment of doing. She advocates for the value of practice over achievement.
This is a different thing, in some important respects, from the man who hopes to finish knitting a sweater, but it also isn’t. Both are about letting go of outcomes–starting the sweater even though you might die before it is done, taking up running because of how it feels while you’re doing it and not because you want to lose weight.
Talking about the article with Cane, I recalled how I felt the morning after my book of poetry won an award–how I understood, for the first time, that I would from then on write–if I wrote–for the sake of writing itself and not for accolades or publication. The accolade was nice, but fleeting, as was the feeling I’d had when I first held the book in my hand. It wasn’t enough to sustain me or the effort it took to write while parenting and teaching full-time.
Yesterday, my daughter needed to go to work even though our city had become a block of ice. “Who is going to go ice skating today?” I wondered, but I knew the question was meaningless and futile. It was two days before Christmas, and there was no way a mall was going to close. Her boss called to confirm that she could make it in, and he told her that yes, the rink was open even though no one was skating. I had planned a day of baking and general house puttering, but as she, her husband Fredrik (arrived just the night before from Sweden, getting in right as the ice storm was hitting), Cane, and I sat eating breakfast, we mused that it could be a perfect day for skating. “Mom, no one will be there! This could be your only chance until after New Year’s to have a good session.”
For me, a good session is one that is not crowded, something I haven’t had since Thanksgiving, really. It means the ice will be smooth and the spaces open for practicing moves. We spun a fantasy of having the whole rink to ourselves. I imaged gliding in big, swooping turns over the ice. We knew it might not happen, but it could. And so, I ditched my plans for the day and we all found warm clothes and headed out to the bus with her. (We were not driving on ice-covered streets.) It was an adventure! In the frozen city! She, Fredrik, and I would skate before her shift began, and Cane would watch for a bit and then head off to the bookstore coffeeshop.
Well, by the time we got there, others had made their way there, too. We got to skate for about 15 minutes before she had to clock in. Fredrik’s rental skates hurt his feet, so he left, too. That left me alone with terrible ice and a crowd of non-skaters, which wasn’t anything resembling fun. I changed out of my skates, found Cane in the coffee shop, and browsed through a book until he’d finished his drink. Then, we bundled up and headed off to the bus. “This was a lot of effort for 15 minutes of skating,” I said to him.
“Are you regretting your life choices for today?” Grace asked as I stopped by to tell her we were leaving. I assured her that I wasn’t, but her question made me wonder.
After an hour, we realized that our bus line’s route had been canceled (staffing shortages). An hour after that, the four of us were shivering on a shuttle bus driving the route of our city’s light-rail train. Grace’s boss let her go early, worried that she might become stranded in the cold. It was dark, we were hungry (no restaurants had been open), and we knew we might have a 25-minute walk once the shuttle got us as close to home as it would go.
“You sure you’re not regretting your choices?” she asked as we waited for another bus after getting off the shuttle, wondering if it would really come.
I thought about the day I might have had, the cookies I’d have baked, the meal I would have eaten as soon as I felt hunger, the quiet ease of a warm house. I thought about the skating I’d hoped to do but hadn’t.
“No,” I said, knowing I meant it. “It would have been a nice day at home, but I can have a lot of nice days home alone with Cane. I wouldn’t have remembered that day years from now, but I know I’ll remember this one. We will laugh about it and say, ‘Remember how we all went out after the ice storm and only skated for 15 minutes and it took us hours to get there and back in the cold?'” We’ll remember how we spent the day together. The day wasn’t about skating, just as skating–for me, now–isn’t about passing tests or competing or even mastering new skills. It’s about how it feels just to do it. It’s about how we choose to spend our limited time. It’s about what and how we practice.
Later that evening, after our bellies were full and our hands were once again warm, we decorated the tree with our beloved old ornaments. We’d waited until Fredrik arrived, so he could do that with us. Grace pulled out a ceramic ice skate my mother gave me when I was in my 20s. At that point, it had been over a decade since I’d quit skating, but she still saw me as a skater. Or, perhaps, she wanted to remind me of something skating had meant to me, and what it means to have something like that in a life. I’ve let go of many ornaments over the years, but never this one.
We never know what a day, a season, a year is going to bring us. My college friend and I missed decades of friendship. In our 20s we both moved away from each other, and in those pre-internet days it was much harder to maintain ties. We let ours drop. I don’t remember how we found each other again, but now her adult child lives in our city, and our parents live near each other, and here we are. Having that friendship back is a lovely surprise I never anticipated. I was supposed to go skating the morning I met her for coffee but chose to spend the time with her instead; we don’t get many chances to see each other in person and I didn’t want to miss one. A year ago I had no idea that skating would come back into my life, but now it is something I treasure as a regular practice. If I knew I had only a year or so to live (and who knows? I might), I’d still choose to spend much of it on ice, even though I’ll likely never compete or land an Axel. I’d choose a day on a cold bus with my beloveds and a morning in a coffeeshop with an old friend. I’d choose to spend my time here, putting words together because of what I get from the act of doing so and, after hitting “Publish,” connecting with kindred spirits who read them. And I would consider all of it time well-spent.
As we embark upon the culminating days of this holiday season, I’m wishing all of you the gift of time well-spent, too. What better gift could there be, really?