About a year ago, I wrote an essay called Living the Hyperopic Life. It was a dissertation on the ideas of balance, living, for now, living on purpose, and making sure, when you looked back at the end, you are certain in your heart that it was a life well-lived. One part dealt with taking time and making it worth something. Blocks of time, snippets of time, anything you could carve out between the important things and responsibilities you had. These little bits of time strung together, would weave the tapestry of your life. The more meaningful the time spent, the tighter the weave.
If you could paint a picture of this tapestry, it would not be pretty. It isn’t one of those neatly woven, ornate fabrics you see in stores. The resemblance is more like a rag but with different kinds of thread and materials all woven together in a tangle of structure. It has every color you could imagine (if you do it right) and all manner of materials; smooth velvets, tough, yet solid and comforting denim, whimsical tassels, maybe even a few bits of aluminum foil here and there, or splinters of wood stuck in the folds; whatever you fancy in your imagination could represent whatever it is you did to create it. This is your life and you add to that tapestry each time you take hold of and live your life on purpose.
That’s what it should look like. But take a moment to consider what all these bits and pieces of time mean? Where are they and by what measure do you define them?
Every so often you’ll hear the phrase Quality Time. The basic premise of this idea, as I understand it, is that if you do something really splendid with someone you care about, the time spent can be labeled Quality Time and that particular block of time will be worth more time than it actually took. Bank enough Quality Time and you’ve got a whole lifetime in no time at all. It seems that Quality Time evolved as people worked longer hours, both parents had to work or someone decided to work a whole lot now, so they could enjoy themselves later. Quality Time gave permission to spend less time with whom you really should be spending it and more time doing the things you really wanted to do. More me time, maybe? Suddenly, there’s more time to chase the money, work late hours, disregard the children, take a vacation, and leave the kids at home (don’t get me started with that last one…”My parents went to XXX and all I got was this lousy t-shirt” is a real thing.)
I do not presume to know how people work out their lives. Everyone has their own way of doing things and their own interpretation of what makes good time spent. Who am I to tell them what to do and never would I presume to do that. Each of us is different and if it’s really working for you, don’t stop. Because it’s rare that we find that butter zone of being able to make it all work outright and it’s always good policy to ride that mellow when you find it.
A person has to be honest with themselves, though, in assessing whether it’s working or not. You have to say it’s fat when it’s fat and don’t kid yourself into thinking it’s muscle. Without that naked honesty, you won’t see if there’s something wrong or if you’re making excuses by using Quality Time as permission to neglect those people who should be occupying important moments in your life.
All the time you spend with someone has the same length and you can’t compress it like calories are compressed into high fructose corn syrup, sweetening time with the hope of making it better somehow. Time does not distill. What matters is what you fill it with and how. Whether you’re winging off to London to do the Europe thing or sitting at the kitchen bar telling them it’s OK to draw outside the lines if they want, the minutes are 60 seconds long and the days have 1440 minutes. All day long. You’re there, present either way, and that’s where the value is.
It seems to me, more often than not, Quality Time is what people use as an excuse not to do the little things. “Oh, I spent some quality time earlier with Bill watching a movie so I’m going golfing with my buddies now.” Quality Time is a myth. It’s cheating.
I truly believe it’s not Quality Time you want to shoot for, but time. Just time. If a particular moment only lasts 20 minutes, it doesn’t mean it isn’t a good thing or even a great thing. Maybe it lasts an hour and during that hour you only did a few things that didn’t amount to much. Where was the focus? On just the two of you? Sounds to me like that’s all the quality you might need. The world moves pretty fast these days. Two minutes or two hours can really be just the same in terms of value as long as the focus has the purity of you wanting to be there and joy in just paying attention to each other.
Have you seen that movie City of Angels, with Nicholas Cage and Meg Ryan? Early in the movie, Meg Ryan’s character had been frustrated by the fact that she and her doctor-boyfriend don’t spend any real time together. In one later scene, he comes into the locker room at the hospital and sits down opposite Ryan on a bench. He stares meaningfully into her eyes and is silent. She looks at him suspiciously and then asks “what are you doing?” and he replies, “I’m spending time with you.” It’s a joke really. Here he was trying to manufacture Quality Time. Is the time you spend with people you care about like that? An exercise out of a book or something you do out of obligation? Pardon me for saying so, but if that’s the case, you’re doing it wrong.
Did you turn away from the tourist attraction and taste the light breeze that brings the scent of the ocean off Sydney Harbor? Do you fully appreciate the serendipitous turn you took down a narrow alley that brought you to the tavern with the best bangers and mash you’d ever had (once you figured out what the hell bangers and mash were?) Did you take a breath and recognize the fantastically special moment you just shared together whatever it may have been?
It’s this nuanced kind of existence that fills in all the little chinks and cracks that may otherwise undermine a good, well-lived life. And if you’ll forgive me the mixed metaphor, it’s this kind of living that creates the many-textured, multi-colored tapestry that is only best when it’s one of the ugliest things we’ve ever seen. Pausing to hear the humming in the other room of a known or made-up tune; Listening to your son when he says, “I finally got the definition I wanted.” Even if you ask, “In your life?” and he responds “No, in my arm muscles,” you get it and smile right at him. He may not show it, but he’s paying attention and will always remember that.
We went to Hawaii this year on a very rare and special family vacation (the best kind. It would not be the same if we went all the time.) We tasted tropical delights, saw sunsets that made our hearts ache, swam with dolphins, giant sea turtles, and in the vast Pacific Ocean saw tropical fish of any color you could imagine … It was fantastic. A few months later, I asked my eldest son what the best part of the summer was. I fully expected that rare kind of family vacation to be the answer. But to my surprise and delight, he proclaimed it to be the building of a wooden airplane with grandpa. Time.
The folks who are relying on the Myth of Quality Time as a measure of their parenting, brotherhood, sisterhood, whatever-hood are missing it. If we leave out the fun and the completeness of participating to the fullest in the lives of the people we care about, we’re straining and stretching the connections we as humans thrive on. Those connections become more gossamer and fragile; more vulnerable to any slight or misunderstanding.
It takes practice to get better at anything. They say to master something you have to spend 10,000 hours doing it. So, start with 10,000 minutes (about a week) of practice and maybe get in a really good minute. Then go for two. And suddenly, as you spend your lives together you may build such great emotional muscles and such a strong bond that the practice required starts to fall away and you have the well-trained, fine-tuned relationship you know you should.
Talking or being quiet. Riding in the car to music lessons, celebrating an essay well-written, a song well-played, a joke that went over well with new friends in school. All of it matters as much as – or perhaps more than – those big trips and expensive gifts.
Finally, consider music. If you think about it, there is no music without the space between the notes. Some would say music is the space between the notes. So, too, is time. Quality Time is not the big stuff. It is the silence between the notes and the nuance of the phrasing in the music that is our lives. Because although the notes themselves are great (trips and adventures), when the music stops, silence is all you have and then you need to be able to fill that silence (or not) with your thoughts and dreams and desires and hopes or whatever comes to mind.
What does your tapestry look like so far and what does the music it makes sound like?
Castle Rock, 2011
Photo by Aron Visuals