Annie Dillard, in her beautiful book The Writing Life, says, “How we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour and that one is what we are doing.”
Depending on when you catch me, this statement, which I anxiously and existentially believe to be true, can offer either great comfort, profound horror, or something more ambiguous in the middle. It’s that middle reaction where I most often find myself. I tend to become more aware and critical of how I spend my time when I return home from vacations. In those carefree weeks I’m swimming in rivers, hang gliding, cooking, gardening, walking and sitting on the porch drinking wine. I’m not distracted or stressed out. I often read for extended periods of time and have long conversations where no one checks their phone. There’s no cellphone service and only dial-up Internet because I’m out in the woods (you’re only looking up the most vital information in that context, I assure you). Then I return home to jobs, ubiquitous cellphones, urban angst, Instagram and expensive restaurants. I start to wonder what exactly it is I’m doing with this hour and that, and if it’s really how I want to spend my life.
The cold, hard data of our hours might surprise or disturb us if we think about it too closely; the quantitative illuminating the qualitative. I recently found an app called Bean. You create different pleasingly colored boxes which you label however you want and with each tap on the box the number counts up. In this way you track what is (or isn’t) important to you. It’s very reminiscent of Ze Frank’s jellybeans above (though it doesn’t make me tear up like his video). My counter includes boxes labeled Writing, Analogue & Creation, Yoga, Days with No Social Media, Gratitude, Walk and Love (as represented by emoji hearts). Some of these are conceptual and others, obviously, aren’t. Occasionally I will look at the lagging Analogue & Creation count and hurriedly tape pictures of volcanoes in my journal, sketch spirals around them and write something secret in my own handwriting. I can’t argue with my data; these things, however big or small have comprised this amount of my time. I’ve gone to yoga 52 times. I’ve taken 36 walks. I’ve spent 38 of my days blissfully social media free. What does it all mean? And what else should I be doing? What moments make me stop and think they are best represented by emoji hearts?
What I do with this hour and that can range dramatically from watching three episodes of Pretty Little Liars in a row to playing Sea Stars to putting the finishing touches on a novel that has taken me six years to write to cooking meals for my friends. Certainly we’re all complex enough to contain multitudes and contradictions, yet, in my darker moments I wonder if, cumulatively, the time clocked in one pursuit or another falls in favor of the Instagramming, cellphone fiddling, celebrity gossip accruing, Netflix streaming part of who I am. A recent viewing of The Bling Ring had me concerned that, though I’m not those girls, I’m not 100% NOT them either. I do occasionally stare listlessly into the glowy void of my phone screen. I do sometimes buy more shiny lipgloss than I need. I do sometimes waste an hour of my life reading Us Weekly. I wonder what space in my brain would be freed up if I didn’t know who every single celebrity was dating?
If I think about it too much (which obviously I do) I end up wanting to make panicked resolutions, such as a recent one when I vowed that each morning I would take a walk first thing, write down at least one thought on paper, take photos of what I saw and consider the contents of my own brain before I checked anything (email, etc). It’s noteworthy how good it feels to do this. My success rate is around 75%-ish. Some mornings I roll over and pick up my phone immediately, or I don’t feel like putting on shoes and walking out the door. But many other mornings I find myself in parts of the city I’ve never been, seeing something small I never noticed before, ideas entering my mind that might not have gotten there any other way. I sit on a hidden staircase without any distraction, with only myself and write something down.
When I worry about my hours it’s the technology I immediately turn to for critique and ritualized rejection. Yet, I’ve come to realize it’s much more about habits, thoughts, intention and energy. It’s about mindfulness (sorry, those 52 yoga classes have me picking up the vocab). In many ways it’s no better use of your hours to be willfully out of touch, or non-participatory, a luddite or a hermit. Those inclinations bring their own set of issues and challenges. Still when I think of the hours that equal my life I want to be careful. It’s true we need down time, guilty pleasures, bad habits and superficial indulgences. I’m a huge fan of having an eclectic mix of interests and pursuits. We need to text back and forth in emojis. We need to Gchat (maybe not for hours on end?), and allow Nashville to make us think it might be fun to be a country star. We need to connect or retreat at certain times for a gajillion reasons. A life can’t be all one way, or all another. It’s countless tiny, moving parts.
But I think Annie Dilliard’s assertion is a meditative reminder that we need to keep the balance in our life more heavily geared toward the beautiful, the sincere, the focused, the real-life connected, the tangible, the creative, the political, the adventurous, the strange, the engaged and attentive. This can mean whatever we decide is important to us. A conversation with voices, a party with no documentation, the appreciation that one person liked your Instagram even if 11 didn’t, moments alone, spaces of quiet, views taken in only through our eyes, the phone kept in our purse during dinner. When I was younger I worried that if I did something and no one knew about it then it wasn’t real. I feared this conceptually since it was pre-social media. I fear something of the opposite now. How public everything has become sometimes distracts me from some other truth of myself, of my hours, of my life, and I don’t want to be distracted. I want to be fully present. It’s a simple conclusion, perhaps a trite one in certain ways, but very dire in others: the tiny pile of jellybeans representing our tiny pile of days is not just a metaphor. It makes me think of how I might answer the poet Mary Oliver’s question, “Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”