“I’m going to Chicago and in my suitcase.” You may know this memory game. Children love playing it because they can add funny stuff. “I’m going to Chicago, and in my suitcase, I’ll pack purple underwear, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and a pink gorilla.”
When I packed a suitcase for my life’s journey, it was all about short-term planning. It’s unrealistic to expect children to have the foresight to decide how they might spend their time in the later years. It’s enough to navigate the challenges of early life. So it wasn’t until post-retirement that I asked myself, how will you spend the rest of your time?
“How we spend our days is, of course,” Annie Dillard wrote, “how we spend our lives.” Viktor Frankl, the author of Man’s Search for Meaning, pondered the meaning of life. That’s a big undertaking. What feels more manageable is to reflect on how I spend each day. Arriving at the evening of my life was a shift from the pursuit of money to meaning. Now with the luxury of time, I could burrow into anything that captured my attention, meaningful or frivolous. The choice was mine.
Frankl wrote, “When a person can’t find a deep sense of meaning, they distract themselves with pleasure.” Rephrased, without something that brings joy, I’ll waste my life ending on my death bed, “Oh my god, why did I let other people’s opinions and fears keep me from experiencing life more fully?” I don’t want that to happen.
What is a good life? A life spent reading is a good life. A life of service is a sweet passage of time. Learning is fulfilling and a nutrient for meaning. Days that resemble every day of the past twenty years do not suggest themselves as a good life.
What’s it all about, Alfie?
Is it just for the moment we live?
What’s it all about when you sort it out, Alfie?
Are we meant to take more than we give
Or are we meant to be kind?
The lyrics spoke to me as a young person. Facing the twilight years with more and more hours spent alone, Alfie speaks to me again. Yes, I should give more than I take. Part of giving is also giving joy to myself—spending time creatively and purposefully. It’s never too late to try something new, to renovate how we spend our days. The voice that holds you back is bogus.
Recently, I decided to build a miniature dollhouse, actually, it’s just one room—a study. The cabinets and bookshelves were a challenge. The sitting chair is finished but looks horrible. I need to redo it. What looms large ahead are the walls and ceiling with a chandelier that will have an on-and-off switch if I do it right. Reading the directions, what stopped me cold was the part about using a flame to seal rubber around wires.
Colette Maze found an activity that sustains her to this day. Born in 1914, she began playing the piano at the age of five. Her son, Fabrice, believes that his mother found the affection she missed at home in playing the piano. Colette released her first album in her nineties. Recently, at 107, she recorded her sixth album. At 101, Virginia is still hauling lobsters with her 78 year-old-son and has no plans to stop. Lifetime nourishments are rare. Only a few win the lottery.
Learning a new skill in later years means facing fear and insecurities. The ego fills our path with roadblocks. But once scaled, every minor mastery offers a larger landscape of possibilities.
Author Anne Lamott tells a story of her older brother sitting at the kitchen table, nearly in tears. Surrounded by paper, pencils, and piles of books about birds, he was paralyzed with fear about the seemingly insurmountable task ahead. His bird report, assigned three months earlier, was due the following day. Her father sat down beside her brother, put his arm around his shoulder and told him, “just take it bird by bird.” Looking at the box with my half-finished dollhouse study, Anne’s father’s advice encourages me to go back to work. I tell myself, just finish the yellow table. Piece by piece, book by book, I will get it done.
Learning something new can be invigorating, a breath of fresh air. Saying I can’t do it is defeating and adds nothing of value to my life.
Last year I restarted playing the piano. When my fingers refuse to move quickly enough, I remind myself “bird by bird.” It’s not about rehearsing for Carnegie Hall; that’s never going to happen. It’s about claiming a time of my own to grow and enjoy. Anyone can get lucky, like Michael Phelps with an enormous wingspan, hands, and flipper-like size 14 feet. The incredible thing is not that he’s a superb swimmer, but that he found his way to swimming. But people born without inherited advantages who persevere when others give up are far more impressive.
Why waste days bored or aimless? Whether learning biology at Kahn Academy or making dyes from nature’s plants, engaging in worthwhile moments, at times shared with like-minded friends, are spiritual nourishments. When I do focus on what’s beautiful around me, I see the wonder of it all. Contentment comes from within, fostered by how we spend our days.
In her book, Simple Abundance, A Daybook of Comfort and Joy, Sarah Ban Breathnach encourages us to own our spiritual and creative time. “Treat yourself to a deluxe box of Crayola crayons…Create a poster that reads “’If Not Now, Then When?’”
I’ve visited this topic, how we spend our time, before and probably will again. The cloud that keeps pouring on my optimism is what I see around me, people giving more attention to their smartphones than living their lives. What makes us human is empathy and our ability to experience joy. We can’t forget that. What we give our attention to is what we love. Screens don’t love us back. Ears stuffed with iPods can’t hear the birds’ serenades. Heads crammed with thoughts of yesterday can’t see the fall’s splendor or the rainbow after a rain shower. If it’s even remotely accurate that we spend 10 hours daily on our smartphones, Netflix, etc., our attention to humanity will fade away. What a loss that would be, solely because we didn’t take the time to look up from our phone long enough to notice.
To push back on a world where AI makes my decisions begins with me and how I choose to spend my time. And why I share it with you.