Cramming it in

The frequency in which my work and personal thoughts intersect no longer surprises me. As work conversations occasionally focus on just what we mean by worker well-being, it’s not uncommon for me to apply it to the life I know, or worry for those owning work demands – often accompanied by low wages, no benefits and little appreciation – that leave little room for much else.

After three relevant conversations earlier this week, I was reminded how so many of us try to cram too much in: work and basic needs, time to care for family, friends and communities. In between commitments we exhaust any opportunity for spare minutes to embrace activities that energize us, make us passionate, set us on fire.  Or buffer us from the bad. So often it is the creative and fulfilling activities that whisper away while others multiply: accumulating in our lives as we steadfastly, or not, march (or sometimes slog) on. 

How often does it also happen that the “retirement day” comes (though fewer still expect to await one) – after anticipating my time – to have expectations tiltFinally, my time…except we waited too long! We lose dear friends, partners and family members, or find our hours filled by helping them through illnesses and difficulties, and we are thankful that now we have that time. Do we secretly think: but when will there be more time? Or we experience our own health challenges, and we think: why did I wait so long? It’s not to say that we haven’t enjoyed our packed lives, our jobs, our co-workers. But time we have set aside to be expansive for us dwindles away. And we stop for a moment thinking…what happened? Where did it all go? 

Yesterday morning I read about a study citing something most of us in our hearts already know:  when we have time to be creative outside of work we are better at work. We’re more productive, happier and often generate better ideas. It’s probably also true that we sleep better, take better care of ourself, and I would be willing to guess we might even be nicer to the people around us. Yet, when we are pushed at work, sometimes beyond our ability to bounce back, and we’re pushed to get everything else done in our busy lives outside work, the first minutes we rob ourselves of is our creative time. To walk and imagine a new poem, plant a new garden, pull out that musical instrument or the set of water colors. We humans need moments to refresh and engage and excite ourselves: creative and meditative moments of self, even if only a handful. If we don’t make them happen, nobody else will. If our employers and organizations do ultimately care about us being fully there on the job, they’d be good to proactively imagine how they can help us get there.

As I move other things around to take extra minutes on this beautiful November Willamette Valley day to crunch through the fall leaves and remark at the clarity of Mt. Hood’s newly snow-covered summit, my brain imagines what might next fill my page. I run into a friend and invite her to participate in an upcoming event. I watch her face cloud over, she hesitates, and I can tell she feels the need to say yes but stumbles over her words. I learn she is overwhelmed with spousal caregiving, extinguishing her quest for any time to do the other things she loves. It was clear immediately what my advice was: be bold in cutting back on those things you feel you should be doing and instead preserve those few moments you might have for what you love as your highest priority. We all experience times in our lives – the birth of a child, illness or emergency involving a friend or family member, or our own personal health challenges – when we must cut back on the “extras” and not feel guilty. Even as much as we’ve done this or that all our life we have to step back and ask, what gives me the greatest joy for those few minutes I might have. For only then can we maintain our own best ability to do what we are here to do, whatever that might be.

We never know how many more days we will have. The question is, what is your thing? Not what you think it should be or what it was twenty years ago or what your best friend’s or spouse’s is. What is it that makes you smile and sing and feel excited? What is it for the authentic you of now? 

It was fitting that I caught a short piece on NPR about the actor Jeff Goldblum. In my mind, this man will always – no matter how many other terrific performances he delivers –  be the Big Bad Wolf in my daughter’s most favorite Fairy Tale Theater episode, furthering her to imitate his look in her own dramatic family-only performances. While this actor has a life different than most of us, he shared how his love of jazz has sparked and furthered his own “work” abilities as an actor. This passion has made him better at everything else. And while our lives might be dramatically different than those of a blockbuster actor, that spark of human energy probably isn’t. I was lucky to find my next spark when writing following my dad’s death, and while I hold out no expectation that writing will extend beyond providing enjoyment for a few, for me it has unlocked energy and passion that move me through other moments of life: happy and sad, easy and hard, with more. More everything.

So, I repeat. What is yours?

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