Living in hours

Yesterday was a good day.

I opened the apartment door around 7AM to find my Wall Street Journal delivered — with something I’d written in it. My 2-year-old son, Jasper, woke up and we played with puzzles and had breakfast before I put him in the stroller and walked in the easy New York City sunshine to his preschool two blocks away. I spent the next four hours writing. Then I took a 50-minute break to log 45 sweaty minutes on the stationary bike — reading a book I needed to review made the time go quickly. I wrote for three more hours. I packed snacks for Jasper and walked to pick him up  with the best intentions of bringing him to the Museum of Modern Art. Alas, it was closed as it is every Tuesday — so we had to regroup, buy a pretzel from a street vendor and walk down 5th Avenue, at least finding the new pair of sneakers he’d needed out of the expedition. We played at home until the babysitter came an hour later, and I hightailed it to Brooklyn to run a long-range planning meeting for the Young New Yorkers’ Chorus (for which I serve as the executive director). Our eager volunteers talked about how to commission more new music, how to improve our musical craft, how to make people feel more at home in this grand city. I zipped home on the L line and in a cab, and spent 45 minutes talking with my husband Michael about our days. It was roughly a 17-hour day by the time I went to sleep, with 8 spent working, 0.75 spent exercising (more if you count all my walking around), 4 hours spent with family, 3.25 spent on my volunteer work and another hour lost in transition, housework and puttering (it happens to the most intentional of us).

It was certainly a busy day, though not particularly more so than many other weekdays. What made it a “good” day was the high proportion of time spent on things that relate broadly to my abstract life goals. I wanted to be a writer and I am — there, for a million readers to see, in the gray print of a newspaper. I wanted to be a wife and mother. I wanted to live in New York for at least a while when I was young enough not to mind the grit of the place. I love to sing, and I love to create new things, be that music or books. I love the health and energy that comes from staying active — even as my belly seems to grow larger by the day.

But all these things are abstractions. All these things are grand ideas we usually think about in conjunction with phrases such as “when I grow up” or “someday” or “when I retire.”

A few years ago, though, I had a realization. While we think of our lives in grand abstractions, a life is actually lived in hours. The desire to be a writer must play out in daily hours of research, interviews, planning, cranking out drafts, polishing and finding places to write for. The desire to be a mother is manifested in hours of being there with your child, teaching him that even though he loves the new shoes he picked out, he has to take them off for a minute so mommy can pay for them and have the security tag removed. A marriage requires conversation and cuddling and a focus on family projects. A desire to sing well in a functioning chorus requires hours of weekly group rehearsals and solo practice as well as goal setting and administration; a desire for health requires a daily choice to move your body and get enough sleep rather than seeing what’s on TV.

Yesterday was, of course, a 24-hour day, and this is certainly the way most of us are accustomed to thinking about our hours. But as I’ve been trying to be more mindful of my time, I’ve come to believe that it’s more useful to think in terms of that “24-7” phrase people bandy about, but seldom multiply through. There are 168 hours in a week. My busy Tuesday was a good day, but so was my lazier Sunday spent going to church, walking for two hours in Central Park and — yes — working for about 4 hours during Jasper’s naps and after he went to bed. Anything you do once a week happens often enough to be important. The cycle of 168 hour weeks is big enough to give a true picture of our lives. Years and decades are made up of a mosaic of repeating patters of 168 hours. Yes, they evolve, and yes there is room for randomness, but not paying attention to the mosaic is still a choice. Largely, our lives will be a function of how we choose to set these stones.

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