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Season of Patience
It’s a good thing I got married. My life would be a total mess without a wife and kids. Hypotheticals may be impossible, but if I’m confident in anything, it’s this. On my own, nothing to hold me back or push me forward, I’d be a starving artist.
I’d probably be living in some dingy apartment, my room neat but bare, living off tortilla chips and hotdogs and fast food. I doubt I’d have many friends, perhaps a roommate or two, to save costs, and minimal social obligations. Maybe I’d have some mundane day job, or maybe I’d try to survive on gigs and freelance work. Then again, I might still be in a grad school somewhere, milking those students loans. But I’d spend all day and night, every free moment, either writing or playing video games.
I’m not saying it would be a great life. It would be a simple, more focused, potentially more productive life, as an artist. It would also be a smaller life, a lonelier life, a less fulfilled life. I’m not at all sure I would like it. But I can guarantee that’s what I would be doing. I know because there’s a part of me that still wants to.
Writing can be a cruel love. Like any art, I presume. So many ideas, so many things I want to create, but thinking of a beautiful piece takes a lot less time than actually making it. A novel takes years to complete. Even a simple essay might take a couple days. That’s a long time to wait for a payoff. And most of that are all the ordinary, boring bits you have to fill in between the action scenes or the big twist or the punchline. In that time, you accumulate a lot of new ideas you wish you could work on instead. The feeling is probably familiar: never having enough time, worrying that you are squandering the time you do have, and anxiously searching for ways to cram more in, all the while falling farther and farther behind, feeling more and more like a failure. Or is that just me?
Right now, considering the obligations of my job and my family and my home, about the only quality time I get to write is what I can take off during lunch, which some days is more than others. Most of that time I spend procrastinating, distracted by some article or video or work task or the oddly-shaped tree outside the window or the people having a conversation at the table next to me. But then I settle into a groove where my mind can finally roll, the distractions whizzing past, the cool wind of creation blowing on my face. Those moments feel so good. I want more of them. I need more of them. There are too many things that I want to write, too many ideas I need to get out. If only I had a little more time, if only I focused a little more, if only I could get rid of the distractions, then I could finally publish my next book, really grow my blog, make my writing into what I’ve always dreamed it could be.
I’m always scheming to steal more time. What If I wrote some in the mornings when work wasn’t busy? I wish I could get something done in the afternoon when I finish work but before dinner. Maybe I could stay up late, after putting the kids to bed, and write deep into the night, like I used to do when I was young. There must be more time somewhere. I used to have so much more. I just need to find it again. Where did I put it all?
It never works. No matter what I try, I’m always distracted by work in the morning, or I am still waking up and can’t find the groove, or I procrastinate until it’s time for my morning walk. I get home with the kids and there is more work to finish, endless snacks to get, practices to drive to, and a workout to be done. Then we need to eat dinner before it’s too late, and I do most of the cooking. Not that it would matter who did it, because my son is home and he wants to play pokemon or shoot baskets or wrestle, every minute that mom or dad are free. At 8pm he gets his iPad back to watch a show, so I sometimes imagine I could squeeze in some writing before bedtime at 9pm, but my daughter has to be picked up from gym then, too, which eats into the time, and she needs someone to serve her dinner, and there are dishes to be done and clothes to fold and things to pick up and—oh look, it’s bedtime. So we brush our teeth and read a book, and my son, who is 6, wants me to make sure the closet door is definitely shut and to protect him while he falls asleep. So I lie with him in the dark, plotting chapters and debating arguments and composing sentences, until he’s safely snoring. By that time, it’s almost 10pm, everyone is asleep (including my wife), and I head downstairs, blissfully alone, brimming with ideas. Now is my chance, I think. But there are dishes left and the dog wants to go out and I am so, so tired. Maybe I sit in front of my computer for a second, type out some notes. Then I get in bed and read as long as I can before turning out the lights.
The inevitable result is guilt. I’m always judging myself according to how much I get done, measured not against a real, average day but against an imaginary, perfect day I’ve never actually experienced. The amount I get done can never compare to the amount I want to get done. My productivity can never be as high as it could be. I know what to blame. All the things I did that weren’t productive. My day job, my walk, my workout, the time I spent reading the news, those few minutes of entertainment while I ate lunch, the extra time preparing dinner or eating it or cleaning up from it, the chat with my wife, the card game or wrestling match or reading session with my kids, the time talking to my daughter on her way home from practice, the moments just cuddling with or talking to my son as he falls asleep, the quiet moment of reflection or prayer or imagination, the joy of a exciting novel or interesting book. All the good and necessary things in my life.
I end up resenting them. Not intentionally, but I do. A little. I find myself dreaming of the day when Virginia can drive herself to gym and find her own food, when Jackson is out playing with his friends all afternoon and can put himself to bed, when I can quit my day job or shrug off the duties around the house. Then, at last, I could finally recapture all that time to accomplish everything I want to accomplish. So while I still do all the things my kids require, am happy to do them, that voice whispers in my head that I could be doing more.
Sometimes, occasionally, rarely, I imagine what my life would look like if I were still on my own. I know I could live a radically simple lifestyle, unburdened by the need to pay for a house in the suburbs or private school or the latest gadgets or dinners out or the vast quantity of fruit and goldfish the kids consume, unaffected by the demand to settle the childhood squabbles and to answer the endless questions and to teach all the important lessons and to worry about every aspect of their future and to maintain good relationships with them and with my wife. I could put aside everything else, even my own needs and desires and comforts, to focus entirely on my art. I would be so productive. Also, miserable.
And for what? Life is lived in cycles. All of nature has its seasons. I’ve had times in my life when it was easier to spend my time writing, and I will have them again, but when I long to be in a different season, I don’t actually get there, I only make the one I’m in worse. Time playing with my kids becomes a little less joyful when I worry that I haven’t finished my latest post. The hour reading or snuggling in bed becomes a little less sweet when I’m trying to get away as quickly as possible, guilty that another day is passing me by. The necessary chores or work become a little more stressful with the assumption that only my creative output truly matters. Even my limited time writing wilts under the intense pressure of productivity and shame of distraction.
I’m trying instead to cultivate of season of patience. A time for productivity will come. One day the kids will be grown and independent, out every night, never wanting to play or talk or wait around for me, or off to college or with families of their own. I don’t know whether I’ll ever miss these hectic times—hopefully I’ll appreciate the past and the present in equal amounts—but I’m certain they will not be here forever. And then I will have time to write or work or relax or whatever that season brings, if only I am patient to wait for it.
It’s hard to remember when the guilt whispers, when everyone and everything, especially myself, is telling me to get more done, otherwise I am not enough, I am wasting my potential, I am a failure. Those thoughts are never going away, not in this environment, not in this life. So I accept them. I will bear the shame and get on with my life, enjoying the time with my family, gladly doing the daily work that makes it possible, valuing the refreshment of a good book and the nourishment of a night’s sleep, appreciating all the small moments throughout the day where I can and must do nothing at all. I know I’m not going to get the maximum amount of work done. That’s okay. It should be and always will be that way, because productivity is not the highest goal. If I can’t write as many books or blogs as I might wish, it’s only because I have so many other worthwhile things to do.
Does that mean I waste some time during the day? Of course. But its not time that I could use anyway. You can’t add up all the spare minutes of a day and imagine you could squeeze a full hour of productivity from them. Does it mean I don’t try to make the most of the time that I do spend writing? Of course not. I get out of the house to avoid all the other things I need to do. I block all the apps and websites that usually distract me. I wear headphones to drown out the conversations. I drink gallons of iced tea for that caffeine high (or at least avoid the withdrawal). Still, some days are better than others. Some days I don’t find my groove until I’ve only got thirty minutes left. Some days I never find it at all. I have plenty of room to improve in ways that don’t hurt the rest of my life and make me anxious all the time.
It’s the only choice. No matter how alluring it sometimes sounds, no matter no matter how tempted I am or how inadequate I feel, I don’t actually want to be the miserable, lonely mess of man who can care only about the amount of output he produces. Do you want to be the dad who grinds it out at the office until late at night, killing yourself to get ahead, to achieve the most, so that you can’t put it down once you get home? That’s our natural state, guys. If I weren’t married, I’d be right there too. But I got married specifically to avoid that fate, to put things in my life that I can care about more than my own success, to give my days a rhythm and a meaning beyond an endless climb. I would lose all that, and likely my success too, if I were to disdain my current season for a past or future one. But if I wait, cultivating the relationships and duties of today and preparing for the opportunities of tomorrow, I will have both in their proper time. After a season of patience, the harvest comes.
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