For the past couple months I have been so busy. I have lamented my lack of free time, my lack of time to complete even basic errands. I have wished and wished for time to relax and do what I wanted. And then, this past week, I got it. I took a week off from everything, and I have to admit, I had no idea what to do with myself.
I felt entirely lost in the expanse of all that free time. It took me a day or so to complete my backlog of errands, and then … Well, there were a million things I could have done. Go to the gym, cook elaborate meals, read a novel, take a nap, take a hike, take photographs, sit at a coffee shop, start the Christmas shopping, write, try to find more freelance work, do some of the housecleaning that I never seem to get around to, make that photo album you’ve been meaning to put together for the last five years. The possibilities were endless. And that was what was so frightening about it. How would I know if I had made the right choice? How would I know if I was using this precious time in the best possible way?
I did many of the things on that list. But I did virtually all of them with a sense of restlessness and worry. When I was sitting in a sunny patch of my front yard reading a novel, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be nicer if I were sitting in a coffee shop? I never get time to do that.” And then the next day, when I was sitting in a coffee shop, I thought, “The view was nicer from my front yard. Should I have stayed home?” For much of the week, I thought, shouldn’t I be doing something more important with all this time. Volunteer work? A new writing project? Something I haven’t even been smart enough to think of yet?
In many ways, it is a privilege to live in a time and place where we can travel around the world, pursue the careers of our choice, taste all kinds of exotic foods, communicate with anyone at any time, and choose from an unlimited array of activities to fill our spare moments. And yet, in the face of all those choices, how do we decide? How do we ever know if we’ve done enough? How do we know if we’ve truly taken advantage of the the opportunities that people worked and fought to give us?
This weekend, as I was driving down the highway, a cloud of birds flew overhead, blackening the sky like smoke. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of them flying south for the winter. And it occurred to me that those birds don’t spend time ruminating about the best use of their time. They just go where they have to go, do what they have to do, and are perfectly content to be part of the faceless flock. I wonder if it was easier when the bulk of human existence was occupied with the work of survival, when what we did next was determined by the need to stay warm and stay fed, when there was no idle time spent wondering whether there is something, anything, more.
Today, I return to work, and I’m sure that in no time I will be writing endless to-do lists and finishing each day with many items still to cross off. I’m sure I will soon be moaning that I need more time, and indulging the occasional fantasy of coming down with some (pain-free and non-life threatening) illness that requires hospitalization and gives me a break from everything. I will think back to last week and wonder, “What were you thinking? You saw free time as a problem???” But amid the craziness, I will try to remember what that week taught me. It’s good to be busy. Work, and all the other mundane business of daily life, is not a burden to be resented. It is what keeps me from flailing around, rudderless, in the endless sea of possibility.