Monday, January 16, 2012

Accounting for time -- whether in a weekend or a lifetime

This was the weekend of our annual retreat, and it’s a weekend that inevitably goes by too fast. For the past eight Januarys, I’ve joined a loosely structured group of about 20 other women – most from Carlisle, some formerly of Carlisle, and some from elsewhere who are brought along by Carlisle friends – for a trip to the northeast corner of Connecticut, where we spend Friday evening through lunch Sunday in a hundred-year-old house, reveling in our free time, enjoying silence, taking walks along country roads, and eating meals that are in fact quite tasty but whose greatest merit is that they are cooked by someone else, the retreat house’s kitchen staff.

“This is how life should always be,” someone always says, and of course they mean the relaxed conversation, the leisurely mealtimes, the camaraderie. But as I was thinking about how I wanted to spend my time, I realized how much meaning that phrase actually held for me.

Because the only problem with the weekend is that the time always goes by too quickly. I start out with plans to do lots of writing, and some reading, and go for a long run and take several walks. But then I get caught up in conversations, or just distracted by the option of having seconds at mealtime.

This time, I resolve each year, I’ll plan my time really carefully. It’s less than 48 hours in all; I need to make every second count. Conversation is important, yes; but don’t use it as an excuse not to pursue more difficult options like writing. And yes, the mealtimes are lovely here, but don’t linger at the table for so long that you end up skipping that afternoon walk.

And at some point it occurred to me that in that sense, the retreat weekend really is a lot like how life should be – or at least my approach to the weekend was how my approach to life should be. Camaraderie matters, but so does reflection. Don’t let laziness – or weather – keep you from enjoying the outdoors. Above all, don’t let the time squirm away from you, unaccounted for. Figure out what matters to you and make sure you’ve set your priorities, because your time at the retreat house is really limited, and the weekend will be over before you know it.

The words had a familiar ring, and then I realized that Henry David Thoreau said the same thing only a hundred orders of magnitude more eloquently when he wrote “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I have not lived.” Yes. That’s exactly what I was trying to tell myself. Time is limited; use it wisely and well. Above all, be aware of the choices you’re making before it all melts away.

I did end up using my time well during the weekend. I visited with the other retreat-goers over meals and during discussion group sessions, but I also spent hours reading and walking. It’s trite to acknowledge Thoreau’s wisdom, but that’s how I feel. He said it far better than I could, but that doesn’t mean I can’t use his words as a guidepost. Rules to live by, in effect, whether for the weekend or for a lifespan.

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