It was August 19, 1997 at 5:55 p.m. when my doctor said the three magic words: “It’s a girl!” The first time I held my baby daughter, Paloma, my husband, James, and I marveled at the new tiny person we had built ourselves. We had so much to look forward to. We had all the books that told us when to expect her to hold herself up, roll over, stand up, walk, talk, etc. We had just moved from Texas to Massachusetts when she arrived several weeks before her due date. My mother and my sister came up from Baltimore to help us set up our new house, which was a mess with unopened boxes. When setting up the kitchen I put the baby dishes, a gift from a recent shower, in the back of the pantry thinking, “It’ll be six months before I need those.” Then suddenly, I don’t know how it happened, my baby was six months old and ready for rice cereal, strained beans, and mashed banana and I scrambled to find those dishes. I remember a dream I had at about that time.

In the dream someone asked me how old my daughter was and I replied, “She’s six years old now. And then I thought, “How can she be six years old? The last I remember she was only six months old. When was she one, two, three, four and five”? Paloma actually just turned six years old, and ironically I had a very similar dream. Only this time, in the dream, she was eleven years old. And I had the same thought. “When was she seven, eight, nine and ten? Where is the time going?”

I remember getting tired of hearing people tell me “they grow up so fast.” But, of course, now I see how right they were. The good news, though, is that I have no regrets about the past six years. I’m not going to tell a story about realizing that I missed out on my daughter’s babyhood, toddler and preschool years. My husband and I were both witnesses to her first step, and heard her first word. We both walked her to her first day of preschool. My dreams are not warning me that I’m missing things.  They are simply gentle reminders to me to slow down, to remember that Paloma is a whole person no matter what her age and to appreciate each stage of her life as it comes. I do not have to look forward to the next milestone. It will come soon enough.

Recently a friend of mine asked me “How do you find the time?” when I showed her the quilt I had just finished.  She wondered how I found the time for my crafts knowing that I also value time with my family. The truth is I have the same amount of time as everyone else. I have 24 hours in my day.  I have seven days in my week. I can’t “find” time hidden anywhere. I have to use it when it’s there. I don’t save it or make it. I can’t. I have to use it when it’s there.  I do, however, use it carefully, because I don’t get second chances with it.

Every choice we make effects how we can use our time. I chose to limit my paid working hours in the first years after Paloma was born so that I could spend time with her.   I also should add that we were also lucky to have landlords who never raised our rent for the five years we rented from them, and some flexibility in our work schedules. When James and I decided to buy a house (our first after 15 years of marriage) we chose one next to the college where we both work so we have virtually no commute. My workday at the College library starts at 7:45 a.m. and I don’t give out any good-bye kisses until about 7:40 .  Likewise, when the workday ends at 4:00 , I can usually count on walking in the door at five minutes past. When I’m at work I use my time there to concentrate on business for the College. Then I don’t have to bring work home.  Our house cost more than we might have spent for a comparable house in the next town. But we had to consider other things. Would the commute cut into our family time? Would we need a second car if we bought somewhere else? Would the payments on a second car, and the additional insurance and gas be such that I would be required to teach part-time, in addition to working my full-time job.

Our only car is an eleven-year-old Saturn. It was brand new, and bright red, when we bought it, our first new car. The monthly payments of $226 were a dollar more than we had budgeted for. I had even asked what the price would be without air conditioning to see if we could get a lower payment. The sales person at Saturn of Tucson explained to me that they didn’t even stock them in that part of the country without that particular feature. Our car is somewhat the worse for wear now. Crayons have melted onto the back seat, giving it a psychedelic look. It was vandalized twice when we lived in Texas . You can see where the paint is a slightly different shade of red where I covered the words “I love Elizabeth ” that had been scratched into the trunk. The car is dwarfed by the sea of SUVs and minivans that surround it when we wait to pick up Paloma at school. But it’s paid for. Getting an additional car, or replacing this one with a newer one would require one of us to work some extra hours.

Last January it turned 200,000 miles. We had noticed the odometer was getting close and decided to take a family drive so we could mark the milestone together. We figured if we took “the long way” the numbers would flip just about the time we got to our friends Dave and Jenny’s house. We were right. We pulled into their driveway and they came out to see what had brought the unexpected visit. When we showed them the odometer with the row of zeros that had just changed, as we passed by the lake near their home, they had an impromptu celebration with us and invited us in for hot chocolate. Sharing this kind of ritual is what rejuvenates me. It didn’t take much planning. And I thrilled in every minute of it. Seeing our odometer flip was not the goal, it was just a reason to go for a drive that ultimately allowed me to spend time with family and friends.

The upcoming holiday season can be one of the most stressful times of the year for some people. Crowds at stores, not finding what we’re looking for and the expense of gift buying, among other things, can build tension levels to the point that the holidays are not enjoyable at all. My family has been able to cut down on much of this stress by considering ways to use our time for gift giving. I enjoy coming up with new things I can make to give.  In addition, I often share ideas with friends and we take some time to do projects together. I get a chance to visit with friends and avoid the shopping mall (a place I personally don’t like any time of year) and create personal gifts.

 One afternoon last December I got a reminder of how much that means to me. We had an especially harsh winter in New England last year. Our first big snowfall came on Thanksgiving day, and we hardly saw the ground again until April, when the last one came. One of these storms started in the late morning in mid-December. Final exams at the College were winding down and the longer the snow came down, the more deserted the campus became. All of us at the Library were grumbling and wondering when “they” were going to let us go home. And then, finally about an hour and half before my shift ended we were told we could leave. I was especially grateful not to have a commute on that day. I was home a few minutes later, just as Paloma’s school day ended.  She and I took our unexpected time at home together to make about a dozen Christmas gifts.

One of the challenges I really enjoy during the holidays is finding ways that she can participate in the gift making. Last year I discovered a cookbook called The Mason-Jar Cookie Cookbook, which I picked it up for free at the public library. It contains recipes for cookies and explains how to layer the dry ingredients in a mason jar to make a pretty gift. The best part was that my then five-year-old was able to participate in the gift making, and she and I were able to spend some extra time together.

 What ideas do you have? Think about it. If making gifts is something that you know will cause you stress think about ways you might use your time after the holidays. Give a young friend a deck of cards and promise to teach her one card trick a month for the next year. Buy a board game for your nephew and make a standing date to play it together. Offer to babysit for some friends so they can have an evening out. 

While you’re preparing for the holidays this year remember to use some time for yourself. Did you know that Americans work 9 weeks more than their counterparts in the rest of the industrialized world? We work more than medieval peasants. People are working more than they did in the 1950s, and making more money, even after accounting for inflation, and buying more things, but surveys show that we are not as happy as we were 50 years ago.  Most children, including teenagers, when asked what they most wanted that money couldn’t buy responded that they wanted more time to spend with their families. This year on October 24 the Simple Living Network is sponsoring the first annual “Take Back Your Time Day” described as a “nationwide initiative to challenge the epidemic of overwork, over-scheduling and time famine that now threatens our health, our families and relationships, our communities and our environment.” It is scheduled for nine weeks before the end of the year as a symbol of the nine extra weeks we work compared to our European peers. What should you do on Take Back Your Time Day? The easiest thing to do, of course, is take some time off. Take a mini vacation. Spend some time with your friends or family. Let others know about “Take Back Your Time Your Time Day”, especially your boss. If you are the boss think about how much it would mean to your employees by letting them go home early on the 24th. Give them an unexpected treat. Also remember that “Take Back Your Time Day” isn’t just about work. What other things are keeping you from relaxing? Is your family overscheduled? One parent I know keeps a Palm Pilot with her at all times just to keep track to her three children’s activities. I’ve decided I don’t ever want to have to learn to use one of those. I know that James has band practice on Sunday, Paloma has gymnastics on Monday and I have my recorder lesson on Tuesday. Beyond our regular activities the only thing I want to use to keep track of schedules is a plain old calendar.

Another important holiday coming up that you may not know about is “Buy Nothing Day”. This day comes every year on the day after Thanksgiving, one of the biggest shopping days of the year. Retailers know it as “Black Friday” because it is the day their accounts go into “the black.” Every year I read stories in the newspaper on the following Saturday about the lines at the shopping centers, and interviews with people who got up at 3:00 a.m. to get the good deals, and I’m never sorry that I stayed home. People who don’t miss the big sales miss other things that could be more fun. Children have the day off from school. Do something fun with them. Sleep late. How often do you get to do that? See if you can make the most delicious leftover turkey sandwich ever. Address your Christmas cards. Make it a family activity. What projects have you been meaning to do around the house that can be done on Thanksgiving Friday?  Try cleaning out your closet. You may find all sorts of things you can use as gifts, without having to stand in long lines.

The journey I’ve made to this point in my life has been filled with both planned events, and unexpected twists. Who knew I’d spend 3 years worshipping at Quaker meeting in South Texas. The practice of silence translated into the gift of greater patience.  Another unexpected discovery was that the charming 100-year old fixer-upper home we bought didn’t get any television reception. The house we’d rented, only a few blocks away, picked up several channels with simple rabbit ears on top the television. We considered paying for cable, something we’d never done before, but decided to wait before calling the cable company. And a remarkable thing happened. We discovered we didn’t miss television at all. There was so much to do in our new house we had no time for that. In the evenings the family reads together. I always have a craft project I’m working on and I practice my recorder.  James has been able to realize his dream of joining a rock band and has time for his conservation volunteer work. Paloma draws or creates a science experiment in the kitchen. I have to admit however, that giving up the television has not been as easy for her. Apparently everyone else gets the Disney channel. We do take time to watch videos or DVDs, but these are necessarily more carefully chosen. We have to pick them out, they are not just what happens to be on.

We’ve discovered some other serendipitous things by giving up the television. We save a lot of money because we don’t see the latest advertisements.  We don’t know what the newest kitchen gadgets are. Paloma has no clue what the latest must-have toy is, or what the crunchiest cereal is. When we do go shopping it is always with a specific list of things we’ve felt a need for without being told by someone else. And it is often a family activity.

You don’t need to wait for “Take Back Your Time Day” to start thinking about what you can do to change how you use your time. Of course not everyone can just pick up and move to a place that is closer to their work, or give up a second car, or simply switch to part-time work without some major lifestyle changes. But everyone can do something small that can start shifting how they think about time.

This week consider how you might use your time differently. Do you have the day off tomorrow? Take a few minutes to appreciate the fall leaves. This activity is an especially good one to share with a child. I remember a few years ago doing this with Paloma. We talked about the colors of the leaves. I showed her the leaves that were red and brown and yellow and orange, all the colors we associate with fall, and then she showed me the pink ones. In my 35 plus years of life I never knew there were pink fall leaves. My elementary school teachers never put pink paperboard leaves on the back-to-school bulletin board. I’d always known which colors were on the fall leaves, but I’d never seen the pink ones before, and there are a lot of them. Take a look. Pick up one leaf and look its patterns. If you really study it you will probably be able to write a whole sermon on it yourself.

  What else can you do? Try getting up for work 10 minutes early, and really enjoy your morning cup of coffee. Sip it, feel the temperature, texture and really taste the flavor. When you drive to work take the back roads on your commute. You may find that you can get to your destination in a comparable amount of time, without as much aggravation. When you get home tell your kids to pick out a book for the family to read together. Call a girlfriend and invite her for tea. Give up one television show that you normally watch and start the project you’ve been meaning to do. Take a minute and thank your spouse for taking out the garbage, fixing dinner, or balancing the checkbook.  Plan at least one family dinnertime. The food doesn’t have to be fancy, but put a tablecloth on the table, light some candles and don’t answer the phone! You have my permission to let it ring. The urgency of the phone has become so great we have actually made a federal case out of the freedom not to be called! Go to bed ten minutes early and use the time to snuggle with your partner.

 When each of us was born we were given the gift of time. None of knows how much we have. Time continues at a constant pace. It does not slow down or stop, ever. When time passes it becomes history. We don’t get it back. Recent studies have shown that those who derive satisfaction from their friends or family are happier overall than those who get satisfaction from success at work. How will you use your time?  

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