Schedule shutdown complete

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Do you listen to Hidden Brain? I love it so much, and incidentally, if I could have every interesting thing I learn read to me by Shankar Vedantam, I would grab that opportunity right quick. In this episode from a while back, guest Cal Newport shares part of the little ritual he uses to step away from work mode and transition to going-home mode. He says, “Schedule Shutdown Complete.”

Although he means it differently (and so usefully!) ,This is what I have so often craved, Schedule Shutdown. My whole adult life, I’ve had strong feelings about time. How there’s not enough of it. Who needs it, wants it, gets it. What it’s worth, and what is worth it. How I “should” spend it or need to or want to spend it, or how I did spend it. None of those seem to line up. My soul and brain and personal history have created ideal climatic conditions for a perfect storm of anxiety and attention issues, along with whoppingly poor self-esteem. More often than not, this storm makes landfall at the problem of Time.

My son put it best when in second grade he announced, over a math worksheet, “I hate stressful time!” Me too, baby. I’ve had panic attacks about it. And many, many weeks per semester, I have feelings like “I wish I could just pause everything and have a week with nothing scheduled.” Or, more fanciful yet, I’ve imagined some weeks that my calendar app would fail and that I miraculously would receive a free pass on showing up to absolutely NO scheduled events and would be excused from ALL deadlines for the rest of the term. I know I am not the only teacher, parent, writer, or human being that gets this feeling about time from time to time. I just spend more time there than many.

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Then, two years ago, it actually happened. We experienced complete schedule shutdown in the form of the initial worldwide spread of Covid-19. And while of course this was a bad thing and nobody wanted a pandemic, it’s a fact that my initial reaction was relief. Relief that my own schedule was wiped off. I know I am not alone in this.

Notice how many people bought jigsaw puzzles, art kits, or board games? It’s like we worried we wouldn’t have enough to do with our free time. This reminds me of my own elementary school visions of what “the future” would entail. I think “the future” was synonymous with “the year 2000.” Man, that seemed impossibly distant. (And we never simply said 2000; we said “the year 2000.” So futuristic was that date that we had to clarify that it was indeed a year! That someday in our own lifetimes, there would be years NOT beginning with 19!) In the future, we would be wearing high-tech jumpsuits with all kinds of color-changing, thermal-varying capabilities. In the future, we would have flying cars, and we would have robot maids. And in the future, we would have so much more leisure time. Automation would make our work so efficient that we’d all have to think up other ways to pass all that newly-saved time.

And it’s indeed true that the shutdown canceled many things, creating some extra time at home. But as you’re guessing by now and likely experienced yourself, a complete schedule shutdown didn’t fix my time problem. Some things I recall about time at that time:

  • The things that were erased included good things, things that would be meaningful or fun or both. So, while I had more time to do things, they weren’t necessarily the things I wanted to do.
  • My then-husband’s things and my children’s things were also canceled. This meant that the time I wanted to do things was immediately filled by their things– things they would otherwise have sometimes done outside my presence.
  • All existing time-saving things that I had implemented previously were of course also wiped off the schedule. So, cleaning, cooking, providing for physical needs of others, etc. were now taking up more time than before, not less.

Those are the externals, right? And they sucked, and they sucked WAY WORSE for most folks, whose paychecks ALSO were canceled. So, please know that I know.

But, how about the internals? The eternals?

All those cancellations sometimes created pockets of re-opened time in the immediate sense. However, they stole time from life overall, especially for my kids. Yes, we got the afternoon off to play board games or go to the park instead of school and sports. We got pajama days and random times of trampoline jumping when we’d normally have been doing math. But, we lost third-fourth grades as well as seventh-eighth grades. We lost taking my taking my daughter to Europe for her thirteenth birthday. She missed middle school sports, completely. She missed all the eighth grade “lasts” and so many firsts. My son missed playing in a band with actual other instruments. He missed opportunities for his special needs to be noticed and addressed at school. Some of these things are no big deal long term. Some of them are very big deals.

I, consequently, am more aware of the passage of time in my kids’ lives and in my own life as a parent than ever before. There’s a narrative that says this awareness of the fleeting years of childhood is a good thing, that it makes us grateful. Of course that’s true in its way, though more often than not I want to broadcast this essay of Glennon Doyle’s in response. However, I was already grateful before. I was already aware before. The clock on their childhoods and my own time with them was already running before, and even then it was running fast. All the time, running, running. And I was already aware of that, already grateful for what I did have and would not have for long.

The schedule indeed shut down. But the shutdown was not complete. Nowhere near complete enough. I am just as anxious about time as ever.

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