How to Make Time

These days, I often wish I could make time: as in create hours, manufacture minutes. It seems there are always so many tasks to do, so much work to be done. By the time I get through my daily to-do list (ye gods, when did I get so overwhelmed that I had to get apps that will remind me to do the tasks and tick the boxes?) there’s barely time to relax and shut my brain off before it’s time to get up and do it all over again.

Some days I feel like I’m drowning. Some days I think I’ll never check all the boxes fast enough and won’t be left with the time I want for other things, like painting, and writing, and gardening, and seeing my friends.

So here’s the thing I’m learning: I have to make that time. Sounds easy, right? It’s not. What’s easy is getting lost in the little tasks: make dinner, wash the dishes, do some laundry, vacuum, get gas, answer emails, post some new online content, check book stats, schedule some promotions, read that new submission that came in last week, post a few things to social so readers know I’m still alive and interested in saying hello to them—and so on.

Some days, it’s true—this is a procrastination technique. Some days, if I do all those little tasks, then I “don’t have time” to do the hard thing, which is edit that damn book I have to finish in a month. But some days, I just want an hour to paint some birds, and sometimes that feels like it’s too tall an order.

So I’ve had to re-prioritize some things. I’ve had to carve out bits of time each day (and even—gasp—a chunk of time on the weekend) to do some little things that bring me joy. I started with an hour a day. Some days I read. Some days I paint. Some days I plant some succulents. (I might have developed a bit of a problem there, since I discovered I can order them online, and they come in like, literally a thousand different varieties for about the cost of a latte. The fella, though, assures me this is not a problem. “You can order more until we run out of window sills,” he said. “But really, I think people who take care of live things have more empathy. So I support this hobby.”

He’s a good guy. I’ve placed a jelly bean plant on his window sill.

The point of all this is that just taking an hour a day to do something that doesn’t feel like work, like a task that HAS TO GET DONE, DAMMIT actually helps me recharge. Some days I feel like every waking hour is devoted to someone else, and that gets tiresome. But to have a little time to do something fun or creative, or relaxing—to do something just because it makes me happy for a little while—that helps me maintain some balance. It’s always been hard for me to find balance. I never thought of myself as a workaholic until recently—and I realized that’s not who I want to be. Sure, I have dreams, and goals, and high expectations for myself—but I’m not unique in that regard. Lots of us feel that way. But the trick, I think, is to not get to the point where we lose track of the little tasks that bring us joy and solace—those tasks don’t make it onto the to-do list. They don’t get ticked off every day. But I think maybe they should.

What really set me on this path was when my fella surprised me with a new set of paint brushes last week for my birthday. I was a little bummed at turning 41, thinking, “Where on earth did the last ten years go? What have I done with all of that time?”

The answer was: not quite all the things I wanted.

And then when the fella gave me brushes, I was surprised and delighted. But the best part was the reason he chose them: “I want you to spend more time doing what you love,” he said. And I thought, I want that, too. So I’m carving out a little more time each day to use those brushes, and plant some spring flowers—and even write that book I’ve been putting off. After all, doing what we love helps us cultivate balance and gratitude, and I don’t think we can have too much of that.

So how do you start? I made a list. If you had all the time in the world, what are five things you’d do for yourself—just yourself—we all want to spend time with our friends and most-loved people, but we need to think about ourselves for a minute, okay? Here are mine:

  1. Write novels
  2. Practice painting with new techniques
  3. Carve wood blocks to print
  4. Exercise
  5. Gardening
  6. Read
  7. Do something outside

That’s how I started. Five, plus a couple bonus items. So go ahead, make your list. Once things are written down, it’s easier to make them happen.

The Book that is So Hard to Write

I wonder if all writers have this book in us: the one that burns a hole in our brains, wakes us in the middle of the night with its people, and its scenes, and its heart crushing realness. It’s the one your mind drifts to during the day, and the one that hijacks your dreams. It’s the book that demands to be written, even when you’d rather be writing something else: something funny, something fluffy, something that’s more like fun, like escapism, like the reason you wanted to write to begin with.

This is the book that sneaks into everything, the one that your mind drifts to when it’s tired. This is the book that leaks into your other writings, the one that bleeds onto the page while you’re trying to shove it away and write something easier, something you think other people will like, something in line with your other books that people seem to enjoy.

This is not a fun book. It sinks its teeth into you. It leaves scars. It opens old wounds and laughs while it does so. It feels like fiction, and you call it fiction.

But it isn’t.

Not entirely.

This is the book that insists on being written. You try to tamp it down as you type, because it seems too heavy, too dark. It’s not fun like the others. There’s humor, sure, just like in your real life—but underneath is a current of something darker, something that has become more obvious to you as the years went by and your hair began to gray. You keep trying to steer the story in the direction you want it to go, but this book is stubborn. It’s not interested in what you want.

Soon it seeps into everything. And you have to write it, or else it expands, crowding out all of your other thoughts until your head feels like a pressure cooker, and you have no choice but to write the words it demands, and release the valve, and free up those parts of your brain that you need to do daily tasks, like shop for groceries and balance your checkbook.

This is the book that is so hard to write. It’s the thing that claws at you in the wee hours. The thing you don’t like to talk about unless you’ve had a few glasses of wine. It steals your breath sometimes, and it makes your chest hurt. This is not a pretty book. It might not have a happy ending. (In fact, you’re pretty sure it doesn’t.) It’s not a book they’ll one day make into a rom-com. It’s one that people you know will almost certainly see themselves in, and sometimes those people are close to you, and you wonder if those people will ever read your book, and if they’ll imagine themselves in the pages.

Most of what you write feels like fiction: it’s imagined, it’s constructed. It goes the way you planned. But this book—it feels raw. And though you disguise it with fictional characters and towns, it feels like you are revealing too much: you are telling too much truth. But you have to. This is the book that wants to be written. This is the book that has its claws in you. Often, writing it feels like a slog. The writing of this book does not come easy—not like your other books. You stare at blank pages until your eyes water. You think you are wasting your time. The pieces don’t fall neatly into place. The words are difficult to type. They are jagged, and sharp, and tear at your soft edges. They make you think this is the worst thing you have ever written.

But maybe, it’s the realest thing you’ve ever written.

This is not therapeutic. This book takes drags you into dark corners, and sometimes leaves you there. You don’t feel better after the words are on the page. But you know they have to be written. This is the book that has sunk its teeth into you. But this book has something that maybe your other books don’t have. It has a beating heart, just like the others, but this book has wounds and scars, just like you do. It has ragged edges and sharp corners. It might not end well, but it will end the way it must. It is like an arrow, piercing and true.

When you get to the end, it’s hard to describe. You don’t feel better. You don’t feel broken, but you do feel bruised. You feel like you did the thing that the story wanted you to do. But you feel exhausted, and vulnerable, and raw.

This is the book that is so hard to write.

Things I Learned from My Aunt Et

In December, my great-aunt Et passed away. In memory of her, I’m sharing this post again, which I wrote for her back in 2014, on her 88th birthday. (“Aunt Et”, by the way, sounds mysterious, sometimes French, when you say it aloud. It rolls off the tongue like “Aynette,” my uncle says. It was hard for us kids to say “Aunt Et,” in that proper way, and she hated to be called Esther, her given name, because she said, “It sounds like an old woman.”)

***

I come from one of those large Southern families where titles like “Aunt” and “Grandmother” are often given like a knighthood. I say “given,” but they are earned. Usually through love.

I was a lucky kid. I had a handful of grandmothers. Two were the mothers of my parents, but there were others—the honorary ones that I got as extras–like my great aunt, who has always been Et—a nickname that had stuck with her since she was a girl.

My Aunt Et spoiled me when I was a kid. I often stayed with her after school, and she let me eat cake batter out of a bowl while watching “The Dukes of Hazzard.” I still remember lying on the floor on a braided rug, licking batter off a spoon while watching Bo and Luke Duke go sailing into the air in slow motion in the General Lee. She never told my mother when I misbehaved (which was likely more often than I recall). She let me take bubble baths in her pink bathroom, and play with the special soaps and perfumes she probably got as gifts from friends. She has been a grandmother to me my whole life, sharing in my joys and hardships. I’ve learned a lot from her, but in honor of her 88th birthday today, I’ll list the ones that were most important.

 
1. Wash your hands. You’ll live longer. (And we all know where they’ve been.)

2. Cake tastes better when it’s shared.

3. The same goes for happiness and good news.

4. A girl can have as many grandmothers as she wants.

5. It’s easy to be kind. So why not be?

6. Everybody needs a second home, where they can eat cake batter with a big spoon, watch ridiculous t.v. shows, have tantrums over pimento cheese sandwiches, and not be judged.

7. Call your friends as often as you can. You’ll pick up right where you left off.

8. You can never say “I love you” too often.

9. Sometimes smiling at a stranger leads to a lifelong friendship.

10. Sometimes you have to buy a girl a big goofy stuffed parrot. Because years later, it will remind her that she did something well, and that someone noticed.

11. Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first—and often.

12. If you have a kind spirit, you will never be alone.

Happy Birthday, Aunt Et. I am a kinder person because of you.

On Stillness

In early December, the fella and I decided to take a “for real” vacation. We hadn’t done this in, well, we couldn’t remember. To us, that was a good indication of how badly we needed to take some time off. Because my job gives me a month of furlough (sort of), and he had use-or-lose vacation days, we took the plunge.

We planned a week at Tybee Island, a tiny barrier island down on the Georgia coast that I’m sure is booming in summer. In December, it’s quiet as a tomb. And that’s exactly what we were looking for.

The last couple of years have been a real whirlwind. I’ve done some things I’m really proud of (like starting a publishing company called Blue Crow with one of my dearest friends). But it’s also been a really stressful time that often felt like a life-size game of Jenga. (“Let’s keep pulling out pieces and see when Lauren crumbles!”) I took on too many projects, didn’t say “no” often enough, and ended up feeling overwhelmed 99% of the time.

One day I told my fella I was afraid I was becoming a workaholic. He said in his calm, non-confrontational, kind Midwestern way: “Well, you do stare at your screen until the moment you go to bed.”

So that cinched it. I planned a week away for us. Loosely planned, mind you. We’re two people who don’t need a vacation agenda. We don’t leave with a bullet list. We just go someplace that sounds interesting that has some things we haven’t seen before–and we seek out some stillness.

Stillness is something I’ve needed for a long time. I used to find it when I worked for the National Park Service. Most days I could go about my ranger duties and find some quiet in my tasks: trails that needed upkeep, elk that needed monitoring, remote campgrounds that needed surveying. It was a long drive sometimes, from one outpost to another, but that meant a drive along the Parkway when it was bursting with fall color, or a hike on a remote trail that needed a little TLC. Sometimes on my walks I’d stand still and watch leaves fall all around me like snow. Or listen to elk bugle in the meadow, or listen to the rippling stream under the footbridge where I stood. I felt closer to the earth, grounded, like I belonged there, too.

Now I have to go out of my way to get that feeling. I leave my office to take short walks. I sit out on the deck and listen to the twittering cardinals and nuthatches. I keep my bird feeders full so there’s always a crowd. I plant flowers and try to keep them alive, because it feels good to have my hands in the dirt.

While on Tybee, we took walks every day. We wandered along the beach at low tide, watching the sandpipers. We ambled through town by the lighthouse and the battery. And then we found a little park with a trail that wound through the shrubs and the live oaks, a curtain of Spanish moss overhead.

And in that park, we came across a Great Blue Heron wading in a pond. We followed the path towards him, quiet as cats, and stopped when we were about ten yards away. I’d never seen one so close before. I could see the different shades of blue in his feathers, the tiny crest on his head that flapped like a cowlick in the breeze. The heron stood still as a statue, and we did, too, inching as close as we could without disturbing him.

It felt good to find that stillness again. To savor that moment and think only of that long-legged bird and its patience, escaping from the cacophony that lives inside my head most days. Most days, my head feels like a pinball machine, a dozen different thoughts banging around in my skull, pinging and colliding and competing for my attention. My to-do list feels like it stretches through two time zones. The high-priority tasks are daunting. The hours seem short and the days seem few. During my commute, I try to piece together my free hours, trying to find the most efficient way to use them, plan how to squeeze as many tasks as I can into my remaining hours before bedtime. And the next day, I do it all over again.

My month-long “vacation” has emerged as a time where I can play catch-up. I’m writing a book. Editing two more. (That all sounds like work, you’re thinking. And you’re right. It is.) But I’m also carving out time to read books for fun, and try painting again, and do some things that let me quiet my mind so I can tell myself I do not have to be a workaholic. It’s always been hard for me to find balance—I fling myself into a new project and get completely consumed by it, and feel like I don’t have time to do leisurely things like read books and do yoga. But I have to do those things, because they are the balance, and they quiet my brain. They are the stillness.

I was lucky the heron allowed me to get so close to him, to watch for a few minutes, and remember what solitude and stillness feel like. I’m even luckier to have a fella who was happy to take a moment to escape with me to the quiet place—because I know not everyone would stand there for a full ten minutes and watch a bird with me. But sometimes I think the world might be a kinder place if we all took a few minutes each day to seek that healing stillness.