As I go about my daily business, which takes me from the coffee shop where I work to the classroom where I teach to the university that I attend to the great big world all around, I encounter people, and when I encounter people, I encounter questions. Lots of questions. Everyone has questions. They may not always take the time to e-mail them to Sydney, but they never seem to tire of asking me, in person, for my opinion. Sometimes they don’t even ask me a question, they just talk about their problems, and from that, I extract the essential question and then force a pen into their hands and make them write it down. Rare is the day that I am not walking around with a question scribbled onto a piece of scrap paper tucked in my back pocket. In fact, I now refer to myself, quite fondly, as a question slut.
With the holidays comes a bevy of special questions. One could almost call them theme questions, because they are those that everyone around me seems to be echoing over and over again in the slump of their shoulders, in their cryptic responses to the usual “How are you?” in the way they heave a weighted sigh as I pass their double latte, no foam, over the counter. In honor of this, for the next two weeks, I am having a sort of Holiday Sydney Special, a personal and more in-depth response to a couple of questions that seem to be floating around the bio-sphere, getting into the water and otherwise messing with our collective heads. What follows is the first and most pressing.
Dear Sydney, It’s [insert holiday of choice] and I can’t seem to get anything done. How is it possible to ever, ever have enough time? How can I even enjoy myself when I’m so overwhelmed?–Racing
Dear Speedy: The common explanation for our constant rushing to and fro is that we are culturally predisposed to borderline obsessive compulsion. Supposedly, we live in a country where people are just wound pretty damn tight. We like to keep on the move. We also really like cool stuff and are surrounded on many sides by wealth (albeit, not usually our own), which leads to chronic dissatisfaction. Add to this the inflated cost of living, and family, vacations and nap time get basically marginalized or eliminated altogether. Many have to hire others to walk their dogs for them, that is how little time we have!
All this rushing is partly about survival, but there’s something else going on here, too. We are in a hurry; it’s not just imagined, a figment of our work-obsessed little minds. We live in a time where there are infinite possibilities–for places to go, for things to see, for people to meet. It’s 2006, and almost anything seems possible. We can now travel the entire world in the time it once took to ride a mule from Santa Rosa to San Francisco.
So maybe it’s not just economics and cultural mores, but the fact that we have so many choices. There literally is not enough time in the day, and the life expectancy at this time (something like 83) is not nearly long enough. I need at least 200 years to accomplish all of the things I want to get done. I may tell myself that I’m rushing against a shopping list or a dirty house or a pile of laundry or too many soccer games, while what I’m really rushing against is death. I love being alive. I love it so much that I want it to go on and on, not just for me, but for everyone I love.
But it doesn’t. Life can end anytime, and since 9-11 and turning 30, I worry about it more. I start thinking about Iraq and all of the people getting blown to pieces, not to mention the Middle East in general, and Africa and global warming. These are blessed times in many ways, but they are also frightening, and sometimes the easiest way to avoid being afraid is just to keep on moving–treading water, to employ an overused swimming metaphor. Because if I don’t, I just might end up getting my toes nibbled by the resident monster of the day: cancer, car wreck, terrorist attack, rapid temperature changes, random accidents, whatever.
I know people who claim they don’t think about such things, but they don’t concern me here, because I do think about them. I remember being a kid, lying on the deck in the summers, sleeping outside and looking up at the stars. They spread out all around me like the entire night was about to swallow me up, and I would let myself just shrink into my sleeping bag until I was a spot of nothing in the entire wide universe, and I could hardly breathe with the grandiosity of it. I would think about the universe going on and on and on, to infinity, and my teeth would chatter. Impossible. But this is what life is. A mystery so great we can hardly breathe. So we just keep dashing from place to place in an eternal effort to avoid truly feeling what it means to be mortal, vulnerable and often afraid. My greatest fear is something bad happening to one of my children. If someone told me that I could keep them safe if I spent all of my days bouncing on a Pogo stick, I would do it. Up and down, up and down, up and down. And I can’t even bounce on a Pogo stick. But I would learn.
So try to consider the holidays differently this year, try not to worry about getting everything done. You never will anyway, because time never stops moving, and there is always more to do. Focus instead on the people in your life you love the most, and then make some time just for them. If you don’t buy a single gift, so what? Give everyone money. You know that’s what they want anyway.
No question too big, too small or too off-the-wall.