If we’ve talked in real life since I’ve gotten back from our cross-country trip, you’ve probably heard me talk about this, in which case, apologies. But something that I loved so much over three months of bike travel and that I’m trying so hard to keep up in real life now is the sense of something I call time opulence. That is, the sense of being fully present in every moment, not feeling like I have to get ready for the next thing or worrying if I’ll finish something in time. The sense that what I’m currently doing is what I should be doing, and that I don’t have to worry about the next thing until I get there. That time is something that stretches unimpeded into my horizon and I will have enough of it, without having to wrestle it into a schedule to make sure it all gets done.
(stopping to smell the flowers, as they say;)
A million years ago, I was lucky enough to live with a host family in Senegal for six months. There I learned that time does not have to be the way we conceive of it in American society, something to be scheduled, guarded, and traded for monetary gain. At first, trying to operate in Senegal drove my little American efficiency-minded self crazy (“why isn’t the post office open when it says it should be??” or “why is my professor 25 minutes late for class?” or “why won’t my host sister give me a time that she’ll be home?” for example). But as I settled into it, I saw the other side: human relationships were the most important thing. Running into a friend on the side of the road was worth an untimed stop, even if that meant that someone didn’t get to the post office in time to open it when the sign promised it would open. Over time, I relaxed, and learned to love — so much — the feeling that it was the people who were most important, not the schedule. And when I got back to the United States, I remember feeling a real sense of loss that relationships seemed so much more shallow, that someone could be a friend, but only when and if it fit into the schedule.
After three months on the road largely without a schedule, I am trying so hard to hold onto the reminder that it is not “the schedule” that rules my life.
It’s not like we didn’t have any sort of schedule while we were traveling. There was definitely a moment in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, for example, where all of a sudden I was super nervous that we weren’t going to make it to Lubec, Maine in time for us to both get back to our jobs when we said we would. We were aware of our progress, and the time of day, and all that. But it was more of a loosely-tracked sense of general time, not an “I have 15 minutes before my next meeting” sense of time. It was a schedule in a very broad sense only. If we wanted to spend a little longer at a coffee shop because it was raining, that was fine. If we wanted to sleep in, that was fine; if we wanted to get up super early, that was fine too. Time was only in a very small sense a limiting factor. It was opulent: for the most part, it felt like we had all the time in the world.
I realize it’s easier to feel like you have an opulent amount of time when you’re on vacation, or doing whatever it is that insulates you from contending with the normal daily obligations of making a living or caring for your children or whatever. But a lesson that I still learn over and over when I travel and then come home again is that my sense of time opulence doesn’t actually come from having more time, it comes from my own relationship to the time that I do have. If I try to pack a million things into it and schedule every last second, I always end up feeling time-poor, like there’s never enough time to do what I want, or to do it well. But if I can approach time as something stretching away into the distance the way it was on our bike trip, full of potential and with so much of it out there, even when I have a lot of things I want to do with that time I feel much better and less stressed about it. And I still get things done, but in a way that feels like it was on my terms.
I suppose time opulence goes hand in hand with the other thing I love and try to cultivate in my life, which is the sense of enoughness. Enoughness is the time to do what I value and what makes me happy and what helps me feel like part of a community of people who care for each other. If I have time and community, that is enough. And if I have enough, I don’t need to spend my life crazily chasing down… whatever it is I’m supposed to be chasing. I don’t have to fall into the breakneck speed of the always-scheduled; I don’t have to plan all my time to hedge my bets against the fear that if I don’t I won’t attain whatever it is I’m supposed to do in this life; I can toodle along at my bike-tour speed taking it all in, and that is fine. That is enough.
(enough time for a sweet sunset, enjoyed with an old coworker, on Lake Superior:)
I find that I’m having a hard time wrapping this up, because it feels complicated. Obviously there is privilege involved in not having to work constantly simply to survive (which I would argue is a total failure of American society, that that’s even a thing for anyone). And I’m not advocating for never having plans, or for being on a bike trip at every moment, or for not doing anything because doing things places demands on your time. I’m glad to be home, and I’m happy to be able to place constraints on my time like a few hours spent volunteering at the farmer’s market, or a phone date with a friend, or other plans that I make because without plans it is sometimes very hard to have multiple adult human schedules match up. But I guess what I’m saying is that within those plans, and within being back at work and back at school, I’m still trying to keep the sense of time opulence. I find that I have little patience for the breakneck speed of the world, or the people who work either consciously or not to maintain that breakneck speed. I have little patience for busy-ness. When I am doing something, I want to be doing that thing, not fretting about the next thing. For me, that is a way to carry the feeling of time opulence over into normal life.
No one knows how much time they’ll have in this world, but when you get down to it, it’s all we have. So I’m happy to keep chugging away at bike-tour speed, where it feels like enough.