The essential cultural discrimination is not between having and not having or haves and have-nots, but between the superfluous and the indispensable. Wisdom, it seems to me, is always poised upon the knowledge of minimums; it might be thought to be the art of minimums.
I don’t know who wrote the above sentences, only that I came upon them today and they spoke to me.
When I was a lot younger, I loved to run around and not miss out on anything. There’s time for that, an energy for that, I’m glad I did it. Now I’ve turned into this selective diva who frowns as different options for how to use her time come up:
Plant more annuals (did that yesterday)?
Drive to the co-op to pick up turnips for a chicken dish I might prepare tomorrow (I’m already running out of time today)?
A reading by a neighbor in the local meetinghouse?
A catch-up phone call with friends?
A week’s vacation?
A film in Amherst on an exhibit of Vermeer?
I can positively feel my face narrowing, Scrooge-like, as I contemplate the many, many ways I can spend time. I have my daily routine of sitting, study, reading, exercise, dogs, and writing. Add part-time teaching to that and that’s my fixed menu of the day, almost every day. And then the temptations come in via email, reminders, and conscience: When did you last call a distant cousin or a former student in a nursing home? When did you last volunteer at the Stone Soup Cafe?
Some people dream of this time when they are older, no longer tethered to 9-5 or 2 weeks of vacation, no more Monday-Friday commuting. Having time, flexibility, and way less structure.
I create my own structure day after day and mostly, I want to do more of what I’m already doing—more meditation practice, more study, and a heck of a lot more writing.
Lately I began a story about a world which mandates that people marry someone who’s different from them: a different race, culture, religion, country, etc. Just like we once had anti-miscegenation laws to prevent black/white couples, now we have the exact opposite, laws preventing people from marrying inside their heritage, all to prevent the violence and wars that stem from people’s fear and condemnation of the Other. Now you have to marry the Other. In fact, the new Other is someone just like you.
I got the idea from a snatch of conversation I overheard at a friend’s home one evening, and instantly thought to myself: That’s a good idea for a story. Then, of course, I almost worried it to death: What is the story here? Who tells it? Who is s/he? Most important, what’s going to happen?
I remind myself that the best thing to do is just sink into it, put aside everything else, forget what you’re going to have for dinner, just go for it. And then old voices come up: Yes, but what about Vermeer? Why are you not spending more time in the garden like everybody else—you’ll be sorry! Wasn’t it Colette’s mother who refused to come to Paris for one last visit to see her famous daughter because a rare rose was about to bloom?
And now, of course, the unnerving warning: You’ll be lonely!
Various people make a point of reminding me that Vivek Murthy, our Surgeon General, has issued an official warning about the dangers of loneliness, accompanied by numerous other articles in newspapers about how folks my age should not, under any circumstances, spend too much time alone. We need book clubs, social circles, community gatherings, religious congregations or sanghas, and billions of volunteer opportunities in order not to succumb to end-of-life depression. We were born social creatures, and that’s how we should die, they declare.
Bah! Humbug! I feel like saying. Yes to sangha, yes to family and friends. And yes to the fragrance of the lilacs outside my window, so transient the breeze outside could just carry it off the next hour. Two butterflies have alighted there right now and the hummingbirds are back to their summer battles. More and more, this is the time to listen to those muted voices I barely heard formerly, when I was busy busy busy.