In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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I’m not teaching this semester, and my husband, bless his heart, says I can stay home and write, as long as I produce two pages a day, five days a week. It’s Tuesday and I’m already three pages behind. Here are a few of the activities that have kept me from writing:
Tweezing stray eyebrow hairs, which seem to grow farther away from my eyes with each passing month.
Parting my hair and flattening it with my hands to determine the current ratio of brown to gray.
Checking my e-mail. Again. And again.
Playing computer solitaire. (I am trying to get my win percentage above the 73 percent mark, where it has hovered ever since it skyrocketed from 64 percent when I quit drinking. Surprisingly, my percentage hasn’t dropped off since I resumed drinking.)
Doing Internet searches for “best antihistamine,” “pinworms,” and “canine cardiomyopathy,” among others.
Calling my sister.
Calling my mother.
Calling my other sister to see if she’s heard from our sister or our mother.
Counting my thirty-three-cent stamps to see how many four-cent stamps I need to buy.
Ditto for thirty-four-cent stamps.
Pondering the disappearance of the cent symbol from the standard keyboard.
Opening the garage door every half-hour or so just in case the Carolina wren that flew in there yesterday is still trapped.
Looking up the Carolina wren in the Field Guide to North American Birds to see what the hell a Carolina wren is doing in my garage in the dead of winter.
Counting my teeth with my tongue.
Practicing my banjo in hopes that I have finally found “my” instrument. (I have previously abandoned the autoharp, the guitar, the piano, and the dulcimer — all for excellent reasons.)
Reorganizing my twenty-five-compartment pill organizer.
Rereading the inspirational sayings taped around my desk.
Checking Pick-A-Prof.com to see if anyone has written a new review of me as a teacher. (Specifically, I am looking for a review that does not include the words smart-alecky, mean, or hard grader.)
Printing out online dry-cleaning coupons to put in my husband’s glove compartment.
Looking up the words ersatz and hubris for perhaps the twentieth time.
Contemplating the many and varied uses of the parenthesis.
I could go on, but I don’t need to, because if I play around with the margins and the font size, I can make this two pages.
St. Louis, Missouri
When I was ten, I was obese and shy. My mom and dad had divorced three years earlier, and Mom and I lived with her parents. Though terribly lonely, I was afraid to go beyond my grandparents’ yard.
One summer day I was walking along the thin strip of property between our house and the neighbor’s hedges when I noticed some saucer-shaped rocks on the ground. I picked up a couple and balanced them into something like a house. As I walked away, I felt a sense of satisfaction.
The next morning I returned to look at my little house. There were other stones and pieces of slate around it, so I knelt and began adding to the structure. Soon my house had four sections. I plucked the weeds around it to make it look neater.
That afternoon I came back with my toy soldiers and placed them around, on top of, and inside the house, but something just wasn’t right. The soldiers looked exactly like plastic men, whereas my house didn’t look at all like a real house. I took my soldiers inside and brought out some clothespins to use as people. These worked.
Over the next two weeks I built more stone houses, assigning each one a purpose: the toolshed, the armory, the brig, the lookout tower, the grain silo, the infirmary. I built a stone wall around my little settlement. Its inhabitants, I decided, lived in hostile territory and could not survive without protection.
One afternoon, while I was lost in the world of my rock houses, my stick-thin grandfather and massive Hungarian grandmother came around the corner to check on something. I dropped the clothespins and looked up.
“Just what do you think you’re doing?” my grandfather snorted. “Making messes with rocks! You want something to do? I’ll give you something to do: throw those rocks away and pull all the weeds, or sweep the cellar.”
My grandfather frightened me, but my grandmother was the true authority in our home, a giant of a woman with arms thicker than my thighs and deep dimples at her elbows. She was loving but strict, even cruel sometimes. She used a razor strop on me and could inspire fear just by clearing her throat. As she folded her great arms over her breasts, I looked down to avoid her gaze. I waited for her to hand down my sentence.
“Leave it there,” she said. “He’s making something.”
Bowling Green, Florida
When I was in the Peace Corps, I spent a year in rural Mongolia, living alone in a one-room cabin with a clay-and-brick stove in the middle of the floor. In the winter, temperatures dropped far below zero, and my survival was completely dependent upon how much wood I could chop. While other Peace Corps volunteers started English clubs or business projects — or just managed to get a lot of reading done — most of my energy was devoted to getting warm, staying warm, and worrying about being cold.
Each day, after I returned from teaching English, I’d make a fire and sit and watch it, my coat and hat still on. When the house warmed up a few hours later, I’d remove my coat and boil melted river ice for tea. I was intimate with my stove and could start it with one match and no paper. I could hear when it needed more wood. At eleven at night, when the daily five hours of electricity ended, the music on my little boombox would slur its last note, the light bulb would go out, and I’d be left in the dark with the fire, crackling and warm.
Now I look back on all those hours I sat by the stove in Mongolia, blank, numb, and flat-out exhausted, and see it as time wasted. All the same, there was an integrity to my life there that I do not find here in America, where I have time to worry about politics or finding a great-fitting pair of jeans. The blisters from the ax, the splinters in my fingertips, the soot in the creases of my knuckles — they were real.
Mom was particularly cheerful when she called. I’d been blue all day, mooning over an old boyfriend who had found someone new. I was watching my friends get married and feeling wretched and left out. To make matters worse, my friends all felt sorry for me, the lonely one.
I wanted to tell Mom about it, but she was doing all the talking. She told me stories and relayed jokes from Dad, who was getting their dinner ready. (He had taken on most of the meal-preparation duties since Mom’s cancer had spread to her bones.) They were both very upbeat, full of news about the cats and the dog and the weather in the valley.
I was about to tell Mom my troubles when she started in about her hometown in Pennsylvania: After the December holidays, she told me, everyone used to burn their Christmas trees at a community bonfire to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. “I don’t know if they still do it now,” she said, “but when I was a kid it was one of my favorite events.”
I finally dropped my self-pity, shrugging it off like a too-heavy backpack, and I listened to my mother with all of my attention. When I hung up, I thought, I’m collecting her stories.
On Monday, Dad called me at work. The doctor had decided to stop treating the cancer. The chemotherapy and radiation on Mom’s hip and back had not reduced the size of the tumors. The doctor didn’t know what else he could do.
“I can be there in an hour,” I said through tears.
“No, no,” Dad said. “The doctor said we have time. There’s no need to rush out here. It will only upset everyone more.”
“How much time?” I said tightly.
He paused. “Two to six months.”
I left my office and headed home to pack. As I drove, my tears gave way to anger, and anger to truth. I had spent — no, wasted — so much time and energy worrying about myself when, all the while, my mother had been there, ready to tell me her stories and laugh with me. I knew then that I had never had time to waste.
I’m sitting at a long, linen-covered table in a big ballroom at corporate headquarters. Pitchers of ice water on paper doilies and little dishes of hard candies are located within easy reach of every seat. The company I work for is launching a new version of one of its software products, an occasion that apparently calls for a three-day extravaganza of fancy breakfast pastries, choreographed multimedia presentations, and enough handouts to fill an additional carry-on bag for the trip home.
It is Day Two. At what point do I stop trying to be polite and acting as if I’m interested? All this sitting saps my energy. I want to scream, run, do cartwheels, handsprings. I’ll have to settle for a brisk walk during lunch.
I hate each speaker for different reasons. One thinks she is cute, funny, and entertaining, but provides zero useful information. Another speaker is both arrogant and ignorant. He fails to explain his material and completely misses the point of an audience member’s question.
Life is short. There are so many books I want to read, places I want to visit, moments I want to spend with my yet-to-be-conceived children. And here I sit, playing word games to relieve my boredom. I concoct forty words from the letters of management, ninety-one from integration. I am depressed when exclusive yields only thirty-five, even with plurals.
Now, three years later, I am sitting on the floor at home in sweat pants, feeding my baby. An old friend calls and asks if I miss working. Once I stop laughing, I tell her no.
Dina Haines Appleby
Kennett Square, Pennsylvania
My friend Todd called the other night. He was moving across town and wanted to know if I cared to sort through the odds and ends of the bicycle-courier business he’d bought from me a year and a half ago. Now he’d closed the business and was ready to throw out a file cabinet’s worth of receipts, licenses, tax forms, half-written business plans, and old promotional fliers. Did I want any of it?
I went over and rummaged through the remains. One of the few items I decided to keep was a large three-ring binder containing all the job logs I had completed as owner-operator. I thumbed through several hundred dirty pages, each with twenty-four separate runs listed, a scribbled signature on every line. In my hands was a physical record of the thousands of miles I had pedaled, the thousands of hours I had spent trying to build a business that would last.
The venture had been a struggle from the start, but it seemed there were always just enough customers to keep me going. And there was always that one big account around the corner, or that foolproof marketing plan that would make everything work out. At times, I believed my efforts were finally paying off. Then the calls would slow again, and I’d spend an hour organizing my business cards or cleaning my bike in a feeble attempt to maintain the illusion of work.
I have a few practiced responses for those who still ask about the business: “It was an idea before its time for this town”; “I know more about myself”; “I’ve learned from my mistakes.” There is some validity to these statements, but the deeper and more painful truth is that I failed. For years I earned next to nothing, and in the end I lost money on my wife’s initial investment. I rode through sweltering Carolina summers and cold, rainy winters. I spent thousands of dollars on equipment, brochures, and supplies. I cold-called, canvassed, fliered, e-mailed, and pleaded for business. And for what? Nothing but a big book of delivery sheets — an itemized, organized account of four years’ wasted time.
Carrboro, North Carolina
Before my cancer, I didn’t know how to enjoy a spare moment. Lists of things waiting to be done, their arms folded and feet tapping, were always trying to get my attention. And I believed that if I worked hard enough, if I finally overcame my sinful laziness, I would one day get everything done. In the meantime, any spare moment seemed wasted.
As I undergo chemotherapy, there are days when I can do little except lie still. My list of things to do is simple: rest, eat something, sit outside. Stretched out in the lounge chair in the backyard, one hand on my dog’s head, the other holding a cup of tea, I am aware of the sweetness of the breeze, the music of leaves and pine needles.
I have always wanted to be a published fiction writer, but I have not accomplished that goal. Cancer has helped me see that I don’t have to accomplish any goals; I don’t have to make a name for myself. I have tried diligently, and that is enough. I enjoy what I am writing now, and that is enough. On days when I am too tired to write, lying outside is enough. I don’t have to do more in order to be more.
El Cerrito, California
© Richard Robinson
During our early-morning walks, my lover and I usually talk about our dreams for the future. We spin fantasies in which our every venture turns out exactly right. In our new, enlightened lives, we finish our degrees, learn to bake a rich Mississippi-mud cheesecake, obtain chiseled abs, and harvest fresh basil from our herb garden. Hardly ever do we imagine old age and loneliness. Rarely are our fantasy selves touched by disease or faced with hatred and prejudice.
In our dreams we have satisfying and lucrative careers: urban architect, auctioneer, fiction writer, jewelry maker, woodcarver. We find the perfect house, always more home-improvement project than showplace: hardwood floors in need of loving care, an ancient stone fireplace hidden behind drywall and cheap molding. Sometimes it’s on a brick street.
We have a small commitment ceremony, with only our closest friends and family in attendance. His parents fly down and, to everyone’s surprise, make fast friends with mine. Our mothers decorate the chapel with spring blossoms. On our honeymoon in India, we make love in a magnificent bed, draped in mosquito netting, in a room with a view of the Taj Mahal. I can almost smell the incense, curry, and cow dung as we roam the markets looking for exquisite silver jewelry to send home.
Then the whistle blows, and our fantasy evaporates. We must return to our cells: our reality.
The truth is, we are surrounded by fences, guards, and razor wire. One of us could be transferred to another prison at any time. As for the future, we will no doubt be stuck in a low-wage existence, happy to get any job. It’s unlikely we’ll ever be able to afford better than a worn-out single-wide trailer on a weed-infested lot. If our parents ever consented to join us for a commitment ceremony, it would devolve into a violent shouting match.
But I know one thing for certain: tomorrow, when we’re back on the yard, walking that eternal circle, the white picket fences will go up again. For me, daydreaming is not wasting time.
Bowling Green, Florida
A few years ago, I decided to become a writer. What I became, instead, is a master at wasting time.
Right now it is midmorning on Veterans Day. I had planned to spend the holiday writing, but I have already procrastinated by clipping the cat’s nails, brushing her fur, and changing the litter box. Before that I prepared myself a full breakfast of freshly squeezed orange juice, a Swiss-cheese omelette, toasted-pecan-and-raisin muffins, and Blue Mountain coffee with half-and-half, all of which I ate and drank very slowly. Then I took a long, luxurious bath, hand-washed a sweater, phoned a friend, balanced my checkbook, and made a grocery list. Finally I lit a stick of sandalwood incense, took a deep breath, and thought about writing.
What is it about facing a blank page that makes me want to defrost a refrigerator with twenty-two years of accumulated ice inside? I also have an overwhelming desire to scrub the bathtub and clean the nooks and crannies around the base of the toilet bowl — a task I’ve been avoiding for a decade or more. And after I’ve written a few pages, I really should go out and buy a new mattress. A futon would go well in the empty space next to the bookcase. Or maybe I could take the antique chair to be repaired.
Last spring, in order to avoid writing, I cleaned and redecorated my entire apartment.
Brooklyn, New York
When I was a child, I used to dream of all the different careers I could have as an adult. My aspirations changed as frequently as the winds that constantly assaulted the plains outside. At least once a week, I would eagerly race to tell my father my latest career plans. Dad always listened patiently, but with a look of detachment. When I had finished, he’d shake his head in disappointment. “You know, Son,” he would say, “all these dreams you talk of are only that. You have been placed upon this earth for one purpose, and that is to work as hard as you can to support this family. Now stop wasting the valuable time God has given you.”
I must have been a pretty slow child, because again and again I told my father my dreams of having an important job when I grew up, and each time my father would become irritated and instruct me, in no uncertain terms, to stop wishing for things that were impossible. And with a swat on the butt or a wave of his hand, he would abruptly dismiss me.
I never gave up on my aspirations. Throughout a stint in the military and a return to the labor market, I dreamed of becoming someone important — not necessarily to the world, as I used to dream as a child, but to myself. When I brought up these desires during infrequent visits with my father, he would look at me and slowly shake his head, his thinning white curls quivering lightly, and remind me that I had been dreaming of unattainable goals my whole life. He couldn’t understand why I, of all his children, couldn’t be satisfied with being a common laborer. Still, in the darkness of my bedroom, I would envision a time when I no longer had to sort mail into little slots all day long.
But I had a family to feed and clothe, a house and car to pay for. And deep within my psyche I heard my father’s voice, reminding me to quit wasting time and get on with the business of life. After thirty years at the same unrewarding job, I realize that I have spent my whole life wasting time, and now it is too late to start anew.
Just one game, I tell myself as I click on the FreeCell icon. The bright billiard green desktop spreads over my computer screen. I click on “New Game,” and presto! the cards cascade into eight vertical rows. My eyes scan for aces. To win, I have to stack each suit from ace to king into the four “cells” in the upper right-hand corner of the screen. The four spaces in the upper left-hand corner are the “free cells,” where I can temporarily stash cards while stacking others in the upper right.
I go for speed. I love to watch the cards fly, to see how fast I can make my next move: put the seven of diamonds on the eight of spades and send the two of spades flying atop the ace. Click-fly, click-jump, click-fly, over and over till all the suits are piled in the upper right. “Congratulations!” the computer says. “You win! Do you want to play again?”
I click “Yes.” That first game whizzed by. I can’t quit yet. The cards fly as my index finger clicks the mouse button.
“Sorry, you lose. There are no more legal moves. Do you want to play again?”
I have a rule: never quit after losing. That would be damaging to my self-esteem.
I lose again. Then win. Win, lose, win again. I never look at the clock. I’m outside of time. When I emerge, I feel like a deep-sea diver resurfacing. Sixty minutes have passed, or ninety.
I play FreeCell to escape. To tune out my troubles for a while. To cleanse my palate between tasks. To procrastinate. To disappear. A recent New Yorker profile of ballerina Suzanne Farrell said that she spends her spare time playing solitaire. When I read that, a layer of guilt fell away.
I always check my win-lose statistics before exiting the game. The total number of games I’ve played to date is 25,579. If the average length of a game is three minutes, that’s 76,737 minutes, or 1,279 hours. Approximately 160 eight-hour days; 32 workweeks.
Had I used all that time for journal writing, I’d have completed a tome the size of Samuel Pepys’ famous diary by now. If computer games had been available to Pepys back in 1660, I wonder how much journal writing he’d have done.
It was not uncommon for me to stay late at my office, a division of the Department of Justice, to get some work done. On this particular evening, however, shortly before the Thanksgiving holiday, I seemed to be the only one around. As I prepared to eat dinner alone in the cafeteria, I saw Angela walking toward me.
A short, frumpy woman, Angela was not popular at work. In fact, she had a reputation for being a flake. We had been co-workers for ten years — she worked in the business office; I worked in counseling — but I don’t think I had said ten words to her in all that time.
That night, Angela walked over to me with her tray and suggested we “chow down.” Not wanting to be rude, I invited her to sit.
I barely touched my meal. It wasn’t that I’d lost my appetite. Rather, I was too busy laughing. Angela’s offbeat sense of humor kept me in stitches. She possessed a wonderful talent for doing good-natured impressions of her co-workers and told funny stories about growing up as a Hispanic female. As we finished eating, we agreed to have lunch sometime. I left feeling I had made a new friend.
The following Saturday, Angela was killed in a car accident. How stupid I’d been not to get to know her sooner. This woman, to whom I never gave a second thought while she was alive, is on my mind a great deal now that she’s gone.
Thomas J. Comer
My mother was disappearing into the fog of Alzheimer’s, and my father’s health had begun to suffer as he struggled to care for her. I did the only thing I could do: I moved them from California to an assisted-living facility in my small Oregon town.
I loved my parents and, as their only child, wanted to help them in their last years. At the same time, I led a full life. In my career, long years of research were coming to fruition. And my music group was finally receiving requests to play at venues in town.
At first, I would visit my parents once or twice a day. They would often sleep while I was there. My mother never remembered that I had come, and sometimes my father didn’t either. He was always asking when I would return and whether I could stay longer.
Caring for them was an enormous undertaking that sometimes drained all my reserves. My father needed emotional support as his wife incrementally left him. My mother, in her confusion, needed love and companionship on a regular basis. And someone had to advocate for them and ensure that they were receiving quality care. I had no energy left for the creative endeavors that I believed were so important to my well-being. Slowly, however, I began to understand that I had limited time left with my parents, and that caring for them was in many ways the most important work I could do.
I remember my father, wizened and bent with age and grief, standing at the entrance to his assisted-living facility, proudly wearing the new coat he’d purchased for the cold Oregon weather. As he saw my car approach to pick him up for dinner at my home, his face lit up. And I remember my mother sitting in the TV room of the Alzheimer’s unit in her wheelchair. When she saw me from across the room, a radiant smile arose out of her confusion, and I knew that she recognized me, her son.
At some point, I put all my old hurts behind me and was able to see them for who they really were: two brave and grateful souls who loved me and were showing me the way on a path that I would someday travel myself.
My mother died when I was eleven. Years later, when I was older and tried to recall her, I was disturbed to find that I couldn’t remember much. I had only a bare outline of my mother. The years around her death, too, had disappeared, like the circle of scorched earth after an explosion.
Afraid of losing more, I began to keep a journal. I wrote everything down in my notebooks, to guarantee that no moment of my life would be forgotten. I also began making schedules for each day, organizing my life in a rigid, orderly fashion. Any time I wasn’t studying, reading, or writing was time wasted. My schedules were a series of steps leading irrevocably toward the future, my notebooks a trail of evidence that I could backtrack along if I needed to. And all the while, memories of my mother remained out of reach.
After the birth of my first child, I spent three months in a lakefront cabin with no distractions of any sort. I had plenty of time on my hands, and the baby had the final say in how I spent it. Unable to make schedules in my usual fashion, I became more of a day-to-day person, adapting to whatever came up. I began to take long walks on dirt roads with my baby on my back.
As my schedules fell away, something else entered the mental space they left behind: impressions, images, and, finally, memories of my mom and of the lost years around her death.
Because of all that wasted time, I got my mother back.
Tybee Island, Georgia
© Rita Bernstein
When I was twelve, I was a competitive roller skater and would travel to competitions once a month. I always had to be at the rink by 7 A.M. I would go to bed early the night before, my hair in the hated curlers my mother insisted upon, and get up before dawn. My mother, in her bathrobe, would fuss endlessly with my hair — combing it and spraying it with some sort of awful lacquer — while my skating bag sat by the door, ready to go.
My father would arrive in plenty of time to drive us to the competition. (They were divorced but friendly.) Without fail, however, my mother would still be in her bathrobe, having coffee and a cigarette at the kitchen table.
“We need to leave in ten minutes,” my father would say.
And my mother would sigh, stub out her cigarette, and amble off toward the shower.
I’d watch the clock and listen to the water running and running in the bathroom. Eventually, the shower would end, and there would be another agonizing wait before she emerged from the bathroom, went into her bedroom, and shut the door.
Once, my father got up from the kitchen table and turned the wall clock around so we couldn’t see it. “We always get there somehow,” he said to me.
My stomach would be in knots. I loved skating, but hated competitions. The added tension of waiting for my mother usually made me run to the bathroom to throw up my breakfast.
My father would eventually go out to start the car, then come back in, knock on my mother’s door, and tell her we were leaving in five minutes, with or without her. We’d end up sitting in the car for ten more minutes before she finally emerged, complaining that we hadn’t given her enough time to get ready and that she must look awful. My father would insist that she looked wonderful. I’d keep my mouth shut.
We always made it to the competition — barely — but I never had time to warm up properly, and my figures were too shaky for me to make the finals.
The last time I ever skated in a competition was the day my father finally made good on his threat. We got into the car, waited five minutes, and drove away. I couldn’t believe it. He just looked over at me and smiled and didn’t say anything.
We got to the rink well before my event started. I had the luxury of a twenty-minute warm-up. I made the finals and won a medal.
After that, my mother decided that she couldn’t afford my skating lessons anymore. She said skating was a waste of time.
My parents expected me to pay two thousand dollars a year toward my fancy, East Coast, private-school education, so I had to find gainful employment every summer. That first summer I was going to be a nanny in France. When that plan fell through, I decided I’d get a job in Boston. As it turned out, however, I had to go back to my boring hometown in California’s Central Valley and get a normal job. While my friends were exploring the world through internships and travel, I was stuck in Modesto.
For about ten days I scurried around town, writing my name, Social Security number, and employment history on forms. Finally I landed some work at a local cafe, but it was only eight hours a week, so I started to look for a second job. A friend of mine was busing tables at an upscale restaurant around the corner. It paid terribly, he said. Even so, I marched over to the restaurant and practically demanded a job. The manager asked if I had black pants and a white shirt and told me to come back in an hour.
After about a month at the restaurant, I started to dread my shifts. The work was killing me, and some servers would leave me only three dollars out of a hundred-dollar tip. I was miserable.
One evening after closing, the servers all went home, as usual, and I was left to clean and set every table in the restaurant by myself. The bitter, complaining voice in my head was louder than ever. I was losing five hours of my life a night to this menial job — not to mention that I should have been in France, or at least Boston.
Then I stopped in midmotion, my hand holding a spoon above a table, and I shook my head. The five hours I spent filling water glasses and delivering bread weren’t five hours lost. Those hours were my life. Why couldn’t I cherish them as much as I cherished time spent with friends or in the mountains? I put the spoon down as gracefully as possible, placing it perfectly parallel to the fork and knife. If this wasn’t real life, I didn’t know what was.
My mother has always had trouble enjoying life. She has no hobbies and few close friends. She never learned to ride a bike or to swim. We rarely had guests over when I was growing up: what if they stayed too late or put a glass down without a coaster? Whenever I asked my mother how she had spent the day, her answer was always “I did what I had to do.”
The youngest of four siblings, my mother immigrated to the United States in her twenties, leaving her entire family behind in Argentina. Perhaps guilt or loneliness made her the way she was. I’m sure undiagnosed depression had a lot to do with it.
After my brother and I left home, my mother got a job as a Spanish-English translator, and for a few years she immersed herself in her work and made friends. But when the job ended, she had no interests to fall back on.
“Learn to paint,” I suggested. “Volunteer. Write down all of your mother’s recipes. Adopt a dog.”
“One of these days,” she’d say.
Three years ago, my mother began exhibiting odd behavior — memory loss, confusion, explosive episodes. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at the age of sixty-three. The illness has progressed quickly. She can no longer do what she “has to do.”
Recently, however, in a particularly lucid moment, my mother turned to me as I was folding laundry and said, “It’s a beautiful day today. Don’t waste it. I’ll take care of the clothes. You go outside. Enjoy the sun.”
San Francisco, California
I was forced to take care of myself at an early age. My father died when I was five, and my sister, ten years my senior, moved out at the age of eighteen. My mother spent most of her days in a drunken stupor.
In high school, I saw a counselor every Friday afternoon to discuss the embarrassment, loneliness, and anger I felt. Most days I came home to find Mom sitting on the edge of her bed, dressed only in her underwear, with empty beer cans strewn about on the floor. She’d call me a “whore” and a “bitch” and sometimes push me against the wall or grab me around the throat. I never knew what prompted these outbursts. I tried to convince myself that, in her drunken state, she mistook me for someone else.
Before graduating from high school, I moved in with my older sister and her husband. I’d thought the move would help, but instead I felt guilty for leaving my mother alone. I worried constantly that she’d kill herself or fall and lie bleeding on the sidewalk with no one to pick her up and help her home, as I had always done.
In college, I joined an adult-children-of-alcoholics support group. By the time I graduated, I had a new acceptance of my mother and her disease and a newfound sense of peace. I married my long-time sweetheart and got a job with a local nonprofit agency. Everything was going well. Then my body became numb from the waist down.
Many tests later, a neurologist told me I had multiple sclerosis. I was only twenty-two.
Although I recovered from my initial episode of the disease, I struggled to understand my body’s new limitations. I eventually began to see a social worker for help dealing with my MS, and with problems that had roots in my childhood.
Two years after my diagnosis, my husband left me. He didn’t want to be married to a “cripple,” he said. He took out the maximum cash advance on all of our credit cards, emptied our bank account, and disappeared. I contemplated suicide. Not knowing whom else to call, I phoned the social worker and told her I needed to talk.
That was the beginning of several years of intensive therapy, in which I worked through the grief from the divorce, the humiliation of bankruptcy, and the pain of being rejected.
Now, eleven years later, I am married to a wonderful man, and we have a beautiful six-year-old girl. My MS is stable, I have a job that I love, and I’m no longer in therapy. I have accepted everything that has happened in my life and can find good in all of it.
Four years ago, my mother died of breast cancer. She had been sober for several years, and on her deathbed she held my hand and asked my forgiveness for all the times she had been so negligent and cruel. I told her I had forgiven her long ago. I hope she died in peace, because I was, and am, at peace with her.
So why, then, do I waste so much time thinking of those nights when she would grab me around my neck, breathe her hot, sour breath into my face, and call me a “no-good fucking whore”?
Rita M. Hayes
The summer my boyfriend and I started dating, we spent most of our time making love. Neither of us was working, and there were days when we got up only to eat. In between lovemaking sessions, we sprawled on the bed and talked and laughed. I sometimes looked at the sun coming through the windows and was reminded of other things I should have been doing. When I complained that we weren’t getting anything done, my boyfriend said, “What else do we really have to do?” And he wrapped himself around me to keep me from getting out of bed.
Now, almost two years later, we have jobs, errands, and responsibilities. We don’t have time to lie around in bed all day, and we often climb between the sheets exhausted at night. Sometimes, as we kiss good night before falling asleep, I think back fondly on our summer of wasted time.
Carrboro, North Carolina
Wasting time is my specialty. I have no job. My depression makes it difficult for me to function in a work environment, and besides, I never found a job that I really liked. I also have no responsibilities, except taking care of my cats. Sometimes getting out of bed is the most I accomplish in a day.
So what do I do with myself? I watch videos that I borrow from the library. I play games and send e-mail on the library’s computers. I work the Sunday crossword puzzles, which my neighbor saves for me. I watch TV. I read. I play with my cats. Occasionally I take a walk.
I have wasted three years this way. I will probably stop only when I run out of money. So far I’ve gone through much of what I inherited from my parents’ estate. I am now spending the money in my IRAs, left over from my marriage to a careful investor. Soon, I will sell my house and live off the proceeds.
One day, worried that my life was a waste of time, I signed up to volunteer at a local animal shelter, but I haven’t gone there to help out. Perhaps someday I’ll be inspired to accomplish something with my life, but I doubt it. One definition of insanity is expecting a change in outcome without a corresponding change in one’s behavior. I’d at least like to think that I’m not insane.
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
The flickering television was the only light in the room. I could see my father’s strained face in its blue glow. I watched him while he sat there, mourning my mother in his strange and solitary way. She’d been everything to him. When I was small, I’d heard him tell Grandpa that she was the only reason he could face “this Godforsaken shit hole of a world.” I wondered what a “shit hole” was. Later, I would wonder why my mother stuck by him.
She tried to leave a couple of times. She’d come into my room and start packing my Snoopy suitcase. She always told me that we were going to a slumber party at Aunt Patty’s. We made it to Aunt Patty’s only once. He showed up the same night with a bunch of red roses. Mama let me rub rose petals on my lips the whole ride home.
My mother’s death stunned all of us. I couldn’t really blame him for sitting there on the couch, losing himself in the fake world of TV, but I still craved his attention. I’d sit in the corner, waiting for him to notice me. A couple of times I let out a loud sob or stamped my feet on the tile floor. He glanced my way without a sound. The TV light danced in his eyes. I felt him looking right through me.
“Dad?” I said.
“I’m busy,” he said. And he turned back to the television.
That’s when I opened the back door and fled. I ran past my mother’s wilting garden and into the forest behind our house.
This scene repeated itself many times. The canopy of trees and the wet forest floor became my sanctuary. While my father sat on the couch, weighed down by his loss, I watched the birds and learned the songs of the jays and the chatter of the squirrels. I sent prayers up the trunks of trees that my mother might know peace in heaven.
One time, I tucked myself into a high crevice between two tree limbs and drifted off to sleep. Dusk came and went while I dreamed that I saw my mother. She came to me and held me and rocked me while I cried. Then she told me that I needed to wake up and go home, because the stars were out.
When I arrived home in the early-morning hours, my father was still sitting on the couch, the room barely lit by a dim bulb. The television was off. I feared his gaze. His eyes were red with emotion.
“Where have you been?” he said calmly.
I searched for the words to explain my experience to him. I found none. “Wasting time,” I answered.
He rose and came toward me. I cowered in expectation of his wrath.
A tear rolled down his cheek as he took me into his arms.
“Me, too,” he whispered.
I wake at five o’clock in the morning, put on the pressed suit and shirt I laid out the night before, and pick up my luggage for my trip. As I leave, I kiss my sleeping wife’s arm and grab the July copy of The Sun from the nightstand to read on the plane.
In first class I sit next to a carefully manicured man who’s reading How to Win Friends and Influence People. I open The Sun to Readers Write on “Wasting Time.” I chuckle as I read about a writer who procrastinates by playing computer games and studying the inspirational sayings pinned up around her computer. Then there’s a piece about two gay men in prison trapped in their daydreams, and one about a Peace Corps volunteer chopping wood to stay warm in her tiny hut, and another about an abusive mother reuniting with her daughter. I’m crying now — quietly, so no one will hear.
I will waste a lot of time today. When my airplane lands, I’ll face twelve hours of meetings in which I’ll talk about financial services and market fluctuations. I’ll take ten pages of notes that I will likely never look at again. I’ll buy my clients a very expensive lunch and listen to them talk about their major home renovations, private schools, and exotic vacations. I’ll ask the right questions and laugh at their stories. Afterward I’ll go back to my hotel and flip through bad movies on cable.
My wife is probably getting up and starting coffee right now. Our children will rise around seven to play Legos and maybe perform a puppet show before breakfast. Our daughter has her first experimental dance class today. In the afternoon they’ll go to the pool, soak in the sun, and eat cheeseburgers and popsicles. They’ll watch Spy Kids and read Harry Potter. They’ll have a thousand questions: “Mom, what’s a kiwi?” “How fast does this car go?” “Why is Alex so mean?” “When is Daddy coming home?” “Can I have a new doll?” “Who is Jesus?” They will not waste one minute today.
Maybe I’ll skip the meetings and take the next flight home. I’ll tell my clients I’m sick. I’ll drive up to the house and see my children playing in the sprinklers, my wife sitting on the picnic bench sipping coffee. The kids will scream and charge at me, soaking my pressed suit with their wet little bodies and giggling. Then we’ll load a picnic basket and pile into my wife’s VW bug and drive to the river.
The daydream lasts the entire flight. At my destination, I quietly climb into the taxi that will take me downtown for my first meeting.