The Gift of Found Time

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“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
― Annie Dillard

A  little over eight years ago my father’s heart stopped. One minute he was clutching his tennis racquet and waiting for the other doubles team to serve. The next, he was on the floor. His wife, an ex-firefighter and an amazing human being, resuscitated him with the help of friends and a defibrillator installed on the wall of the gym.

Some years before that, my husband took me to Paris. We bought a seven-day metro pass and rode all over the city to see sights and eat food we’d been talking about for months. Then, on the seventh day, the pass expired. After dinner, we took our last ride back to our hotel, packed our bags and wistfully said good night.

The next morning my husband looked at our itinerary and then looked at me. A smile lit up his face.

“We don’t leave until tomorrow.”

For my father, a little more than 2,300 “found” days. For us, one.

I learned as a kid about the concept of “found” fortune. It’s that five-dollar bill in the pocket of last winter’s coat, discovered this winter as you reach for a plastic bag to clean up after the dog. It’s a coin glistening on the asphalt parking lot, a check tucked inside a birthday card from a relative. Unearned, unexpected, a gift.

The question of course is what to do with the windfall.

My husband and I danced down to the metro station, bought a one-day pass each and set out on a completely unscripted day. We got off wherever we wanted. We ate deli in the Jewish section, wandered through the Picasso museum, negotiated the return of my husband’s stolen sunglasses, ate ice cream, walked one more time along the Seine at night. No single thing was particularly romantic or dazzling. Each one added up to a day we’ve never forgotten. The thing we remember most is how time moved slowly, like a river in August. Each minute drifted up to us, sank in, and then passed without urgency. We had no expectations or plans.

Then we came home. Our days rushed at us full of tasks, expectations, plans set in motion, worries, people to care for, deadlines, milestones. The “found” day is a story we tell. It is something we try to recapture when we travel and we do a pretty good job of it, although planning an open day is not quite the same as waking up to the surprise of one. We’ve never managed to stumble on a “found” day at home or work. As I write these words, I wonder why this is.

As for my dad?

I asked him recently how he views the “extra innings” he was granted. We chatted over the phone. His voice in my ear was clear, strong and, as always, a little musical. He always sounds decades younger than the eighty-seven he will turn next month.

“I think about it a lot and how lucky I’ve been. I’m still above the daisies. I am grateful for that.”

We don’t talk about how he has spent his days since “the event.” There are the things I know about: staying engaged in the company he founded with my brother, adopting with his wife two lab-doodles from a rescue organization, walking a few miles every day or working out on a rowing machine in his basement, chopping wood, driving to the dump, practicing jazz on his guitar, swearing at his computer, cooking and eating meals that keep him trim, healthy, and the poster image of the healthy, compliant cardiac patient. He spends time with men who have served in the Marines, as he has. He continues to read as he always has. He has attended funerals of friends and acquaintances. I know there is a boat under construction in his shed, unfinished. I know it bothers him. A lot of things, it turns out, bother him about how he is spending his time.

“I have so many things out there that I have started and haven’t been able to finish and I feel pressured by that and I keep asking myself how I’m going to deal with this.”

“I’m having a huge dialog with myself about some of the things i’ve done since then and not totally happy with myself.”

“I’m taking some time now to sit down and go through all of it in my mind. I am going to be trying to make better decisions.”

A few hours after talking with my father, I am talking to K. who is in tears. The past has got her in its grip and is shaking her in its wolf teeth.

“I’ve made so many bad decisions.” The rest of the thought goes unexpressed: so little time left to alter course.

At 52 she is trying to find her way to the kinds of days she imagines other people enjoy. She wants to work, to love and be loved, to be included in a world that seems closed off to her because of mistakes she has made or decisions she is afraid to make.

The woman who can make me weep with laughter, who can both embarrass and enthrall me with her ability to walk up to total strangers and talk to them as though she’s known them all her life, who has been a rock for others in the face of death, is afraid on this day. She copes with chronic illness. Money is scarce. Too many of the people she has loved or passed significant chunks of time with are dead.

She wants time back. She wants it to wait for her to catch up. She wants to find time.

We talk about my father. We talk about the day my husband and I found in Paris. We talk about the trap of believing that we’ve screwed up so badly that we can’t or don’t deserve to live fully in the day that is right here in front of us. There is the maddening idea that by “saving” time, we can squirrel it away for later.

Then we talk about those brief flashes of insight that come to us when some event that happens in the space of time it takes to hit the brakes and avoid an accident, or find out that we’ve tucked an extra day in Paris, or when some arbitrary set of circumstances — marrying the right woman, playing tennis in one of the few gyms with an AED attached to the wall — forces our eyes open. We discover that time is both precious and unremarkable. It is now. We understand, if only for a little while, that it was there all along, waiting for us to find it.

28 thoughts on “The Gift of Found Time

  1. As I was about to post this, my dad wrote me an update. I am sharing it with you here:

    Today was a good day! preceded by a miserable week in terms of human relations, especially family, and work oriented stuff. I am tired, having been somewhat sleepless for the past few days but elated in terms of what I saw in our place of business today…my son smiling broadly, everyone in the shop engaged, professional and paying attention to their tasks, cheerful…getting things done. My soul is refreshed. From this environment came inspiration and paths to solutions of nagging problems. I am grateful…and happy, this was a special windfall! Betsy’s Dad

  2. What a delightful, poignant post! This really spoke to me, I guess because I’ve thought about these things many times, but never as eloquently as this. Betsy, you should turn this into an essay and submit it somewhere. There are magazines out there that would love this.

  3. I love this and as the To Do list of Christmas seems to be one item too many, I needed this reminder that our lives are precious and too short. Thanks to you and your dad for helping me find a little more of the time that has been here all along.

  4. I read this about 5 minutes after I found myself, sitting at my computer, thinking, man, I love my life. It is a life of found days lately, and although I know there will come an end to the whimsy, I am entrenched in the joy of right now. Your post seemed to be written for me today. thank you.

  5. I’ve been thinking about your essay all day, Betsy. Finding moments, savoring them, realizing time is something I so often construct and then fight in my imagination. How much better to discover its gifts. Thank you!

    • Katrina, the essay has been bubbling for a long time but it was reading your blog post about the Solstice and your decision to approach each activity surrounding the holidays consciously and with real attention and acceptance that helped me to get it out of my head and onto the screen. Glad you liked it.

    • I think the thing that hits me too is that it is not only found time for my dad but for us to be together and connect more deeply. I know I have not used all the time well and want to do better. Thank you for commenting and sharing your own experience.

  6. Another great reflection. Joleen and I built in an extra day in Paris because of your experience

    Sent from Harald’s iPhone

  7. Dear Betsy,
    I sat down to write my blog about London and just saw this post as I went through my gmail alerts. It seems we are often on the same wave length. Time is a funny thing and I love the story about the day you “found” in Paris. My husband and I didn’t find a day in London, but an unscripted vacation reminded me of the last day you describe in Paris. I really enjoy your insight and appreciate your way with words. I loved this line: “The thing we remember most is how time moved slowly, like a river in August. Each minute drifted up to us, sank in, and then passed without urgency.” Thank you for this.
    Happy holidays,
    Kimberly :)

    • Thanks, Kimberly. It’s great to hear from you. I”m heading over to your blog to check out London. Glad to hear you’ve had your own unscripted days. Happy Holidays to you too! Many blessings in the New Year.

  8. Lovely post, Elizabeth. One of my best found days was during a snow storm. My husband and I walked Chicago for hours and ended up at a German Irish pub called Gunter Murphy’s. We told stories filled with black humor and inappropriate insights and laughed, along with other patrons – strangers – until our sides hurt. Happy New Year.

    • Thank you for sharing this, Victoria. There’s something about snow and walking and safe havens happened upon that create a world and space of their own. How wonderful for you to have discovered that. Happy New Year to you!

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