[An essay I published about a year ago ... suddenly remembered it after too many long work days & nights.] It’s 11:10 on a Thursday morning and I’m sitting with my husband in a cozy, local coffee shop listening to live music. Rhythmic and lyrical, Boubacar Diébaté plays a traditional instrument – wood shaft atop a round skin-covered base that’s part banjo, part drum. My husband and I share an overstuffed upholstered chair and a nut and raisin muffin. He doodles the musician’s likeness on a napkin; I casually write.
This is not what we typically do after dropping the kids at school, and I feel a quiet, ever-growing blanket of guilt unfold across my lap. Listening to beautiful music is not what one does at 11:10 on an average Thursday morning in our culture. Not on a workday. Not when there are projects to complete, clients to call, and bills to pay. I feel indulgent, and a little defiant. But mostly, I can’t stop eying the clock, wondering how much longer I can justify this temporary escape from what I’m really supposed to be doing.
Yet why do I feel guilty?
I can rationalize playing a little hooky. I’m self-employed so I can work anytime, as long as I get it done. I could easily label this a lovely, spontaneous change in routine, a justified “mental health break.” Aren’t we instructed to take an occasional time-out for pure enjoyment, to relieve stress and recharge for another round of productivity?
But I’m plagued with larger questions about the definition of time and its worth.
Bottom line: I do not get paid for listening to music with my husband. Technically it has no value in our economic system, a system that increasingly measures everything in our culture. So technically listening to music with my husband is worthless. This startling fact causes me to inventory other things that have no monetary value: raising our children, tending our homes, caring for our families, and nurturing our communities. Sure, those activities are revered. But fulfilling these vital responsibilities does not guarantee a woman food on the table or a roof overhead, let alone means to support her family, healthcare, and security in her old age. A woman may get paid for tending other women’s children, but doing so for her own – those she undoubtedly loves, understands, and can help the most – is essentially worthless according to how we compensate an hour of work. This seems backwards to me.
Admittedly sharing music and a muffin with my husband does not sound as noble as nursing an infant or caring for an elderly relative. But when I take money completely out of the picture – if I was independently wealthy or, better yet, if all our needs and desires were met outside the confines of monetary exchange – I truly believe nourishing my new marriage is far more important in the long run than any professional project I’m momentarily neglecting. I increasingly believe experiencing joy, expressing love, or listening to beautiful music is a better way to spend my time. For me, my family, my community, and the vibration of the world. This moment feels far better than the moment in my office from which I have escaped. I have a growing sense that feeling good in this way, sharing love and causing not an ounce of harm to anyone or anything, is also far more important. It seems to be the best use of my time.
Paul Hawken suggests there are actually four different types of “time.” Commerce-time is about innovation and change, perpetually moving fast and rewarding those who keep up. And it’s all about money. Governance-time creates the things that give us structure – governments, religions, and systems of economics, education, or health. It moves slower than commerce, with predictability and consistency its main currency. Culture-time moves even more slowly, rooted in deep, long-held beliefs and anchoring our identities and sense of belonging. Its currency is safety, nurturance, living our true potential, and love. The slowest of all is earth-time, a natural flow that lasts far longer than generations of human life and changes at a snail’s evolutionary pace. Instead of dollars, it deals in resilience and sustainability.
Hawken warns we have let commerce-time run amok. We are thrown into a breathless frenzy dictated by lightening-fast market economies, forgetting that time isn’t just about money. Time also marches to three other drummers, and we’d be wise to restore balance among them:
“What makes life worthwhile and enables civilizations to endure are all the elements and qualities that have poor returns under commercial metrics: universities, temples, poetry, choirs, parks, literature, language, museums, terraced fields, long marriages, line dancing, and art. Nearly everything humans hold valuable is slow to develop and slow to change.” (Hawken, 2007, p. 134.)
As I sit in this coffee shop listening to this beautiful music I can imagine millennia of ancestors sharing a similar experience, sitting on prairies or mountains or coastal cliffs, as musicians, storytellers, and communities gather around similar harmonies. Times when time itself moved differently, and sharing legends about the woods had greater value than clear-cutting the trees. Maybe I’m romanticizing a past no longer relevant, or maybe I’m trying to justify my own laziness. But sitting peacefully still, enjoying something beautiful, and sharing it with my husband seem like the most important – and should be the most lucrative – things I could possibly do. And so tomorrow I will do them again.