We know that our entire lives can change in an instant. This truth has been hammered home for me in the past few months as things I’d considered constant have shifted, some irrevocably and others for the time being. As I grapple with new demands, figuring out new ways to balance, I find myself thinking with longing of times past when things seemed easier simply because they didn’t include today’s obligations. Not that I thought of them as easier times then; rather, at those times, I longed for other, different circumstances.
Now, as the holiday season descends and the craziness of the past three months threatens to increase tenfold, it occurs to me that perhaps the trick I should have learned—and still have time to learn—is that of taking advantage. As everybody talks about giving thanks this week, I’m thinking of focusing less on the heart of gratitude and more on the practicality of action. (I’m not saying to ignore the heart of gratitude, but the topic is being well covered elsewhere.)
So if you’re like me and you find yourself in circumstances where you’d rather not be, here are a few thoughts on how to take advantage of those circumstances, or at least reframe your view of them:
Take advantage of the slow times at work. For freelancers, it’s easy to panic when work is slow. I’ve been freelancing for twenty-two years, but every time there’s a slowdown, I’m convinced that this is it—my clients have figured out that I am a mere luxury and they can probably crank out something serviceable inhouse, and I am going to have to tap into my home equity line of credit to buy cat food. In fact, it was during precisely one such slowdown in the summer of 2013 that I made the decision to pursue writing as more than just a hobby. Recalling past work droughts, I told myself firmly that this lull would not last, so if I wanted to test-drive this whole creative writing thing, this was the moment. So I worked on stories that were languishing on my hard drive, and I researched places to submit. By November, I’d published my first story and cashed my first story check.
(This is not the original check. I made a copy before going to the bank. I may be sentimental, but I’m not an idiot.)
Take advantage of the busy times at work. They’ll make you crazy, but if you’re a freelancer or hourly employee, they’ll also make some extra money for you. This is not to say you should always take every scrap of overtime you’re offered (assuming the choice is yours), but when the opportunity comes your way, remember that the slow times will also be coming (see above), and you may be glad then for any additional funds.
Take advantage of chances to be in touch. It’s easy to get caught up in the craziness of life. Luckily, with most people, we have lots of ways to be in touch. Years ago, I attended the wedding of a friend who lives in New York City. Chatting with his city friends at the reception, I was struck by how many of them used their commutes as a way to keep up with each other. Sitting in traffic on the Long Island Expressway for an hour every night offers nearly unparalleled opportunities to reach out and touch someone. I don’t commute, but I adore taking virtual walks with friends who live far away, a practice that includes the twin benefits of exercise and fellowship. For those who don’t have long interrupted times to talk, even texting while fixing a meal can be a way to keep in touch—put the water on to boil, send a text, measure the pasta, read the response, etc.
Take advantage of opportunities to be quiet. I don’t necessarily mean naps, meditation, or worship, although all are excellent options. But on those evenings when everybody’s in bed, the phone is silent, and you’re by yourself, let yourself be emotionally quiet. Journal, read, exercise, organize the junk drawer, bake, watch Hallmark Christmas movies—whatever you can do without becoming agitated. (Hint: don’t read or watch anything political. It is highly unlikely that you will find such things restful.)
Take advantage of being healthy. You won’t always be. Trust me on this one. The human body isn’t built for permanent functioning. Going for a walk on a gorgeous autumn day may one day be a luxury you can’t manage. Focusing on a page is likely to become more challenging. Remembering names and dates and where you put the keys will probably become difficult. Whether it’s temporary or permanent, sudden or gradual, your body and mind will decline. Before that happens, while you’re still able, use your abilities. Get up out of your chair. Put down your phone. Move, go out, do. See, hear, touch, taste, smell. Experience.
Take advantage of having friends and loved ones. Whether your circle of loved ones consists of a beloved friend and your cat or an extended family spread across the globe, cherish them. Call, text, visit, email, write snail-mail cards and letters—whatever works. Like your health, these loved ones will not be here forever. Few things are guaranteed, but unfortunately, this is one of them.
Take advantage of snippets and scraps. You don’t have huge chunks of time to devote to exercise or mindfulness practices or visiting everyone you know? Welcome to real life. When life is frantic, you may feel that you have exactly zero time and energy to do anything more than you’re juggling—and you may be right. On the other hand, there may be bits and pieces that you can leverage into something better. When I was a first-year law student drowning in torts and criminal law, a second-year mentioned something non-legal that he was reading. I asked when on earth he found time to read anything other than coursework, and he said, “On the toilet.” (This was many years before a certain toilet paper manufacturer started telling us all to enjoy this experience.) For my part, I’ve written this blog post in an hour, because that’s all the time I have for today.
On that note, I wish readers in the U.S. a happy Thanksgiving, and I wish all of you a chance to enjoy, appreciate, and take advantage today of something you may someday wish you had back.