Taking Time For Life Before It Runs Out


April 22, 1991|By ALICE STEINBACH

IT'S NOT OFTEN A PERSON HAS THE chance to see the future and relive the past in the same day. so when such an occasion presents itself -- as it recently did to me -- the experience can take on the shape of a personal message from the cosmos.

"Listen to me," says the cosmic voice at such moments, "and pay attention to what you hear."

First, the future:

A 48-year-old friend, a man whose consuming pursuit of a successful career has placed him near the top of his field, called with the news that he's very ill. It was a sudden and unexpected turn in his life and neither he nor his family had yet made sense of it.

What I remember best from our long conversation is my friend's puzzlement and distress that all the family things he'd been putting off doing -- a cross-country trip with his children, taking a fiction-writing course with his wife, enjoying the simple pleasures of family weekends at home -- now are likely to be left undone.

"I always thought there'd be plenty of time for that," he said in a voice filled with as much pain and loss as you'll ever want to hear in a voice.

Listen and pay attention, I thought.

A few hours after this phone call came my brush with the past.

Arriving at the home of a friend I had agreed to drive to work, I walked into a scene that evoked sharp memories of what it's like to be a young, working mother.

Watching my friend struggle through the juggling act so familiar to working parents -- dressing and feeding the kids; getting them ready for the baby sitter or school; hoping the car won't break down or the sitter get sick; trying to get your own act together for work -- I remembered how the success of such a set up depends on everything working just right. And how you are always just one step away from disaster.

Boy, do I remember those days! Looking back now I wonder how I did it all, how I survived it all. And, more important, how my kids survived it all.

Kids, I used to tell myself, are resilient. And they are. But I have never forgotten what a teen-age girl once told me about her memories of early childhood: "Everything was always so hurried. Get up, get dressed, hurry up, get in the car, hurry up, we'll be late . . . My parents never had time to enjoy things."

I remember her remarks had a profound effect on me. Or maybe I was just ready to hear the truth. But from that day on I made an effort to slow down, to listen more. Unfortunately this change came a bit late -- my sons were already in early adolescence -- but it came nonetheless.

I wanted to caution my harried friend to use the time ahead of her more wisely than I had. To stop and experience the important connections with her family as they were happening. To tell her about the lingering regrets you can have years later when you realize how quickly family life comes and goes.

But I didn't. Instead, I thought of my other friend, the man who now was realizing most of his time lay behind, not before, him.

A recent poll conducted by Time magazine reports that 69 percent of those surveyed said they wanted to "slow down and live a more relaxed life." But a majority expressed their doubts about ever being able to do that since earning a living takes so much of their time and energy.

Still, the article which accompanies the poll concludes that we are searching for "simpler pleasures." Americans, it says, have "been thinking about what really matters in their lives and they've decided to make some changes. For some that means . . . changing one's career, living on less, or packing up and moving to a quieter place. For others it can mean something as subtle as choosing a cheaper brand of running shoes or leaving work a little earlier to watch the kids in a soccer game."

Simpler pleasures. The kind of small, familial pleasures that my ill friend was always planning to enjoy -- sometime in the future. The kind of small moments we squander so wantonly, thinking there's plenty more where that came from.

If I had it to do over again -- live in the midst and the moments of raising a family -- I think this is the question I'd ask myself: What do I want my children to remember of their childhood when they grow up? That they were given lots of material things by hurried and harried parents?

Or would I want them to remember the summer afternoon when we leisurely sat in the garden watching the birds and the cats, surrounded by the feeling that there was all the time in the world to talk or be silent?

I think you know the answer.

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