"I Used To Hurry A Lot, I Used To Worry A Lot"

(I still worry but don't hurry so much)

 

Back when I had a forty-minute commute on I-81 South I used to drive really fast, pushing the car up past seventy and toward eighty, often going fast through terrible Upstate New York weather. I white-knuckled the wheel even in good conditions worrying that sirens and lights would appear in my mirror. The commute filled me with anxiety but each day I tried to shave a few seconds off the drive. It seemed necessary to get there fast and faster.

One day I did math in my head as I often do when I'm driving. How much time, I wondered, was I saving by going seventy-five instead of sixty-five? I thought about it from Lafayette to Tully, but the numbers were all wrong. I figured it again through the wind shear roaring across the flat straight-away in Preble, getting the same results but not believing them. I couldn't possibly be saving only six minutes. No way. That couldn't be right. At school I worked it out on paper, incorporating the fact that I'm not on the highway the whole time and found I was saving at most only four minutes. That was the sum total return on my anxiety and risk-taking.

I slowed down the next day.

Later I figured out that my car gets its best mileage around sixty miles an hour. I found the right lane and let traffic pass me by. The first day going slowly I had a thought which got me laughing: Why the hell am I hurrying to get to a job I don't like? I mean really. I asked the question out loud alone in the car and laughed for a mile. It was easy to go slowly after that.

Since my first teaching job I've come to school way early so I can enjoy peace and the quiet. I love being in school alone. Sometimes the hall lights aren't even on. I've kept to that tradition even though just walking into my school pulls my mood down no matter how buoyant I hope to be. It's not like I need to be there early or that I'm doing school work. Most times I'm writing or reading. There's no need to go in early and every reason to stay. This morning, despite anxiously feeling I was late, I sat on our couch, opened my book, and read for twenty minutes instead of going in early.

Like my slow drive, a question came that made me happy. This time I smiled instead of laughing because by I'm no longer shocked at the revelation: Why would I leave my book early for a job I don't like? I mean really.

I can't quit the job yet, but I can confine it to the smallest space necessary and lock it up. Driving fast and leaving home early allow the job to take up too many hours on the clock of my life. There are better ways to spend my precious time and invest in a better life.

Friday morning because I left "late" I was still on the couch reading Jeff Tweedy's memoir when one of my daughters came down to get ready for school. A sleepy teenager, she didn't have much to say, but I kissed her head and there's no way to measure the impact that had on my day. At the job I still felt the warmth of loving her carrying me through to quitting time.

Of late I'm asking how do I want to live this life and at what pace? Sometimes it amounts to almost nothing. Friday, I folded the blanket after reading on the couch. I enjoyed taking a moment to fold and slow down. I felt no need to hurry. Talk about being on time.

I don't want to be late to my own life just to arrive early at my job. There's time to slow, to read, and fold a blanket. There is time to kiss my daughter's head, to say good morning, to feel love in my life, and to go write about it.

Letter Of Recommendation: Scooping Cat Litter

My daughter has been too busy to some household duties. She's a good kid so I pick up the slack largely without complaint. After all, I was doing these things before she was born and for most of the time she was an infant. (I made her change the motor oil at fourteen months). It's no big deal to take these things on and so each morningI have been scooping the litter box. It has turned out to be at least as good for me as it is for the cats.

Maybe you think scooping cat litter isn't your cup of tea. It's kind of gross to think about. The smell isn't great. Is the litter radioactive or carcinogenic? I still recommend going to the litter box early each morning, sitting on a stool, and scooping the litter with a small smile. Scooping the litter turns may not be the way to joy, but it is surely one way toward contentment.

I scoop litter after morning meditation. That has helped make it a practice rather than a task. It really does seem like raking a Zen garden. I sit on the stool, sift for treasures, drop them into a bag, add clean litter, and drop the bag in the garbage can. I'm in no hurry. There's no reward. Aside from this essay, no one would ever know I'm doing this. (Well, the cats might notice, especially the black and white one who likes to watch.)

Scooping litter is performing maintenance which makes the world go round. Doing the practice every morning means the box rarely smells that bad. The practice is quiet, clear, and done in solitude. I'm not exactly mindful but it is the kind of meditative act in which I'm not thinking to conclusions or to get anywhere. I am simply there, on the stool, scooping the litter, being at peace.

I've had similar experiences doing dishes and laundry but there is something special about the litter box. I think it's that the litter falls like sand through the sieve of the scoop like sand passing through an hourglass. It feels timeless.

This morning, after I had finished scooping but before I stood up from the stool, I closed my eyes and felt myself bow to the clean litter box, to the bag of dirty litter, to the scoop hung back on the wall, and to this daily practice of maintenance in solitude. I hadn't intended that bow, but it felt right and good.

The black and white cat was watching. She stood still, her entire being the very definition of composure. When I moved to the garbage can to drop the bag of dirty litter, she remained still and her eyes did not follow me. It wasn't until I went up and rang a scoop of dry food into the cats' metal bowls that she ran pell-mell upstairs as if I was a monk striking a bell signaling the end of meditation and the beginning of a new day.

At Home

Home from school I opened the door to find our dog yodeling from the top of the basement stairs. I stood shaking my head at an animal who has no sense of decorum. Her yodel is a high-pitched yelp and whine that involves her tail wagging her body. She curls her snout into what we call the horrible smile, a kind of baring her teeth without snarling. Her tongue lolls out of her mouth and she bobs her head up and down, sneezing like she's having a seizure. It's some greeting.

My part is to yell in a high voice, "it's you!" which is what I imagine she's saying over and over. "Oh my god, it's you!" I tell her while clambering upstairs. I stop near the top of the stairs and take her head in my hands for a good shake. Sometimes she lets me come into the kitchen but times like today she really, really needs to show me exactly how much love she has for me and I stay on the steps accepting it.

For some reason I was in the mood to make our dinner of roasted vegetables and cheesy egg cups. Chopping vegetables is clear and simple, worthwhile and rewarding. Things my school work often isn't. Vegetables almost never argue back or tell me suck my dick, nigger! Eggs crack without slamming fists into the lockers saying, fuck this place! I washed and sliced cauliflower, rinsed and quartered brussel sprouts, peeled and diced carrots and potatoes, and threw in a bowl of leftover chopped leaks. When I doused all that with olive oil, salt, and pepper, it allowed me to massage it together, spread it on a cookie sheet, and slip it without fuss into a 425 oven for half an hour. Even the clean-up was easy work with results about which I could feel good.

While I cooked, my wife was online at the kitchen table finding jobs to which I might apply. She cast the net wide, doing work I dislike and feel inadequate in doing. I told her, "This is awfully nice of you." She told me it was nothing and that she was happy to do something to help. As if she doesn't help me pretty much every day of the twenty-seven years we've been in love. When she was engrossed in the computer screen, I took the opportunity to stare at her, wondering how someone grows lovelier each day and is devoted to me. Then I decided to accept it, my good fortune, and felt like the dog standing atop the stairs wagging her whole body. I thought, "it's you! Oh my god, it's you!"

Our younger daughter came into the kitchen dressed up in character. She twirled and smiled, glowed really with happiness and security, knowing no one in the kitchen would find her anything but wondrous. When my wife questioned part of her look she consulted the book from which the character springs and read a section to us, losing herself in giggling. She left me smiling as she said that she had better get ready for dance, something she does mostly as herself rather than in cosplay regalia.

The cat wanting to get in on the action jumped onto a chair near where the dog was lying and swatted at her without baring her claws. "Come on! Let's brawl!" The dog, alarmed by any interaction with the cat stood up wagging her tail and retreated to another room. The cat rolled on her back and stretched her paw through the back of the chair for the hell of it. It looked like it felt good that stretch and roll.

Who knows where the other cat was? She's mysterious until it's time for food.

Our older daughter joined us for dinner while her sister was at dance. It took three times of us asking but she came up with something to tell us about her day at school — a screw-up with the metal detector and entry system that had them all late for first period. I watched her eat three servings of roasted vegetables, two pieces of toast with jam, and four egg and cheese cups. When my wife mentioned how much she had eaten our girl replied, "I'm hungry" in a tiny-kid's voice straight out of her first three years. She then told how she and her friend swam 4,000 yards though swim season has been over for months. Like a shark, she's the perfect swimming and eating machine, and one long, lean muscle.

It's evening now. Our younger girl is still at dance. Our older girl is rubbing the dog's belly and criticizing her for being lackadaisical. My wife is on the couch still looking at jobs for me and for her. The cat is on the foot stool not attacking anything. Who knows where the other cat is? I have a record on the turntable and these words coming out of my fingertips like magic lightning. The house is warm and were it in my power I would never, ever leave this place, these animals, and most of all these people. What with all that and the writing, I can't imagine what else I might ever need.