In her book “The Writing Life,” author Annie Dillard observes, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Since I first read it years ago, this adage has always stuck in my mind, both for its simplicity and because it’s so indisputably true. As I get older, I find myself thinking about this idea more often. And as another year comes to a close, Dillard’s words seem to be on my mind much of the time.
More than anything else, I think about how I’m spending my time and whether I could be making better use of it. Have I set aside enough time to work on creative writing projects, or to do other things I enjoy? How can I organize my time better so I’m not spending entire weekends cleaning the house or working in the yard? Am I getting out enough? Traveling enough? Visiting friends enough? And if not, what wonderful things am I missing out there in the world? Most importantly, what will be written in my obituary when I die? What have I actually done?
I also think a lot about people in my life, old friends mostly, who I don’t make enough time to talk to or spend time with. I find myself wondering — in some cases having not seen or spoken to someone in years — whether there is a point at which too much time has passed to even try reconnecting. Do friendships expire? Can so much time go by that you no longer know a person, perhaps cannot know them? Or is it possible with some people to pick up a dropped thread and find your way back to a place you no longer thought was there?
One summer, I worked with an artist in Scotland who created the illustration for the cover of my novel, “The Blue Bottle.” As I got to know her a bit, I discovered that she had a young son who died a few years back from brain cancer, an almost unimaginable tragedy for any parent. Ever since, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about how something like this could happen to anyone at any time, that it in fact does happen. People die all the time and there isn’t anything any of us can do about it. As much as we might feel like we are in control of what happens to us, oftentimes we don’t get to choose.
In light of all this, I’ve begun to ask myself how I should be spending my days. What changes can or should I make so that when I look back — maybe at the end of next year — I’ll know that I’ve done my best to spend the time I’ve been given as well as possible?
Some answers to these questions are easy: say no to things I really don’t want to do; spend less time on my phone and more time reading books; buy the concert tickets; get off the couch and go to the party; be present with others; resist the urge to tell myself I’ll go next time, instead, when I get the opportunity to experience a new place; stop being angry or regretful about things I can’t change.
Other things aren’t so simple to figure out, like how or whether to get in touch with childhood friends I no longer feel strongly connected to, or how to feel happy and proud, rather than wistful, when I look at my 20-year-old daughter and think about how she is now the same age I was when I met my husband, that she will be graduating from college — an independent adult — in a little more than a year.
The other thing to remember, and I’m not always good at this, is to stop being so hard on myself, to look for the lessons in my mistakes and to be grateful for all the wonderful things I’ve had the opportunity to do, and for the people I’ve known and loved, and who have loved me back.
So when the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve this year, rather than dwelling on the things I wish I had done, I’m going to do my best to think instead about all the good things I have done. And I’ll look forward to the coming days, be they good or bad, because they’ll be mine.