Allowing Sufficient Time

Around the corner from my house, inside the streetside window of a fancy spa, a slogan painted on an interior wall reads "Allow sufficient time." As the spa's clients emerge from their massages and saunas and wraps, the sign reminds them not to rush back into the world. It also reminds passersby like me not to rush through the world. I'm still trying to learn that lesson.

I think I might still be struggling to do so because I'm get concerned that if I don't act I'll miss opportunities, a fate I feel has befallen me in the past. Action seems crucial. Self-styled "King of Partying" Andrew W.K. said it simply in a tweet last month: "PARTY TIP: Don't wait until you're ready."

So what to do? Do I listen to Mr. W.K. and leap at everything I seek, or instead hew closer to the advice of my thoughtful, but high-priced, neighbors? 

"Allow sufficient time" may correlate to the saying "haste makes waste." I was reminded of the latter last month as I finished bottling my first batch of beer. When making beer, one cannot rush fermentation, nor speed through bottling. The former simply doesn't happen without time, and the latter is one of many stages in the brewing process that, if skipped or rushed, can ruin a beer. I'm lucky. My beer turned out tasty. But its flavor wasn't what I intended, and I'm pretty sure I can directly attribute that result to my over-eagerness to start brewing, and points along the way when I may have hastily missed important details. I don't mind, because the beer tastes good, and also because this was my first batch and the learning was almost as valuable as the beer (almost). Still, the experience underscores the fact that disrupting process can disrupt entire systems. Indeed, in many ways, brewing is the most process-driving task I've engaged in for some time, and part of what I'm doing is just learning about process-driven pursuits, period. (Does one write the word "period" if in fact there is a period, the way one one might pronounce it out loud to emphasize a point?)

Working on this book *should* be another, but so far it isn't. And as I am now fully committed to its writing, I realize two somewhat conflicting thoughts: I need to push myself to meet a very clear, ever-more-rapidly approaching deadline, but I must do so without skipping any part of the process, without possibly sabotaging my anticipated end results. I must not rush the final product, lest all the things I've put aside to be able to work on it be sacrificed in vain, lest all your support be met with vapors, let this tremendous story that should have been told decades ago never be told. So how do I allow sufficient time, yet also avoid wasting dwindling opportunities?

To be honest, I sometimes envy the frenetically-paced lives of friends and family who regularly work weeks of forty, fifty or even more hours, some of whom likely envy my seemingly formless, flexible work-life. Today someone asked me if I have a writing schedule. I don't, as much as I have hungered for some sort of constraints to squeeze my work into shape. Without guidelines, how will I ever have a process to carefully follow? Still, I cannot force my writing onto a calendar (I know some writers schedule their work, but that doesn't mean they're writing every second they have scheduled). It's somewhat like beer. It's somewhat like romance. I cannot rush fermentation and I cannot rush love. I cannot rush conditioning and I cannot rush romance. I cannot even rush carbonation and I cannot rush lust. And I certainly cannot rush anyone else's love, romance or lust.

I definitely cannot rush belonging.

When Melville Jacoby was living in Chongqing, China in 1940 and '41, he lived in a place known as the Press Hostel. I think about this place regularly. I sometimes long to be a part of the kind of culture Mel became a part of at the hostel, a ramshackle building in this squalid, sweltering, frequently-bombed capital of China's nationalist government during the war. That desire comes, in part, from the innate motivation I imagine that community provided. I might follow a more distinct process if I knew I was working alongside others working under conditions similar to mine. 

But the Press Hostel was more than some wartime writing retreat. To say so would dismiss its real importance. The Press Hostel became home for an ad-hoc family of reporters who, while competitors, knit themselves tightly into a community of men and women who felt a sense of purpose that others often find in battle, civic service, grassroots activism or religion. They found a sense of belonging and a shared identity in their work to chronicle a conflict and a country often ignored by their own societies. When one of them triumphed, they all celebrated. When tragedy struck one of them, they all mourned. 

I don't want to romanticize war or ignore the hostel's many dangers -- it was destroyed in a 1941 air raid -- and discomforts, but I know that the adrenaline and shared sense of purpose among the correspondents who lived within its walls strongly sealed the reporters' bonds. Mel and Annalee Jacoby were so magnetically attracted to one another in part because they each recognized how engulfed the other was in his or her work. That same recognition also stoked the deep friendships they felt for colleagues like Theodore White and Carl and Shelley Mydans. This was their moment. This was their time. It would only come once.

Yes, I'm fascinated by this place because of its dramatic geographical and historical setting, but also because journalists are not usually joiners. I'm no exception, yet when I am among other journalists I feel at home and at peace, without even really trying. I'll probably never live anywhere like the Press Hostel. Indeed, it's becoming ever more clear that I've passed the point where once this book is done I'm more likely to work on long, involved features independently, rather than report breaking news as part of a news team or staff some bureau in a distant conflict. Yet the sense of belonging-ness I feel among other journalists is powerful. Other journalists speak my language. They are my tribe, even if we'd never join a tribe. 

One of my tribe members died in May. She was way too young. Those things that remind me of her -- a song played while shuffling through Pandora, or photo booth pictures we took together spilling out of a box I'm riffling through -- still stop me in my tracks. She got such a god damn raw deal, and will not have the many opportunities we all still have to live, really live. But those opportunities she had, she savored. She allowed sufficient time, despite how limited her time turned out to be. After she died, among the many memories posted online about her, my friend's father shared her favorite mantra: "Life isn't about waiting for the storm to pass; it's about learning to dance in the rain."

It seems somewhat like Andrew W.K.'s urging not to wait until I am ready.Love will not come knocking. My tribe will not arrive uninvited at my doorstep. My book will not write itself.

I may not be weathering the kind of storm my friend did, but I only have my life to live, my people to love and my work to finish. I only have my dance to do. So maybe what I should work on is allowing sufficient time for the moments I have, and not waste them trying to create others I may or may not have.

There is only so much time for them.


P.S. I have a new story out in Portland Monthly about my first year living with a car. Also, if you haven't been to my website lately, I've moved my photo portfolio there so it's easily accessible. I hope to make a few more tweaks, especially to my writing portfolio, in the coming months.