For years my wife has had a wonderful concept called “Making a date with yourself.” Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way refers to it as the “Artist’s Date.” Both point out that we all tend to put the rest of the world ahead of ourselves in importance while we masquerade as self-sufficient and overly-involved people, when in fact we are sadly neglected and spiritually starved. We take on all sorts of projects, activities, and commitments that do for others at our own personal expense. It’s true that circumstances dictate certain preordained blocks of our time, and between our children (God love ’em!), our jobs, business meetings, hair appointments, grocery shopping, visiting an ailing parent, yard work, cooking dinner, servicing the car, preparing our taxes, exercising, doctor and dentist appointments, PTA meetings, and phone calls—the list can extend off the page into eternity if we let it—it’s no wonder that we never seem to have enough time. However, every person has exactly the same amount each day: 24 hours. The difference is how we fill up that time.

My wife advocates my blocking out a specific amount of time every week just for me, creating my own personal date. That time, whenever it is, is to be regarded as a sacred, irrevocable appointment with myself, to be just as honored as one with anyone else. I can do anything I want with that time, be it reading a book, drawing, composing, or even walking on the beach. If someone asks me to go to a movie during that time, meet for lunch, or pick up a friend of a friend at the airport, I’m to say, “Sorry, I have an appointment.” We have to place ourselves at the top of our priorities; if we starve ourselves, we can’t be much good to anyone else. I know. I’ve been there.

The attention to oneself brings to mind Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead, a novel which advocates selfishness as opposed to selflessness. Or better said, the book redefines selfishness as being true to oneself, nurturing the home fires so that one is then fully able to give of oneself (selffullness). In my case, years ago there was nobody home: there was nothing left to give.

In finally taking my wife’s advice, I tried to choose a time for my own personal appointment. The only problem was that I wore many hats: father, husband, composer, church choir director, graphic designer, artist, and aspiring novelist. Monday night I reserved for writing music for the Sunday church service, on Tuesday I sang in a professional choir, on Wednesday my son came to visit, Thursday was my own church’s choir rehearsal, Friday was the one night I could maybe go out with my wife, weekends I spent with my son, and I conducted a church service on Sunday mornings. I also taped the Mystery and Masterpiece Theater episodes that I missed, but when to watch them? I was getting up at 4:30 A.M. to be at the gym from 5:00 to 6:00 before I had to go to work at 7:00. A typical workday at the studio can end anywhere between 5:00 P.M. and midnight, depending how many projects we have and when the deadlines are. Somewhere during all this I occasionally found the time to squeeze-in a painting commission or an album cover design. When I used to have my graphic design business it was crammed into the above schedule sans exercise.

Exhaustion and a higher cholesterol reading convinced me to start slowing down. Something had to go. I was not good at saying “No.” I finally retired from the choir after directing it for ten years, Vail Graphics was history, and my son went off to college. Now, if there was only something I could do about that job. If I didn’t have to work for a living, then I would really get to work (I’ve said that before). Humans weren’t meant to house a pent-up body racked with fused muscles, acid stomach, and stress. Our priorities need redefining. By discarding, simplifying, and paring down, we would be able to travel more lightly. The creative side would grow, flex, and stretch its own muscles in the process of being unburdened by too many activities. It’s not easy, but we all have to shake off the unnecessary chains, and feel the weightlessness. We need to make a date with ourselves.

Doing so would bring literature, music, art, and creativity back into our lives. We must appreciate what time is left and not discard it. It is a nonrenewable commodity, never again to be reclaimed. Those in command (bosses, heads of governments, dictators) use other people’s time: they add it to their own, expanding themselves at the expense of others. If we spend our own time wisely, discarding all nose rings, chains, and shackles, we would take time back from the oppressors. One can never retrieve spent time, but one can always start now by spending one’s own remaining time for oneself.

Heartbeats move forward in time—or do they march toward? There are “x” number of heartbeats left in life, forming a long line that moves toward you, one beat at a time, tick-tock, never stopping (not even a pause), continuing to beat incessantly toward you—while awake and in your sleep. The heart is the body’s indelible metronome. Each beat spent is one beat less you will live, one beat forgotten, never again to reappear, though there are millions (you hope!) behind it. Each beat to appear and vanish leaves not even an echo. The line continually moves toward you, one tick at a time, getting shorter, beat by beat. You can’t see the end of the line; you don’t want to see the end of the line.

Put your wrist watch in a drawer. Refine your inner sense of time. Why have a constant reminder of the forward movement of time, tick by tock, beat by beat? Heartbeats keep the human machine functioning, but real machines can’t create—they can’t love, enjoy, cry, weep, smell a flower, kiss a lover’s lips; they can’t taste curry, arugula, a lemon, or the wonderful varieties of basil. Machines merely tick-tock through their existence until they run out, or their replacement parts run out, leaving a shell for the trash heap. We are not machines, and no one should ever expect us to live our lives as such. We are the sum-total of our ancestors, who still live within us. We embody their life forces, their collective spirit. Their raison d’être runs through our veins, spurring us on with our own. We breathe.

Tick-tock, our hearts beat. Use the time. Use each tick and each tock. Use the time between the heartbeats to live, create, listen, and love, lengthening the space between the heartbeats, lengthening the line, lengthening life itself. Slow down. Don’t rush. For ten years I told my choir, “Don’t rush—it’s not a race. We all need to get to the end of the music at the same time. The first to finish is the loser.” As in music, life is not a race. Slip into that gear-like, heart-beat groove and you can’t possibly fall out. Tick-tock. Don’t rush time. Don’t rush projects. They will take exactly as much time to complete as they need—no more, no less. And in this case, less is not more. Less is not done. Less is incomplete, half-assed, lazy, and what most people consider “good enough.” Tick-tock. Give that newly-built coffee table an extra sanding; vacuum under the couch as well as behind it; don’t you consider that term paper “good enough” just to avoid spending another hour rereading it one more time. Never compromise. Never accept less. To achieve “less” is to rush time, to end before the necessary time for completion is over.

Remember: first is last. To “win” by being first is to lose, last place, an “F” for “finished.” Tick-tock. Slow down. Observe quality. Every idea, thought, action, and breath is sacred. Every heartbeat is precious. Every second of your life is holy. Tick-tock. Don’t waste a moment. Make a date with yourself and listen to your own heartbeat:


©2002 Stuart Vail

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