May showers, Keene, NH

Whereas most normal folks feel the impress of depression in the winter when light is scarce, I find Nature’s green months to be the heaviest. There’s something about the crowd of foliage that comes towards the end of May that seems sad to me, along with the onslaught of graduations and weddings that invariably follow in June. Summer, it seems, is when time speeds up, careening to an unseen finish, and that always, inexplicably, fills me with an indescribable and utterly illogical sense of dread. Already spring is ending: can August, fall, and then winter be long behind? Having wasted much of my morning doing nothing of note, how easy is it to waste entire days, weeks, months, and years doing nothing but falling aimlessly toward a cataract that has loomed greenly from the get-go?

Summers, you see, are downtime for teachers, a time of free and easy schedules and (in theory at least) long, languid and leisurely days. I’m a schedule-slave: I need the structure, order, and stability of a set calendar of events, due-dates, scheduled appointments and even a laundry-list of to-do’s. When faced with an uninterrupted expanse of time–when faced with something like summer with its opportunities for “relaxation” and “spontaneity”–I literally don’t know what to do with myself. Now I have a chance to kick back and have some fun…if only someone would show me how. Now that I’ve finished the damn PhD, I have time to do all those things I’ve always wanted to do but never had time for…if only I could remember what those things are.

May showers, Keene, NH

Before you grow too alarmed at what sounds like a major life crisis, let me assure you that I go through this same let-down at the end of every academic year: once the end-of-term crunch has passed, grades are submitted, and we’ve returned from whatever family visit we always seem to cram in right at the end of my academic term, I feel completely and utterly tapped. All my usual coping mechanisms–my tendency to schedule every last iota of time with useful activities so there’s nary a moment to sit and ask “why”–suddenly seem inadequate in the face of a large expanse (an entire summer’s worth!) of uninterrupted, unscheduled time. By the end of each May, I find myself lamenting the fact that I’ve missed another spring migration: by the time the leaves are out, it’s difficult to see treetop warblers, and the leaves always seem to appear when I’m not looking, before I’m ready for them. Before you know it, summer has arrived without giving you enough of a chance to cherish spring: then you barely saw it, now you don’t.

The cure for my malady, of course, is simple: I need a summer schedule. As obsessive-compulsive as it sounds, I need the structure and regularity of a set timeline: I can’t just sleep in until whenever and then rise to do whatever. I need to know that I get up at X and then do Y. I need to have a sense of when I’ll write, when I’ll walk the dog, when I’ll read. I need to know that Monday is when I shop, Thursday is when I do laundry, and Friday is when I take the day off, an entire day to do whatever I want to do, alone or accompanied, at whatever time and for however long as I damn well please. But only after, of course, I’ve done the usual morning ritual, my fidelity to which earns me the right to take the rest of the day off. Doing anything but would be too slovenly, too sinful, too…scary. Time is the ultimate wild beast, but a schedule is the chair and whip with which I run Time though his red-fanged paces: now you’ll roar, now you’ll bow.

May showers, Keene, NH

When we lived in the Cambridge Zen Center, I was understandably in my element. Zen Center living, like any sort of monastic regime, is perfect for schedule-slaves: wake-up is at 5, bows are at 5:15, chanting is at 5:45, sitting is at 6:30. By the time 7 am rolls around, you’ve done nearly 2 hours of focused practice, so you’re perfectly ready to shower, grab breakfast, and head off to whatever the day holds. To paraphrase that old Army slogan, Zen Center residents do more before 7 am than most folks do all day.

Living outside of a Zen Center is different, and (for me) more difficult. Any and all structure is self-imposed: if I don’t want to practice, I don’t have to. If I want to sleep in, I can. If I want to stop practicing entirely, who will know? If I want to waste my hours, my days, my weeks, and my life, who’s going to stop me, or care? It’s my life to spend as I wish: if given the chance to waste it, I probably will. Some people, I’ve come to believe, shouldn’t be trusted with a lifetime of time, and I’m certainly one of them.

May showers, Keene, NH

Although I know myself well enough to know that I need a schedule even (especially!) in the summertime, I always hesitate to make one. Maybe tomorrow I’ll get around to making a schedule: surely I deserve another day off. Like Augustine, I pray that God may make me chaste…but not yet. And so every summer I gradually come up to speed, gradually re-introducing those aspects of my temporal “diet” that I absolutely need for my own psycho-spiritual health: I need to walk, I need to write, I need silence and a space for solitude. Those last two I’m still working on: when we lived in the Zen Center, I’d regularly schedule days of silence–days when I’d brush elbows with but not speak to our various house-mates–and I’d schedule several months in advance those weekends and weeks I’d go off by myself for retreat. This ritual was something no one ever questioned: it was just a normal part of my own preventative maintenance, like changing the oil in one’s car.

Since we’ve left the Zen Center, I’ve grown careless with such self-care; these days, I practice sporadically, retreat seldom, and cultivate silence much less than I’d like. Last summer, though, I gradually fell into a mundane ritual that worked for me: I’d wake, I’d walk, then I’d write, first thing, six long-hand pages, everyday. Some days I’d sit, some days I’d bow, some days I’d chant, but everyday, rain or shine, I woke, I walked, then I wrote. Today I did those three things (wake, walk, then write), and I did them in that order even though other things–too, too many other things–intervened. But at least I’m on the road again, gradually, to the place I need to be, a place I can’t locate but at least I can schedule.