“Forcing ourselves, as intensives, to take time and energy and focus never goes well. Expansives call that discipline, but we call that torture. Don’t torture yourself.”
On the virtues and challenges of taking one’s time- and how feeling in flow and getting things just right, sometimes doesn’t feel like taking any time at all.
Mr. Rogers singing “I Like to Take My Time.”
Transcript and notes:
Recorded 25 September 2023.
When I was a little kid, I wasn't allowed to watch very much television. Just educational shows, and even a limited roster of that. But there was Mr. Rogers always. Always Mr. Rogers, he was acceptable to everyone. And he had this song.
He had a lot of songs, which he refused to simplify. So Mr. Rogers songs were never musically easy. But we were too young to know that so we just sang along anyway, to this complex jazz. The musician he hired said he wasn't going to simplify his music for children. And Mr. Rogers said, "No, thank you, I don't want you to." And so a beautiful long partnership was born.
Anyway, there was this song: "I mean, I just might make mistakes if I should have to hurry up. And so I like to take my time."
I have never been someone who really liked to take my time. Except that I like to do things, right. And sometimes that means starting over. And sometimes it means doing them slowly. And sometimes it means you do a step and you wait 24 hours, and then you do another step, and you wait 24 hours.
And part of me finds that difficult because sometimes I lose motivation in those 24 hours, and I don't come back to it for six months. And sometimes it works perfectly. And I wait 24 hours, and I go out, and I do the next step. And sometimes the next step is big. And sometimes the next step is just another five minutes, and then you wait.
Bread baking is like that. You do something, and then you wander away for two, four, six, twenty-four hours, and then you come back. And you do something else that maybe only takes three minutes, five minutes, half an hour.
And when we were all working outside the home, of course, it took a lot longer to make bread because you had to have a stretch of six hours or eight hours when you are going to be home and- who did that? Except when you were sleeping. So there were then some recipes that you started in the evening when you were tired, but at least you were home and then it rose all night. And then you'd wake up and do something to it again, and then stick it in the fridge to slow it down. So that it wouldn't be ready before you were home from work.
And then you'd put it in the oven, and it would be a late night snack. And maybe there would be some left for morning. Or you'd spend all day Saturday baking bread. I don't know how my father did it because he baked bread through the early part of my childhood for our house all the time. Beautiful loaves of bread. His chemical engineering just went right ahead and engineered its way into his bread baking and it was always tasty, and delicious, and hot out of the oven and slathered with butter.
He eventually got frustrated that we ate it all up in one day, and switched over to making beer, which no one else liked. But it was delicious. So sometimes there are things that require taking time, but they don't actually take that much of your active time.
I'm working on a solid maple desktop for a desk that I have been waiting to have functional for about three years now. It took a really long time for the base to ship to me. And then when it finally did ship, they weren't able to ship me the top that I had asked for. And so I finally said just ship me the base and I'll make the top.
But then I had to take my time to find the wood, to find the place to buy the wood, to prepare the wood. To get the tools I needed. To get up the courage to use the tools I needed on this wood that- nothing is inexpensive anymore. But solid maple is definitely a material that is expensive enough that it commands some respect. And then finally I had the tools and I had the materials and I had the time and I did the thing. And then I went through this process of trying to figure out how to deal with a problem that I had that is very common but I just didn't didn't really have the tools or the knowledge to fix it. So I've been figuring that out.
And then finally I got that done enough and I started applying finish and now the rains have come. I only got one side finished because I was waiting for it to dry. And I was waiting for another container of the finish that I'm using, and that took a while to get here.
And meanwhile, the rain arrived. And so the air is wetter. And I was just out in the garage, and it's cupped. It's about half an inch cupped, which is a problem. What that means is that the board that I glued together is curved. And the curve is about half an inch deep, which is a significant curve. It's going to make it very difficult to use it as a desk, if I don't find a way to straighten up the curve. The good news is the curve seems to be on one axis. And wood moves. And the wood finish I chose moves. It's an oil finish. It's not a paint, or a polyurethane that will crack.
The wood moves, it will move. It may need some judicious application of neutralizing humidity.
Because what's happened is the humidity has gotten into the wood and changed the shape. And it's gotten into the wood unevenly because one side is finished and one side is not. So now I have another problem to solve. The challenge, of course with problem after problem is that this base arrived in March and it is now September. And I'm still not using this desk.
But it is a lesson in patience. In one step at a time and figuring it out in "a little and a little makes a lot." Which is what my mom told me when I said I wanted to leave the windows open in the rain. In Connecticut. I wanted to hear the rain and feel the rain around me. And she said no, because even though it's just a little bit of water coming through the screen, a little and a little makes a lot. And we can't be having puddles, or wet windowsills.
But it works the other way too. A little and a little makes a lot. And that's sometimes useful. That sometimes what you need, sometimes you need a little more moisture, a little less moisture. And if you gradually change the humidity and the temperature, sometimes the board comes flat again. But the reason I've been thinking about taking one's time, taking my time, which is it doesn't at first seem like an intensive trait to take your time.
But then you think about the way that sometimes the details have to be exactly right. And you realize that that is a part of how we are. Sometimes the details have to be exactly right. And if you can just sink into it, and let the deadlines float away, and just be in the moment with the thing, it no longer matters that it's taking forever. Because how long it takes to get it right doesn't matter just that in the end, it's right.
And that means that I'm not thinking about how badly I did on it, that I'm not subconsciously aware of that dinged corner every time I pick it up. It means not being constantly nervous, it means not being constantly afraid, it means not being constantly ashamed.
Because we intensives carry shame in our bodies more readily than other people. That kind of inner knowing that it's not right will eat away at us forever. And it will eat away not just at our sense of what we did in that one moment, but of who we are. Because integrity is so, so important.
And what we're dealing with in this world, is that everybody is always in a rush, it seems. Everything has to be fast. How fast can we do it? When I offer a client company a workshop series? The number one question I get asked is can we do it faster. And the truth is, we can make it a little faster. I can take the six week series and condense it to three weeks. But if people don't absorb the changes and the information as fast as they're getting them they'll just discard what they're not absorbing. So sometimes there has to be space.
Sometimes there has to be enough digestion, that people don't get over full. That people's bodies and minds don't reject this newness, this new idea of celebrating each other, of honoring each other, of delighting in each other. Not rejecting is a practice that takes time.
And I've been watching all these videos of people hand making things. Hand making woodworking tools, hand making things out of wood with their woodworking tools. And making things out of metal, hand making clothing. And I think over and over again that the thing that takes away from our ability to be present, (and that overused-word "mindful,") with any project, to honor the process and the materials and the piece of life itself that is given to that project-- is the hurry.
When we're not in a hurry, there's no problem. You wake up and you do as much as you can in a day, and then you stop. You focus on what you can in a day, and then you stop. You do a little and then you stop, you do a lot sometimes, and then you stop. You do a lot and then you stop and then you rest for a long time. It doesn't matter what your cadence is, if you're not in a hurry. If there's not an external pressure, if there's not an expectation of production.
Sometimes we are legitimately in a hurry. If it started to rain, and I need to pitch my tent, I would like to pitch it in a hurry. Because I would like to keep myself and my things as dry as possible. I don't think I've hurried over this desk. But am I a bit impatient to get to the end of the process? I absolutely am. It's been a long time. And I would like to use the desk instead of all of the makeshift things.
I started out with a nightstand with a box balanced on top of it. And my computer balanced on top of that box. And that was my setup the entire time that I lived in Berkeley. And before that, it wasn't much better. And I had hoped when I moved into the apartment in Berkeley- I was in my own space and I was excited and I ordered this desk to be part of my office- I had a dedicated office instead of cramming it into a corner of my bedroom and it was going to be great.
And so I had this vision of that office that never got realized. And I kept waiting and they kept saying just a little longer, just a little longer. And so I didn't buy anything makeshift or stop gap because it was going to be just a little longer. And for a little longer, I could deal with my stack of box and nightstand and computer and... just a little longer. It was two years just a little longer. And then longer than that after I moved. And then finally, finally it came and I was really excited. And then I was like well, I'll just build this desktop.
But now at this point, I am impatient. The winter is coming in again. And I need to feel like my office is operational. And I am once again makeshift.
I have borrowed from the partner that I live with an over-the-bed hospital table that they used to use when they didn't have a desk. So it's a desk, sort of. But I want the thing I envisioned. I want that specific thing.
And this is, this is the thing about us intensives: is that when we want a thing, we want the exact thing.
We don't want a makeshift thing, we don't want a halfway thing. And for me, at least, it's dangerous to buy a stop gap anything. It's dangerous to stop the gap with anything except the final answer. Because if I stop the gap, if I fix the problem, my brain will move on. I will lose interest in fixing the problem for real. And I will just make do.
I have been making do without a desk since I moved to the west coast in 2017. It's fine. Everything has worked. I have managed. I have even managed to have the kind of professional backdrop that one needs if one is regularly online for work. But it's awkward, and it's frustrating. And I don't like it. And so I'm looking forward to having a desk, even though it will mean a whole new set of problems.
Right now, the small table I'm using is in the middle of the room. So the backdrop is a wall, a chest of drawers, some photographs. If I put the desk against the wall, the way I have been imagining that I will, I'll have to keep the entire part of the room that's behind the desk clear if I intend to film there. Or I'll need to have a separate filming corner. Sometimes being on camera is exhausting.
But if I take my time, I can have the setup I want. I can have a setup that feels good and orderly and organized.
I've realized that the reason that my spaces are so chaotic is because I learned to organize in my childhood backpack. I didn't have doubles of any of my school supplies. So they all went in my backpack, which went back and forth with me to school. And that meant that every pen- in those days, school bags had little pockets for everything, I think some still do. But a lot of them don't.
In my school bag, every pen, every eraser, every notebook had its own spot. I could find anything in the dark. And I've realized I want my desk to be like that. I want my office to be like that.
I picked up a secretary off the side of the road- the piece of furniture, not a person. And it's got pigeon holes, and they make me so happy. Building those kinds of tools takes time. And a lot of specialized knowledge. I could go into a list of fifty or sixty skills, that I would have to have to build the secretary that I found sitting on the side of the road.
I'm grateful that I don't have to build the secretary. I'm grateful when I don't have to do it myself. But also, if I'm not in a hurry, then there's nothing wrong with it taking time. As long as it's time that I want to spend, and that's the other piece. We're intensives: we can do, learn, be, almost anything- except expansive. The question becomes, is this something you want to learn? Is this something you want to pour that intensity into?
Is this something that, given complete freedom, you would choose to let become your only focus for a time. That you would let the clock fade away and just do this? Because if the thing is that thing, you will have no trouble. If the thing is not that thing, then it's best to find another way. Because forcing ourselves to take time and energy and focus never goes well.
Expansives call that discipline, but we call that torture. Don't torture yourself. Give yourself the space and time to learn and master the things you want to know. If mastery is even possible, which it often isn't. Which is also okay.
In that case just keep learning. Just keep diversifying your skills. Just keep absorbing, just keep practicing. Keep allowing yourself to be intensive. And when there's a deadline- sometimes just buy the thing. Sometimes find a way around needing it. And sometimes you will be in a hurry for a little while about a little thing.
And if you can in those moments, give yourself space for a little imperfection. Because then you can start using it. Then it can be yours. And you have more space for something else to take time.