With my absurdly unreliable sleep schedule, it's taken me all week to recover from the lost hour due to Daylight Savings Time. I am simply not as nimble as I used to be. I don't spring back like a wobbly doll anymore, clumsy, cheerful, and unscathed. No. My resilience is a gradual thing & I'm still learning the bounds.
It has me thinking about time, and the talk I gave in December at Creative Mornings. The talk was recorded, but it's not yet online. I'll be excited to share it when it is. Until then, here's a slightly modified version of the text – just in case you've been thinking about time, too.
To me the most important thing about time is recognizing it. The way that I recognize time is by taking a pause, so now that we’re all settled, let’s take a pause together.
There’s a technique I like that’s meant to bring us all into the moment. It’s a breathing exercise called Samma Vritti, or equal breathing...that means inhaling and exhaling through the nose for the same count. I like to count to four. Please join me and breathe in and out of your nose four counts each, for four breaths.
We sit here in this space, taking time. This breathing exercise is about counting time. One way to recognize time, to mark time, it’s a way to be in the moment.
Thanks you for taking the time.
Last year, in an Ipsos poll conducted on behalf of Google, Canadians self-reported that they spend an average of nearly 90 percent of their free time (or about 7 hours a day) staring at one of the many screens they own, often more than one at the same time.
So is this maximizing efficiency or wasting time?
And where do we draw the line?
In that same survey, respondents said that they spent only 14 percent of their leisure time daily listening to the radio, reading a printed page, or enjoying other non-digital activities.
What’s the difference between passing time and spending time, between passive and active leisure time? How do we define free time? Is it when we aren’t working? How do we define work?
Let me tell you a bit about myself.
NEVER ENOUGH TIME
I used to have an amazing job. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with myself, but I wanted to work for a positive change and I wanted to be creative. Big, vague ideas that I expect most of you share. I didn’t care about making a lot of money, but I wanted to make enough to be comfortable.
I wanted to be helping to protect the natural world for future generations, so I looked and looked until I found a direct marketing job at the Nature Conservancy of Canada. It wasn’t a job that I wanted to do forever, but it was a place I wanted to be.
Once I was there, I worked and worked, doing the job I’d been hired for while I looked for ways to make it more the job I wanted it to be. The job evolved, and so did the team, and I eventually found myself in charge of the organization’s first dedicated marketing team.
It was a dream to me because I could see so clearly how this fantastic organization could be made to be more nationally-known for all the good work it was doing, and I was going to get to help make that happen.
But I was so busy, and getting the new team going was so much work, and I was so tired all the time, and my back was killing me. I figured it must be stress, that I wasn’t taking the time to take care of myself. Because there’s never enough time for all the work, perhaps especially at a charity. And for me, the first thing to go is usually self-care.
I was only a few months into my exciting new role when I was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer that had already metastasized, or spread, to local lymph nodes and distant bones.
Stage 4 cancer means that it’s incurable. A lifelong, terminal (yet hopefully chronic) illness.
No wonder my back hurt.
Time ground to a halt.
OUT OF TIME
Suddenly, instead of racing from meeting to meeting, staying late to do the work generated in those meetings, never enough time for all the work, I was sitting in waiting rooms.
And I was waiting.
Time stretched out in a bleak expanse. I had been forcibly slowed down.
And sitting still, quietly waiting, that’s when the fear crowded in, the anxiety, the depression. Because it was just me, a room full of other people with cancer, and my thoughts. So many thoughts.
And when treatment began, I tried to work, but being a cancer patient can be a full-time job, and I hadn’t yet learned how to balance the pace of the office with the greedy patience required by the hospital.
So I had to let work go.
And I was cast adrift. Out of time. I was untethered to most of my former life. Holding on by a thread to my husband, my home, my need to continue to exist.
And that’s when I stepped sideways and existed outside of time, as we know it, for a while. I drifted in a Netflix-haze through entire seasons of The West Wing. Day would turn to night, and I’d only shower and get dressed if I had to go to the hospital. My husband would leave for work and come home, and I’d be exactly where he left me on the sofa, lost in some vampire space cop show. I slept through entire days. I cancelled plans and nobody complained.
You see, when you’re really sick, nobody is going to push you to do anything. Nobody makes you get up and go outside. People are very gentle.
So when I realized that I might only have a couple years left and I’d just wasted a couple months wallowing, I started to panic. A sense of urgency burnt through me like a wildfire: I had to start making the most of whatever time I had left, because the median survival time for my late-stage disease is 3 years from diagnosis...& I was wasting time.
At least that’s how I felt.
Of course I know that grieving isn’t a waste of time, and grieving oneself is poorly-charted territory, but I felt like I was going to lose my mind if I didn’t do something.
And since nobody was going to make me, I had to make myself get up and have a day.
A long time ago, before I learned to be pragmatic and got jobs, I studied art. I was even a working artist for a while, before the allure of a steady pay-cheque seduced me into an arts administration job.
I told myself that I’d make art in the evenings, weekends, the in-between times.
Sometimes that worked better than other times. I had fits of productivity, a show here, a bunch of screen-printed t-shirts there, I’d draw things we needed as graphic elements at work or do a bit of layout myself...
...but as my career progressed, I was finding less time to do art on my own time, and I was doing less and less actual creative stuff at work and more and more forecasting, business planning, and management.
And when I got sick, I couldn’t imagine sitting in a room talking about budgets and five-year planning when I wasn’t sure I would be around to see it through.
I talked to our head of human resources, and he told me what I think I already knew, that I needed to live the next couple years as if they were all I have...because they might be...and then, if I’m lucky (because some people are) I’ll get to stick around and do more living.
TIME HAS A WAY OF SLIPPING AWAY
But what does it mean to use my time well? And what exactly does it take to make me do it?
At first, it was crippling to even think about it. Thinking about time was the scariest thing to me, because I could feel it slipping away and I wanted -- still want -- so much more of it. How could I possibly fit everything I wanted to do, to be, into 3 years? Or even 5?
It was enough to make me crawl back into bed and go back to sleep.
I was debilitated by the desire to be my best self.
And why was it that the self I was before diagnosis - the director of marketing for a wonderful national charity, with an amazing husband and family, interesting friends, a fairly comfortable life - why wasn’t that self enough, now, now that I had some idea that my expiration date was fast approaching?
Because I was convinced that, by taking jobs with their comfortable benefits and salaried security, I’d taken the wrong path.
Despite the fact that my steady jobs had often been tenuous at best (having mostly been in the charitable sector), I felt that I’d take the easy road. Never one to set up camp in regret, I found myself face to face with a giant, seemingly insurmountable regret. I suddenly realized that I had been wasting my time. Not because I’d been frittering it away on social media, although I do my fair share of that. No. I’d been frittering away the talents I was born with.
I wasn’t making art.
I had wasted SO MUCH time.
So, here I stood at the intersection of time passed and time finite, and I was being crushed from both directions.
And in order to draw myself forward, I began to draw. This was nothing like the art I used to make, big, colourful abstract things, where I repeated the shapes of my dreams, of my memories, shapes that reflected the rocks, lands and trees of my youth in Oregon in ways only I could see. Nothing at all like that.
I’m not sure that I could have started smaller.
The previous summer, I went to the Arctic on an “Into the Northwest Passage” adventure. Of course I was bowled over by the sheer scale of exposed rock, by the startling blue of sun on an iceberg, by the majestic grace of narwhals and polar bears. It was transformational and humbling. What I hadn’t expected was the flowering tundra: the tiny, perfect plants that grow, wind-flattened (we were above the treeline, after all) all across the rocky terrain.
And I fell in love with these plants. So small, so much beauty, such a short season, they have so little time, and yet they’re strong, they’re resilient, they persist. I’d lain on my stomach every time we went to shore, peering into their cupping petals. And of course I took hundreds of pictures, wearing out the macro setting on my camera.
So when I got sick, and very depressed, and I couldn’t find my way out, I started to draw these tiny flowers. My drawings were small, but they weren’t to scale, not at all, the flowers were so much smaller.
And I would get lost in their details. I drew and drew. I idly thought I might turn them into a colouring book, but that wasn’t the point of it. It gave me a purpose.
And even though it was all I could do to draw these tiny pretty things, it was enough. I started to feel a little better.
Why? Because there is something in drawing that is so deeply nourishing to me that the very act of taking pen to paper was starting to heal me.
I couldn’t go back. I never can. But in the act of looking, seeing, translating through my body to the page, I was doing two important things: I was doing something that wasn’t just ruminating, and I was renewing my body’s relationship with drawing. That meant that when I realized that I had something I felt that I needed to say, my hands remembered how.
Because the right time isn’t always here...sometimes it’s about doing the right thing until the right time comes along.
PAST, PRESENT, THE FUTURE IS NOW
It took months of this before I finally started to draw about cancer. First, I had to learn how to talk about it....and that took a whole bunch of therapy...and no small measure of time.
In order to figure out how to move forward with incurable cancer, I needed to work through a lot of complicated emotions, and I needed to figure out where I went wrong in learning how to cope. I was seeing a therapist every week to try to at least whittle the depression my disease caused me to a manageable level.
After these sessions, I would go home and draw.
I got a referral to a mindfulness-based cognitive therapy class for cancer patients and learned to be still with my thoughts, to acknowledge them and not be so deeply emotional all the time...because it’s exhausting, and it’s a feedback loop of pain.
Eventually, after every few flowers I drew, I would draw a comic about my childhood. Sometimes the memories were good ones, but mostly I was purging my worst memories from my head. It felt like a cleansing. In a way, this drawing was mediation, but it was also a much-needed escape from the present. Dwelling in the past, be it a trip taken just before diagnosis or long-past memories, was a way of not thinking about cancer.
Then I went to a retreat with Young Adult Cancer Canada. For the first time, I sat in a group of other young adults with advanced cancer. And for the first time, I felt like I could open up about the depth of my fears. I knew that I’d be understood.
I had been keeping a lot to myself. I was afraid to talk about the depths of my grief because I didn’t want to pull anybody else down with me...and really, what could they do? Cure my cancer? But, because we shared an experience, I found it incredibly liberating to speak candidly, out loud, and be heard.
When I got home from that weekend retreat I started to draw about cancer.
This is the first drawing I made about living with cancer:
And the drawings began to pour out of my hands. The feelings that were surfacing at therapy, the fears I was ruminating over, the absurdity of suddenly finding myself living in hospital corridors, my anger at being so sick, drawing gave me a place to channel all of it and all the waiting gave me the time.
After a couple months of quietly drawing for myself, I showed my drawings to a friend who also lives with metastatic cancer. She encouraged me to share them, and I began to think that maybe they could help other people living with cancer. This disease can be very isolating. Maybe they could help people to not to feel so alone. And maybe they could help people who love people with cancer to better understand them. Maybe they could help get more conversations going, between loved ones and even doctors.
A lot of the information about what it’s like to live with cancer is written by or for an older demographic, for a patient in a different phase of life than mine. I could find very little information when I was first diagnosed that felt relevant to my experience, but especially that talked candidly about how it feels to be sick.
I told my friend that I’d think about how to share the drawings.
It made sense to me to put them online and let whoever wanted or needed to see them to find them, so I built a simple website. I posted the link on social media, and it got some attention. A couple weeks later, the online editor at The Walrus magazine asked if I would like to migrate my drawings over to their website as an open-ended series. Of course I said yes! My brand-new blog couldn’t possibly attract as many readers as Canada’s best magazine, and my goal was to get the drawings to people they could somehow help.
This much-bigger platform almost immediately translated into more engagement when the CBC's The 180 asked me to come on-air to discuss my changing perspective on animal testing, in regard to developing new medications.
A life-long vegetarian, I am still somehow proud that PETA offered a retort. Such a clear example of the gray areas that I necessarily live in...as we all do, I think.
The time I’d spent with my new work...the artwork and writing I'd been doing about cancer also drew the attention of the wonderful publisher at The House of Anansi Press, who was interested in a possible book that combined those kinds of drawings with related essays. I leapt at the opportunity. This book is so much at once, a chance to help, to give back to the many people who have supported me since diagnosis, a chance to leave something tangible behind, and an opportunity to spend my time writing and drawing. A book is a special kind of legacy, one you can hold and share and revisit. What a gift.
And for most of the past year, sometimes it has felt like all I do is work on the book, but that's not complaining. Having this project has made me feel much less adrift. It has given me something to fill the time I have, but also something to help make sense of my situation. It has given me a purpose. If you're interested, the book is coming to your favourite independent bookstore in April.
Where I used to go to an office and hold meetings, scheduled within an inch of my life, now I am on the hospital's schedule, and in between I draw and write. It's perfect because it's so flexible. I wrote part of this on my phone in a waiting room.
And where in an office, you really need to show up and work your full day, sometimes I'm just not up for a full day anymore (I get tired easily), I have found a wonderful flexibility with these projects. I can write and draw when I have energy and rest when I need to.
And I swear drawing gives me more energy than it takes away. If the drugs just didn't make me tired, I feel like I could do anything.
But the reality is, I can’t. My energy is finite and I have to choose what I do. My priorities have included creating, spending time with my favourite people, traveling, and talking to people about the impact of metastatic cancer...because I think it’s not well understood. I feel that by adding to the conversation, I’m increasing awareness. To that end, I participated in a short video project with ReThink Breast Cancer, where they asked me to talk about what legacy means to me now. Because the thing about having a finite amount of time is that it forces me to think about legacy.
Time is no longer abstract to me.
So...What are the the takeaways?
Before I was diagnosed, time felt abstract. I feel now that I was wasting time, but then I found reasons to not be doing the thing I was most meant to be doing. I had other things to do that felt important, that felt true. Cancer taught me that time is real. Time is finite. It also taught me to look inside myself to discover my passion, my goals, the things I had to offer. It showed me aspects of myself that I had set aside because I was too busy.
Even without cancer, we all get caught up in the daily grind. It’s easy to not do the thing that matters most. But why? Time is yours to spend, not waste.
How to apply this to your life? What can you pluck out of my story that’s useful? Don’t wait. Live for today. Be your best self now.
You have All the Time You Need.