How We Spend Our Days

Long ago, as a 19-year-old undergraduate, a friend gave me a copy of The Writing Life by Annie Dillard as a birthday gift. Recently, during the KonMari process of going through my books, I reread (and kept) this inscribed gift. I came across a passage that has become quite popular:

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing… There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading — that is a good life. A day that closely resembles every other day of the past ten or twenty years does not suggest itself as a good one. But who would not call Pasteur’s life a good one, or Thomas Mann’s?”

The Writing Life changed the course of my life. That quotation haunted me, especially when wasting time on social media or at miserable jobs: “What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing,” I’d realize, painfully, as I closed another technical support ticket or walked toward the HR wing to report that my vile manager had rubbed my shoulders and smoothed my hair.

For more than 20 years now, that single sentence has been all the reminder I needed to be careful and judgmental about how I spend my time.

Almost equally striking was: “The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading — that is a good life.” 

It is no coincidence that I adopted habits of frugal abundance at age 19, shortly after I finished my first read of this book. Dillard’s words sang out to me: Yes. That. I want a lot more time spent reading, and a lot less in cubicle farms.

Dillard’s call was stronger than the value mainstream, capitalist, industrial culture puts on reading vs. working, and the inner critic they create: “Reading is lazy. Being a worker, a productive member of society, is the very best thing you can be.” (Ignore, for the moment, the parties who have a stake in our enacting their particular, consumerist beliefs).

Dillard’s words were the very first that sounded like anything I actually wanted. I never wanted a big house, but a solidly made, cozy, affordable one. I never wanted a fancy car so much as a reliable one, with good gas mileage and without expensive parts.

During this 19-year-old time, I was absolutely content with a lifestyle other people referred to as “scraping by,” because I wasn’t. Yes, outwardly, I lived in a scarred and blighted Detroit neighborhood with abandoned, collapsed houses next door and across the street. Our “dangerous” neighbors were actually lovely, kind people who sold drugs for lack of other options (now totally acceptable behavior by white people who engage in the exact same behavior, but from a nice looking dispensary rather than the sidewalk).

I made $16k/year working full time. College cost me $9k/year out of pocket (plus $9k/year in loans for the difference). I had $7k to live on, so I learned, rather quickly, to make Mustachian choices to create a less stressful life. My share of rent in that spacious, 1920s, well maintained “ghetto” house was $160/month ($1,920/year) and I had a beautiful bedroom of my very own, as did each of my four roommates. Importantly, that $160/month included heat, in the form of those awesome-when-they-work steam heat radiators. Indeed, these worked so well that we often needed to crack a window because the house was too hot.

I could make that $160 in two to four nights of waiting tables or bartending. (Never mind that my being a bartender was illegal because I was not yet 21. Never you mind.) A lot of my food was free, dishes the cooks screwed up and saved for workers to take home at the end of the night. God love and keep those cooks: They always seemed to screw up more on slow nights, when our tips were lower.

Yes: I could have lived in a slightly nicer place, but lower rent meant more homework and sleeping time, and less working time. Time was already a calculus, even when each additional dollar was more precious than future dollars would be, because I had so few dollars at all.

I remembered all of this while doing the KonMari process (against the rules, because I was listening to a podcast). The Mad Fientist podcast introduced me to The Happy Philosopher, and his mind blowing post about the marginal utility of money. Don’t you just love people who put words to vague feelings and notions, and name them? Happy Philosopher’s post did just that. As with Dillard, I read “marginal utility of money” and thought: Yes. That. That is what I have been trying to say when I try to explain that, after a certain point, more money was not nearly as valuable to us as more time.

Without actually knowing or being all that conscious of it, Best Husband and I had completed Happy Philosopher’s steps (this is a direct quote from his post):

  1. Figure out how much money you need to fulfill your basic needs: food, shelter, transportation, etc.
  2. Think deeply about what in life brings you happiness (not pleasure, but happiness) and how much money above what is needed for basics you need to provide for this. This will take time and tinkering and will change over time, as what makes you happy will change as you evolve.
  3. Cut out all spending from your life that does not bring you joy. Examine everything you spend money on and ruthlessly eliminate or downgrade. Optimize everything that is left over.
  4. Use the saved money to buy your freedom.
  5. Use your freedom to do the work you love, or do less of the work you hate.
  6. If you are still working reassess and see if the trade makes sense, if not go back to step 1 and repeat until satisfied.
  7. If you don’t have enough money to get past step 1 you need to figure out how to make more money.

I think I’ve mentioned this before but, as soon as we paid off the house (and I mean within days), work became unbearable. We had bought our freedom. What had been, one week prior, “not always a terrible deal for the money” instantly became a “waste of a day,” time that kept us from spending time in other ways.

Now that we’re comfortably in step #5 (I’ve written in detail about our part-time self-employment, FIRE-for-us lifestyle), I wanted to return to Dillard’s big question, 20+ years on: How do we spend our days?

Every day, we wake up naturally, usually between 7:15 and 8 AM, though it occasionally ranges from 6:30 AM to 9 AM. I have not figured out why those swings happen for both of us when they do: Why, for one week, do both of us wake up naturally at 6:30 AM instead of 8 AM?

We do not set alarms unless we have a flight or something, and we rarely have a need to be on an early vs. later flight. I make coffee for us every day, and we have coffee in bed for an hour or so while we chat and read. I read the New Yorker and High Country News, he reads the Guardian and some other things from his phone.

This is the best part, by the way. This was all we wanted: more sleep and time together. You can probably stop reading right here, or I can probably stop writing. Our mornings are the highlight of my life. When, God forbid, death separates Best Husband and me, I will miss our mornings the most, but at least we will have had years of quiet, beautiful morning hours.

Then, we will either do some work (whether paid client work or volunteer, this is usually computer based work but may take the form of a call or meeting), or we will work out. We’ll walk to the gym to lift weights, or go to the climbing gym, something like that.

After 2-3 hours of either work or work-out time (or a combo), we’ll cook and eat lunch and head out to the garden to have a cup of tea, weed, plant, pick food, etc. We might also take a long walk or hike, or run errands (while everyone else is still at work – very important), or spend time on some of our hobbies – sewing, writing, brewing beer, woodworking, etc.

Sooner than we think, it’s time to cook a good dinner from scratch, which we do together while listening to podcasts. Evening time is, rarely, going out (to see a play or similar) but, more often, is time for more hobbies, maybe the occasional movie or PBS show. I usually knit or sew; Best Guy may play a video game or read a book.

We go to bed around 10 PM and read in bed until 11 PM or so, until lights out.

I would not trade a minute of it: “time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading — that is a good life.” 

I can say with certainty, 20+ years later, “There is no shortage of good days.”





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