Two days left of our Christmas break and I found myself scrambling. I needed to catch up on all I’d planned to do over the holidays, but I also wanted to get ahead a little bit. Dinner the other night was homemade macaroni and cheese, which happens to be my son’s favorite thing to pack in a thermos in his lunchbox. Phew! The first back-to-school lunch accomplished, two nights before I had to worry about it.
I love the feeling of being on the ball, of having meals prepared ahead of time in the freezer, school things gathered together for the return to classes, and the schedule for the month of January all written out on a new calendar. It’s deeply satisfying, and I feel like I start the year off in control. Usually I’m running in triage mode, tackling only those tasks most needing my attention. However, I can’t stay up late to work the way I used to. It’s finally dawning on me that my mother was right that it simply feels good to pull things together with hours or days rather than minutes to spare.
My mother went back to do coursework towards a master’s degree about the same time I started graduate school. Whereas I would be up late the night before a deadline to complete an assignment, she’d finish her papers a week before they were due and then relax. I thought she was nuts. In part this was just her personality — she’s always been very organized and conscientious — but I’m now realizing that after raising two children she’d really learned how to focus and then take a break.
There’s something about living on the edge, however, that perks me up and keeps me on my toes. When I was teaching regularly, I sometimes found that some of my best lectures were ones I’d pulled together at the last minute. The adrenaline surge seemed to energize me, and I was more likely to ad lib or adjust the lecture to what I perceived to be my students’ needs rather than constraining myself to carefully prepared notes and materials. However, as I get older I can’t trust myself to perform well under last-minute pressures. I need more sleep for one thing. And then there are the unanticipated changes in my kids’ needs that may throw off my schedule unexpectedly. Getting ahead has over the years become more and more attractive.
The enticing part of getting ahead is not just the extra hour of sleep I could get (although that’s pretty good incentive), but also the chance to play. What I didn’t realize until becoming a parent is how much I’d long for uncommitted time to bake or do crafts with my kids, play a cribbage game with my husband, or read a book for fun. After two weeks of Christmas break where we could do just that, my ambition for 2011 is to find more ways we can fit playtime into our work week. And I think that’s what my mother has always understood — get ahead, and then take time to put your feet up or play.