I registered my four-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Pippa, for kindergarten the other week. She’ll be going to our neighborhood public school, a few blocks away from our house. It’s a small, place, with only one class per grade, a vegetable garden out back, and a handful of kids' bikes locked to the bike rack. The day I visited was Career Day, and out on the playground, a farrier was showing fourth-graders how to shoe a pony. I'd been feeling melancholy about Pippa's first day of school for months, but when I saw the fuzzy, waist-high animal, I thought, OK, I can handle this. Then Joanne, in the office, gave me the list of school supplies, including 12 number-two pencils and a composition book, and I nearly lost it.
Everybody tells you time goes quickly when you have children. For the first year or two I didn't believe them. The days stretched out, blissful and mind-numbing. We were concerned with Ferberizing, dropping feedings, researching preschools. It all seemed so complicated and endless.
Then, around the time she turned four, the bubble popped. Now there was a milestone looming. In six months, she'll be in school five days a week. In two months, she'll be five. They were right. Time was going much too fast.
I know this sounds melodramatic; after all, it’s not like we’re sending her off to college yet. But children have an uncanny way of marking time. They may be good at living in the present, but the speed at which they change reminds us that the present won’t last. We measure their age in weeks, months, half-years. Just when we get used to one phase, they move onto the next.
I don't know any parent who doesn't feel this way. We're getting older, too, of course, but the changes are less obvious when you're 40 versus four. The other day, Pippa rode her bike to preschool for the first time. A woman pulled up beside us on the street and said through the open window, "I wish I could take a picture of the look on her face. It's priceless." I looked over my shoulder and Pippa was grinning madly, as though she couldn't quite believe her luck. I want to freeze that expression, too, bottle her laughter and the way she talks, words spilling out uncontrollably, and capture it all before she outgrows it, and us.
It's not that I want to stop time. I just want to slow it down. Stretch it.
For the past few months, I've been trying to figure out how, and my solutions tend toward the calamitous. Should I stop running? Stop writing? Pull my girls from preschool so I can spend more time with them? Decamp to the British Columbia wilderness where life is simpler? Nice ideas, but too extreme.
The answer is simpler, but harder. I should spend the time I have with them with them. I should pay better attention. One of my resolutions this year has been to unplug from my devices and go analog but five months in, I'm failing miserably. I haven't figured out a system or ground rules for limiting my screen time, much less my children's.
But it's not just our relationship to our devices. It's our relationship to time itself. I asked my friend Natalie Goldberg, who has written books on writing and has been a student of Buddhist meditation for decades, for her advice. We were hiking down our usual Tuesday trail, and I was so busy bemoaning the passage of time that I wasn’t paying attention to the clouds in the sky, the crunch of dirt under my feet.
"Don't fight time," she told me. "When you stop fighting it, you're in time."
I knew what she meant, sort of. We'd had a day like that recently: It was a Sunday, and my daughters and I drove up to Taos, New Mexico, to soak in a natural hot spring along the Rio Grande. That was our general plan, and we filled in the rest as we went. On the drive up, we stopped at Sugar's roadside BBQ stand for an early lunch. It was empty when we arrived, but soon enough a long line had formed, people waiting for brisket burritos and onion rings.
The trail to Stagecoach Hot Springs drops 500 feet in just less than a mile. On the hike in, we saw a bighorn sheep standing on an outcropping, gazing over the river like he was on the prow of a ship. Pippa wanted to go trail running, so I loped behind her, snaking down to two pools built out of stacked stone at the river's edge. Back in the 1890s, a bridge crossed the river here, and there was a stagecoach stop and a small hotel next to the springs.
Now, a group of 20-somethings with towels around their waists were drying off on the warm rocks. A wiry, white-haired hippie pulled a joint from behind a rock in the crumbling wall, presumably stashed there on his last visit. Overhead a small white plane buzzed above the Gorge. The man shook his head. "That plane has been following me all over the country. West Virginia. Illi-noise,” he said. “Now here." He stretched his arm to the sky and gave it the finger.
We changed into our bathing suits behind a rock and eased into the hotter of the two pools. The rocks along the edge were fuzzy with green algae and large tufts of it floated around like a neglected fish tank. The girls didn't care. None of us did. The water was 100 degrees, and the air smelled sweet with sagebrush. We took turns plunging our legs into the cold river and jumping back into the hot spring. Afterwards, we walked downstream to a small sand beach and flung pebbles into the river, just to hear the splash, and then hiked out the way we'd come.
We weren't in a rush to get back to Santa Fe, so we drove to Arroyo Seco to get ice cream cones at Taos Cow. We sat on a bench in the sun, feeling the heat radiate off the adobe wall behind us, and licked our cinnamon ice cream, as relaxed as we'd been in months. For a few hours, we'd slid into that peaceful place where life is unfolding naturally.
I wish we could live this way all the time, but with school and jobs and schedules, I know that's unrealistic. But days like this teach me that slow time is possible. Having idle days without deadlines and devices helps, of course. The real trick, though, is to stop fighting time and just be in it, letting the current carry us along.