Learning again how to pass the time

By Mindy Roll

Last month, my family and I moved to a remote mountain village in Washington state, an old mining town turned year-round retreat and renewal center. Cell phones do not work here, and on a good day, it takes only ten minutes to open email. I cannot get on Facebook, and streaming isn’t possible. Our car is parked hours away. There’s a satellite phone for emergencies. Emergency medical care requires a helicopter.

We had long dreamed of moving here. But a tipping point at work, a challenging kindergarten year, and a tough transition to pre-school had pushed our dreaming to applying. What might an unhurried, unplugged year offer us a family, as individuals?

When we opted for this year in “The Village,” as it is known here, my spiritual director back home told me to listen for the rhythms—of seasons, of work, of play, of rest. I stared at her. Rhythms? Seasons? “Seasons will be good for you,” she told me firmly. I was mystified. She had listened to me for years. What did she know that I did not know? What did she see that I could not?

For the first few days after arriving, I heard vibrations from my phone. Instinctively, I would pick it up to check a text before remembering that I had no phone service. It would take three days to realize that these ghost vibrations were not from my phone, and that, in fact, no one else heard them. Their memory lived somewhere in my body, leftovers from a life that was always “on.” When my phone died a few days later, I was content to slip it in a drawer and leave it there. The ghost vibrations stopped.

On my first day of work this summer, at the end of my work day, I was startled by the feeling of completeness—of turning off the computer and closing my office door. I had finished the work of the day, and I was done. I couldn’t check my work email later, even if I wanted. When I arrived at my office the next morning, I was surprised to realize that I had not thought of the work since I closed the door the day before. Is this what it feels like when your work is just a job, I wondered, something that lives in a single place, not in your whole life? I was used to being emotionally engaged in my work all the time.

I expected a feeling of peace to alight, but anxiety crept in instead. What would I do with all this extra time? Without streaming and email and Facebook and idly scrolling through the news for the twelfth time in an hour and talking through a work problem in the evening and checking my email just one more time before bed? It wasn’t that I was overinvested in my own importance—at least I didn’t think I was. I just had no idea how else to pass the time. Isn’t time for doing? For creating? For meaning?

A few weeks before our move here, my mother’s lifelong best friend died. Our families had grown up together—beach weekends, vacations in the mountains, regular dinners. As the funeral neared and I sorted through memories long tucked away, I was surprised by a theme that now felt utterly foreign—how well those friends had perfected the art of passing the time.

On long beach weekends, there were card games going. After bedtime, I could hear the muffled sounds of grownups talking, laughing, dealing cards, calling out “BS!” Colorful stories were swapped over dinner, entertaining and non-consequential and easily forgotten. But the adults always had a story to tell. Leisurely afternoons were spent on the sand, playing in the water, jumping in the surf, while the adults sat in beach chairs watching, chatting, snoozing under umbrellas. There was nothing to tend to but one another. Friends were for passing the time.

It seems to be from another era, passing the time. There’s a mental and emotional neutrality to it, a neutrality doesn’t ask for anything other that your unhurried, unworried, unanxious presence. How mysterious the idea of time unrelated to receiving yet more input. Did any of my generation learn this art?

We are four weeks into our year here.

In the evenings, people gather on their porches, swinging gently and calling to one another, watching the dusk deepen into night. There’s a tea wall and a toaster available in the dining hall for “dark nights of the soul”—after all, they laugh, what problem can tea and toast and company not solve? Meals are taken communally, and conversation is easy and unhurried. We wander through the woods for miles, the kids are engaged in the sounds and smells and sights, content to throw rocks into the river for hours. There is much to do, but nothing required. I’m mystified by unplanned weekends, the open windows, the way children create and govern their own baseball games, the slow, slow passing of time.

The easiness feels hard to me. How does one pass the time?

Last night, my husband commented on the new family that had just moved in, how very nice they seemed. Perhaps we should invite them over for cards, he suggested.

Cards? I responded, slightly horrified. Who plays cards anymore? Is that still a thing?

I’m not sure that it is, but perhaps we will. After all, we’ve got time to pass.

Mindy Roll is a temporary Washingtonian who lives deep in the wilderness of the Cascades. When not chasing her two wild children, she can be found blissfully swimming in glacier-fed lakes or blissfully soaking in hot things—hot springs, hot tubs, hot baths, and Texas swimming pools being among the favorites. 

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