In another life, when I was a spanking new college grad and took the F train from Brooklyn to Manhattan every weekday, I had this boss.
Just a tad older than yours truly, David always arrived before me and always left after me. Not only that, he wrote books — swashbuckling sci-fi yarns that actually got published. Our assignments weren’t easy-peasy, so I knew he wasn’t penning these manuscripts during the day.
After he told me he worked on them at night, I asked him when he slept.
“Sleep?” he said, somewhat bemused at my naiveté.
“Sleep! I never sleep! You’re kidding, right? Who sleeps in New York?”
I still remember this story when I think that even today, living in a sweet little beach town, I find it difficult to relax.
It’s not that I can’t make the time.
While there are always chores and errands to run, I no longer have a small child to attend to. The Hubster is also perfectly capable of taking care of himself (although when it’s time to sew on buttons, iron shirts and fix dinner, I’m the more capable one). I also have the huge blessing of no longer needing to work full time.
Yet I still make to-do lists — either on a legal pad, or in the tiny pink notebook nestled in my purse, or even in my head — every day. (And for those who believe that living in a beach town means living in a bubble, it doesn’t. That’s especially true now, when things to do always include calling and emailing and sending postcards to my elected representatives.)
And why is it that when those tasks are not accomplished, I somehow feel not just not industrious, but lazy and guilty?
It’s not because I don’t know how important it is to take time off for my mind, body and most important, spirit. That’s the reason I’m doing my best to enjoy my grown up coloring book; getting to the library more, and trying to take one day of rest every week, otherwise known as a stop day.
Yet, perhaps I still feel restless because I’m realizing that no one’s mortality is infinite, most especially mine.
(The Hubster noted my fidgety nature early on. For our first Christmas together, he presented me with a hummingbird ornament. “This,” he said, “is your spirit animal.”)
After all, we all have such little time on this planet.
Thinking about that, there’s no way I’ll ever get around to reading everything I want to read; writing everything I want to write, and seeing every movie I want to see. There’s also little chance that I’ll be able to travel to all of the places I daydream about.
So instead of trying so hard to make every day a “full one,” maybe it’s time to give some wiggle room to my definition of “being productive” and “getting things done.”
This needed adjustment became even clearer when I recently read about New York City police detective Steven McDonald.
In the summer of 1986, McDonald was a 29-year-old cop who had been a patrolman for less than two years. Working for the NYPD was more than a job: it was family tradition, with both his grandfather and father once serving on the same city police force. It was also a time when the Big Apple was struggling with soaring rates of homicide — nearly 6,000 murders that year. (In 2016, there were 335.)
On July 12, the world that McDonald knew came to an abrupt end.
Patrolling Central Park on that sunny day, McDonald was shot by a 15-year-old teenager named Shavod Jones. The kid fired twice at the officer, then, standing over McDonald’s crumpled body, shot a third time.
“A doctor spoke to my wife and me,” McDonald would later report. “He said that I would be paralyzed from the neck down. I would be unable to move for the rest of my life.” To make matters even worse, McDonald had been married just eight months, and his 23-year-old wife, Patti, was three months pregnant. (Six months and 10 days after the shooting, which was also the day that Jones was sentenced to a maximum of 10 years, son Conor Patrick was born. A few decades later, he chose to follow his father into the NYPD. One week after his release from prison, at age 25, Jones died in a motorcycle crash.)
Here comes the part of the story that amazes me: Steven McDonald forgave Shavod Jones.
In fact, remaining on as a first-grade detective, and traveling in a motorized wheelchair and the aid of a respirator to help him breathe, McDonald dedicated the next three decades to a purposeful path — one that probably didn’t include making to-do lists.
Instead, until his death at age 59 earlier this month, McDonald made the choice to speak about love.
He did so by talking to rookie and veteran cops alike, telling them to always think about safety — but to also always treat everyone with respect and kindness. He believed that cops could — and do — make a positive difference in people’s lives. He took the same message to hundreds of schools, and also made pilgrimages of reconciliation to Northern Ireland and the Middle East. McDonald even kept up a prison correspondence with Jones, who had had a troubled history of delinquency and emotional turmoil. So revered was McDonald that on the day of his funeral, thousands of fellow officers filed into St. Patrick’s cathedral to pay their respects.
There are a myriad of ways to be productive. I’m still wrapping my head around a lot of this, but maybe, the true definition has little to do with being in constant motion like a hummingbird.
Instead, it might very well mean this: no matter how you choose to spend your time, don’t waste it.