A few years back a video clip of Congresswoman Maxine Waters went viral. She was questioning then Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchinin during a Congressional hearing. The Secretary tried to be slick, wasting away her designated time to question him by filling the hearing room with the hot air of disingenuous platitudes.
She squawked again and again, “Reclaiming my time! Reclaiming my time!” Reclaiming my time!” On the recurring topic of returning to my physical federal workspace, that is exactly how I feel and why I will always vote and advocate for more telework/remote work.
The forced work-from-home, since last March, has shown me just how valuable my time is and how much of it I have been freely wasting, allowing it to be slowly siphoned off here and there and just trickling away. The pandemic revealed just how precious my time is. Time is limited. Time cannot be reversed. Time cannot be put into a savings account, nor can it be matched for exponential increase to be used later down the line. My time is mine and how I choose to spend it should be my decision.
Earlier this week, I made the journey that I used to make almost daily to the neighborhood where my office is, by car, from my home in Northern Virginia to Rockville, Maryland, only this time I made this trip of my own volition in search of the area’s absolute best steamed vegetable dumplings. It had been well over a year since I had tasted them – light, tasty, each one lovingly handmade, but I digress. As I drove up the beltway, one of too many cars bobbing and weaving, on Memorial Day, avoiding hitting one another and getting from behind malingering tractor trailer trucks, I saw all of the sights I used to see every day before March 2020 – Robinson Terminal - the old Washington Post outpost on the right, the big orange Storage Warehouse on the left, the exit to Route 50, Tyson’s Corner, Exits to Great Falls, CIA headquarters, and the American Legion Bridge. My car suddenly was becoming reacquainted with every dip in the road, every metal road joint that used to make my Volvo rhythmically bounce, almost like a hydraulic low-rider. I rode past the place after the Beltway merges into 270 North, where I suffered a tire blowout and somehow,
God willing, made it to the side of the road across four lanes of traffic. Even further up 270 I passed the spot where a 17-year old clipped the left rear bumper and the rear light of my car in her exuberant impatience with rush hour traffic. She was driving with a learner’s permit, unaccompanied by a licensed driver. I recalled the tortured memories of split second decisions whether to spend untold amounts of money on tolls, feeling superior, and slip into the EZ Pass lanes, leaving the plebes to fend for themselves so that I could get to work on time, but still feel the anxiety of having rushed. Or, to wait it out in bumper to bumper traffic, get to work whenever I do, and deal with the real or imagined fallout of being perpetually late, playing catch up, and just psychologically feeling like a blight on the performance and reputation of my team. It’s all too much!!! This could very easily take up to two hours some days, and this is just getting to work. The same follows on the return trip back home.
I do not revel in the Sunday night angst that used to hover over me like a dark cloud – leaving home up to two hours before my work start time. What keeping this schedule for years has done to my sleep hygiene I may never know, but the four hours that no commute would add to my life and the additional time to sleep in the morning before starting work could add years to my life.
I would more like to think of being pandemic free, but still able to exercise my right to own my time, live like civilized people and not like the darker, curvier version of a fictitious super working girl character from a bad movie - wearing pantyhose and sneakers, rushing here and really getting nowhere gaining a false sense of accomplishment and achievement based on the number of things I can juggle, even with my crazy commuting schedule.
If I must multi-task, I would rather do so while tending to the maintenance and upkeep of the quality of my life. If I’m called to a staff meeting, let me put in a load of laundry or run the dishwasher before we get started. If I have to complete a report by COB, let me shift focus and gain perspective before pounding out a dynamic introduction to my report by spending a few moments running the vacuum, doing a little dusting, taking a quick ride on the Peloton, or even spending a few moments chopping vegetables doing whole food prep so that I can avoid the temptation of fast foods and microwave meals at the end of the day. Let me intentionally listen to the beauty of music out loud, experiencing it as it fills the air and caresses the tall corners of the room and wafts into every room I visit meeting me there, rather than simply hearing it from the tips of air pods, headphones, or while stuck in my car behind honking cars. This is how I would prefer to spend my time and integrate work into my life. The pandemic has shown us that this is possible because this is how we’ve been living for the last 15 months.
When folks older than me would declare for themselves, “I now have more memories than dreams,” I used to think that was just a flip exchange. I can see clearly how that quickly can become the truth. Just this week I learned about the death of a colleague that I worked with on Capitol Hill. It is hard to believe that we met over 20 years ago, traveled through Sub Saharan Africa together, ventured down into a copper mine in Zambia, thought we were grown and had the world figured out. Time is quietly passing, with every unnecessary meeting, every time we work beyond our tour of duty of eight hours, every time we engage in small battles -personal or professional - that take their toll on our health by creating anxiety and lingering stress, every time we still discriminate against someone that is different than we are going out of our way to make them feel other, every time we forget that our jobs are not more important than that family gathering or the life that we want to live. “What’s your dream? What’s your dream?” like the Black man pushing a cart at the beginning and ending of the movie Pretty Woman asks. It’s not too late to dream if we “Reclaim [Our] Time!”