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Time Is of the Essence

Illustration by Mast3r

I was a road warrior.

My habit of keeping track of everything leads me to carry a small notebook in which I record the year’s travels: how many hotel nights, how many flights, how many trips on Amtrak from my home in New Haven. For 2019, the answers were 88, 37, and 36: visits to London, São Paulo, Madrid, Toronto, Jerusalem, Mexico City, Dublin, Calgary, just to name the foreign destinations. With a few exceptions, most of the trips were to give talks, serve on panels, teach a class, attend a conference. 

Reading by Rachel Share-Sapolsky ’22

Sometimes the enticement was an honorarium. More often, it was the chance to see a new place or revisit a favorite one, to meet interesting people, to learn something. I actually like to fly. I even enjoy a modern, well-laid-out airport—think Denver, Detroit, or Terminal 5 at JFK. My access cards for airline lounges were always in my wallet. My suitcase was packed with the essentials. My passport, approaching its expiration date, was filling up with entry and exit stamps. 

Then came 2020. The pages I had set aside in my little notebook for the year’s travels are, of course, nearly blank. My last flight, from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, was on March 9.

All of us will emerge from this period having pushed some kind of personal reset button, from the superficial to the profound. Friends who colored their hair for years decided to give it up and just go gray. Others, relishing the release from arduous commutes, are contemplating major career changes. One former colleague moved his young family to a farmhouse in northern Vermont and plans never to go back to Brooklyn.

In my case, as spring turned to summer and one obligation after another disappeared from my calendar, what I felt, to my surprise, was not disappointment but relief. Why had I agreed to give that talk? What did I really have to say to members of an organization I didn’t belong to and knew little about? That conference would probably have been fun, but would it really have been worth three days out of my life?

I’m fully aware that these musings come from a position of great privilege: poor dear, her free trip to talk to American expats in Mexico won’t happen this year. I do know how lucky I am, and of course I’m aware that the pandemic and its bungled handling by our government has inflicted great suffering on millions. My discovery, after 40 years of marriage, that I can actually enjoy planning and preparing meals, not for a dinner party but just for my husband and me, night after night, when there’s no office to rush home from, is of little moment against a canvas of pain and loss for so many. I think it’s my feeling that luck brings obligations that led me to volunteer at age 73 for a Phase 3 trial of one of the experimental COVID vaccines.

The great societal reckoning on race that began with the killing of George Floyd has given us all a lot to think about, and the pandemic has given us time to absorb some uncomfortable truths about our country and ourselves. Time is the one asset that can’t be replenished, and I suppose that what I’ve learned during this period is to reclaim, and try to bring back under my control, the time I have left. May I know how to put it to good use.

This essay appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Radcliffe Magazine.

Linda Greenhouse is a 1968 graduate of Radcliffe College and a senior research scholar in law at Yale Law School. A Pulitzer Prize winner, she reported on the Supreme Court for the New York Times from 1978 to 2008 and currently writes a twice-monthly opinion column on the court as a New York Times contributing columnist.

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