What Does ‘Using Your Time Well’ Mean Now?

An old friend, poet Les Kay, said on Facebook today what many of us have been thinking: “Couldn’t get to sleep last night for some reason. Woke up with cough and sweating. No big deal in normal times. Easily explained as allergies and a bad dream in normal times. That’s precisely what it was, I’m sure, but my goodness these aren’t normal times, so I’m sure you can guess where my brain went. Someone remind me to turn off the little heater tonight.”

Exactly so. Two nights ago I was lying in the dark, not feeling great, thinking that if I had a sudden onset of serious Covid symptoms and never came back from a hospital, everything that was, in that moment, would be how things would go. I lay probing those thoughts like a two-a.m. toothache.

It has been a long time since so many of us all at once have thought what would happen if something happened, very quickly, to us. Where my brain went, was that my sons would be, at least in the short run, the people they have been nurtured and natured to be, with no further input from me; our base financials would be what they are; and the will that would be executed is the one written years ago.

Most of my stuff would be donated or go in the garbage—no great loss, except for a few art objects, and photographs I have meant for years to digitize and caption. I could just make out the two boxes and a bag of them sitting in the dark. I imagined my sons having to bear them like chalices through a throng of foes. But that is vanity, as the Teacher said. Anyone who has had to deal with a parent’s belongings knows the startling percentage that just goes away.

Then there are the decades of scribbling—millions of words—in an external hard drive, on obsolete media, in notebooks, on scraps of paper. I have been lucky; much of the best of what I am capable of is on the Internet or in books, but I still thought of who might value the hard drive.

I asked my friend Larry, who has no children, what he would do with cherished things. He is conscious enough to be able to say aloud that none of that would matter. He recalled a boss who, diagnosed with terminal cancer, continued to go to work at a job she hated, instead of spending time with her children. He said he would rather just spend his life making better choices in general, so there was no regret at the end.

I agree, but is there nothing that could be done quickly, if time was short? I thought of turning on the light and drafting emails to the people I love, telling them what I would say if I could not say more, but not sending them until it was necessary. I did not do that, in part because I have tried to say or at least show those things often.

My friend poet Sean Singer posted some prose from Adrienne Rich’s What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics today:


Much that you need has

been lost. The poems that

we know are merely frag-



Rich is talking about poets who “have been lost before they could be found and encouraged,” but the thought applies to everything important in our lives.

“What do we really want and fear?” she asks, elsewhere in the book. The question is always pertinent, though sometimes masked by normalcy.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.