When I was in Australia last week, I dreamed about my old red bicycle that I hadn’t thought about in years. It was a clunky one-speed bike I’d bought off a senior sorority girl when I was a freshman. I went to college in California and the bike was my only form of transportation; I didn’t have a driver’s license and I didn’t really care. In my mind, the bike gave me a certain freedom that the slaves to the car didn’t have. Once, although everyone said I was crazy, I biked to San Francisco. And when on Friday nights my friends all piled into someone’s Honda to head to dinner in Palo Alto, I made my way there alone on my bike, gliding past the palm trees on Palm Drive that never got less exotic. The bike moved so much more slowly than everyone else’s wheels but to me it was my Batmobile: I controlled the motion and speed; I arrived and left on my own time; I set my own rhythms.
What does it feel like to set your own rhythm? As a parent this is the first thing you forget. The free gift that comes with your infant is a clock implanted in your brain that briskly divides your day into short shifts. This begins almost immediately when you are forced onto the graveyard shift without much preparation or training. Soon you are promoted to day but learn to pay close attention to the silent alarms: wake, eat, nap, play, eat, nap, play, sleep. Even though long formless expanses of time were once the norm, you do not mind the new discipline; in fact some days your sanity depends on you and your underling sticking to the deadlines.
I am long past this desperate phase of clock-watching—my children are now 12, 10, and 5—but I am not beyond it. Instead I am like an old hand at the plant whose internal rhythms are now so peacefully in synch with the clock that I am no longer really aware of it. I wake up on my kids’ schedule, an hour before school starts. The mid-afternoon involves conferencing with the babysitter to move everyone to their new stations—one stays late after school, the other goes to Hebrew school, the third to a friend’s house. Soon after I start to wind down whatever I’m working on so I can punch out at 6. Then I come home, make dinner, put the children to bed. I am not bitter about this. You could not pay me enough money to return to those long expanses of formless time, since they were so easily filled with anxiety about what to do with the time. Mostly I don’t really notice the routine of my day anymore. It’s just what I have come to believe a day is.
Until last week, when I went to Australia and remembered the red bike. Lucky as I was to get to travel to such an amazing place for a conference, I did not want to go at first, because I was nervous to be so far away from my children. My son’s globe that he keeps by his bedside stole from me the luxury of forgetting that I would literally be on the other side of the world. But in the end I went, and as soon as I landed I realized what I’d been worried about. The time difference is an absurd 15 hours. When I am waking up my children have just gone to bed. Even more absurdly, I am in a different season than they are. They are pulling out hats and scarves while stores in Sydney are selling sundresses and sandals. There is no getting around it. Our clocks are not aligned.
In families, people’s character traits get exaggerated in the interest of a distinct identity. If one sibling is good at math the other might be branded the flighty one, just to fill the niche. The same is true for husbands and wives. In my family my husband is the planner and the list-maker, so I am by contrast the disorganized one who loses the keys or leaves the car running. And it’s true, I do lose my keys every once in a while but it’s only in the context of the domestic ecosystem that this becomes a defining trait. If left on my own, it would be a footnote or maybe even counted as part of a messy but charming package of whatever is the middle-aged version of the manic pixie dream girl.
Before I went to Australia I did not buy a guidebook or Google anything or figure out what I was going to do; I just never got around to it and I figured the conference would keep me busy. As it turned out, though, I had long stretches during the day with no obligations. And here my disorganization took on a more spontaneous Eat, Pray, Love–ish vibe. On my first day in Sydney, I asked someone who was wearing cool-looking boots what was her favorite neighborhood, and then walked around it for the afternoon. On a day in Melbourne, a fan of the DoubleX Gabfest who’d heard me talk about my upcoming Australia trip emailed me at 11 to see if I’d arrived. By 12 we were having lunch and walking around the city.
One day when I had several hours free I decided I wanted to leave Sydney, so I asked a young couple I’d met what was the closest I could go to get a sense of the outback of my imagination. They suggested I take a train to the Blue Mountains. That day I called my husband and told him about it.
“Isn’t that where the fires are?” he asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Who are you going with?”
“How will you know if there are fires?” I didn’t answer that one. I figured if there were fires, the train conductor wouldn’t sell me a ticket.
As it happens, the tourist-friendly section of the Blue Mountain region had reopened for business. In fact the trails were somewhat crowded with Japanese and Indonesian tourists. The cicadas were as loud as trucks on highways and the air was hot and dry. Sometimes I would stand for a long time looking at the spectacular ridges and sometimes I would follow a couple along the path and guess how many times they’d stop for a picture. The buses ran at half-hour intervals but I paid no attention to the schedule. At one point on a steep path, long after I’d run out of water, I sat down on a bench to rest. When I got up, I had the odd feeling that those moments on the bench hadn’t existed, that they’d been sewn up and time continued when I got back on the path. That’s when I realized that I could no longer hear the clock. For the first time in 15 years, I was setting my own rhythm.
The night after this dawned on me, I behaved like a freshman in college. I stayed up until 3 a.m. watching two lame movies and Skyping with a friend. I slept until 11:30, when the lady at the front desk called to remind me that check-out time was half an hour ago. I rushed to get dressed and pack, and just made the flight. I was exhausted and the night hadn’t even been all that fun, but I guess I was just giddy to be reminded that somewhere in there, the red bicycle lives on.
When I got off the 18-hour flight, the emails and texts flowed in like water into the tub at bath time. Can Jacob come for a playdate? Will Gideon stay after school on Thursday? Does Noa have Bat Mitzvah practice on Tuesday? Can the babysitter leave early next Monday? My closest friend called to tell me about some headache involving her middle daughter and long division. My husband called to ask what we’re having for dinner. People who have grown children always ask, how did the time go by so fast? I know how. The minute hand keeps moving but all you hear is the steady hum. Before I’d even deplaned, I was on the clock again.