Growing up, my parents made sure we were always, always on time. Which meant getting places 10 minutes early and reading a book while we waited for everyone else to show up.
The extreme promptness stuck with me well into adulthood. When I say I plan to leave at 1 p.m., it means I actually want to be putting my shoes on by 12:55 at the latest, so that by the time everything is packed in the car and seat belts are on and I’ve pressed Start on my navigation app and turned the key in the ignition, it’s 1—or better yet, 12:59.
My particular brand of over-promptness means my family and I tend to get over-agitated when people are late or in danger of being late—which happens often. I don’t just tense up, I practically start smoldering inside when people are taking forever to get out of the door (ahem, my wife and her entire family, not to mention every social situation I’ve ever been in: friends will just chat and chat and chat instead of leaving to go out, with little regard for my grumbling stomach or what time we said we would meet the rest of our group). Each time, my rigid logic cycles through again: Why do people say they’ll be there at a certain time, or say they’re leaving in five minutes, if they know they won’t keep their promise? Why do people not mean what they say?
My older brother, who has made a point of shedding the familial uptightness since the day he graduated from high school, explained recently that it’s not that people don’t mean what they say, just that they have a different concept of time.
I wanted to be open-minded and agree, but I still didn’t quite get it. I mean, time is time, right? If people are constantly late, how will they ever catch up? How do they have time to accomplish anything?
But two things are starting to help me loosen my death grip on time: One is being the parent of a toddler. The other is the concept of tempo rubato in music.
The other day my almost-one-and-a-half-year-old took the longest walk of her life, down the sidewalk a few blocks to a corner deli and all the way back. It was about half a mile round trip, and it took us at least an hour and 20 minutes.
In certain moments, she hurtled forward with more focus and momentum than I’d seen from her since she was born, but then the brakes came on suddenly and frequently. She stopped to check out five flower patches, four fences, and six gates. She was derailed by pieces of garbage, bushes and weeds with furry ends; she squatted to pick up each one of her just-dropped Cheerios and raisins. She turned around and backtracked a few steps; she practiced walking backward. She said “bye bye” to every person who walked or biked past. She paused to make enthusiastic sound effects at dogs, baby strollers, cars, buses, airplanes, a helicopter, and the schedule posted at the bus stop.
I crouched down to corral her in my arms at intersections, as she looked around wild eyed like she was trying to decide in which direction she wanted to burst across the street. I stopped to scoop her up when she tripped over her own shoes in the middle of a crosswalk. I asked 15 times if she wanted to hold my hand. I stood directly in front of her and let her “push” the back of my legs. I bribed her with bites of my granola bar when were just a block away from home and her feet seemed glued to the sidewalk.
It was the most exhilarating morning of my week. My daughter forced me to slow down and observe every detail of a route that had become boring and commonplace for me. As we returned home after what seemed like forever, accomplished, I remembered the concept of tempo rubato (Italian for “stolen time”) with a grin.
Tempo rubato is not a prescribed tempo or speed; it’s a method of expressing the emotional push and pull of music. Anyone who has learned to read Western music notation knows that music is math: fractions fitting into a whole, scheduled with a time signature, mapped out in measures, and practiced to a beat as steady as the tick of a second hand. But tempo rubato gives you permission to interpret your own pace from measure to measure, note to note. You can take a longer pause than you’re technically supposed to; you can slow down or speed up for dramatic impact when the melody swells or swoons; you don’t even have to wait for the deceleration sign or the little marks your piano teacher penciled in above the measures. You can slow down to revel in the music, let it breathe—and you somehow always catch up later.
Like the mechanical pianist who plays all the right notes at the right time but makes the audience feel nothing except admiration for her skill, I realized, maybe I’ve been the one at fault if all I can do is seethe and wish away those 10 delayed minutes while hovering by the door—instead of letting them breathe as fully experienced moments of life, wherever they happen to fall on the clock.
Of course I’ll never stop being on time for important appointments, and I do like to respect people’s time, but I’m ready to let go in other situations. Next time I’m getting annoyed that we’re not out the door at exactly the time we said we would be, I’ll try to stop pacing, muttering and checking the clock every 20 seconds. Instead I’ll sneak in a few extra hugs and toddler jokes with my daughter. I’ll hoist her up onto my lap on the piano bench, and let the music breathe.