“H

ow did it get so late so soon?”— Dr. Seuss


She looked up at me sadly, her face only barely composed.

“I wasted all of my recess making cups and plates for people,” the girl explained.

It wasn’t recess we’d been enjoying together but a 15-minute block of free time inside the classroom. But this was a semantics game; the six-year-old standing before me understood the spirit of the two exercises to be essentially the same. While her friends had been erecting marble runs and Lego houses and practicing the magic trick another child had brought from home (a delightful bag with the power to make items vanish within its depths), she had sat at her desk cutting and folding paper into miniscule place settings.

Her sense of loss felt familiar to me.

Last week, I spent more time working out of the home than not. It was the first time in years I can remember having done so and I was immediately reminded of what kind of commodity our time is. The minutes that make up our days are precious but slippery. They run out and away from us before we’ve made much out of them much less made sense of them. It doesn’t seem fair.

But I also know that whatever else we may be moved to say in the moment—or the moment just after it has passed, really—there is very little we can honestly claim to have occupied our time that we ourselves did not choose. As I looked into the downcast face of my first-grade friend, I thought that this was as true for me at an all-grown-up 42 as it was for her at six.

I wondered if her friends had even expressed a pressing need for paper place settings or if she had assigned it to them. This was the same child, I realized, who had so thoughtfully compiled a list in crayon of as many of her classmates’ names as could be squeezed onto a piece of paper as a memory aid for me. Maybe it was easier for her to address others’ imagined requirements than to identify and engage with hers. Again, I could relate.

Before going home, my little friend handed me her folded bits of paper to keep, the culmination of those precious 15 minutes’ work. Turning nothing into something didn’t seem like such a sorry way to spend a quarter of an hour to me. Then again, that time and its use hadn’t been mine to regret.

So design something beautiful with every minute you have today. And if you manage to string together 15 of them, recognize that for the gift that it is. Whether you’re 50 or in the first grade, there is time for creativity and self-reckoning every day. We get to choose and that’s a gift, too.