When she did the dishes, my grandmother would enlist me or one of my siblings to help dry while she washed.

As the pile of dishes diminished, she would instruct us to leave one pot to soak – always the biggest and hardest to clean.

This simple and deliberate act of putting off the hardest part of the task until later was both liberating and debilitating to my impressionable self.

One day, a long time ago, a light bulb went off in my young mind when I realized that I wouldn’t die (literally) if I wasn’t prepared for my test, any test. This realization was both liberating and debilitating because it meant that, although I would not feel the anxiety I felt pre-test and post-test, it was surely not the path to good grades.

I learned that all I needed to do, as I negotiated life’s bumps, was take a deep breath and remember to leave one to soak. Good for some things: irrational fears. Bad for other things: challenging tasks, like tests, that might advance my lot in life.

On my desk sits a large brass paper holder in the shape of the word “later.” My sister gave it to me as a joke in 2000. At the time I didn’t understand why she thought this was funny, so I decided to avoid the question altogether and let its meaning surface later.


At just a hair over 50 percent of my life if I live to be 100, I’ve started analyzing this laissez-faire, one-to-soak philosophy. The question is: Do I move toward the one-to-soak lifestyle or resist the one-to-soak lifestyle?

At midlife, the answer is complicated by warp-speed time and all its implications.

Meaning that when I watch back-to-back episodes of my new favorite series (I’m currently addicted to “MI-5,” a British spy series with thousands of episodes that will carry me through the Maine winter), my time is wasted.

When I multi-task like a madwoman (clean the house, do laundry, drive the kid somewhere), my time is stolen.

And when I do nothing, my time is lost.

My grandmother, who never talked about time except for when it was time to go to work or time to pay her electric bill, invented the one-to-soak lifestyle. As far as I know, she felt no guilt while watching her shows, “Lawrence Welk” and “All My Children.”


Of course, this was before DVDs and streaming. Her shows had a beginning and an end and many days in between to do things like live. In contrast, I once watched an entire season of “Mad Men” in one stretch, breaking only to let the dog out. I started watching the first episode at 1 p.m. and finished at 4 a.m. I didn’t laugh once, but I did see the sun come up.

If Grammy Ellen wasn’t watching her shows, she was playing solitaire or teaching one of her five grandchildren how to play cards: slapjack when we were little and then hearts and spades when we learned to count.

When we were old enough to keep track of two decks, she taught us how to play canasta. She had no patience for cheating or for dawdling. “Jolene, it’s your turn!” she would snap between puffs of her unfiltered Lucky Strikes.

She expected the game to advance at a fast clip and for us to think ahead to our next move, but she would play cards with us for hours. If she had something more important to do, she didn’t let on.

One-to-soak is an excellent way to live life, I’ve decided. Why finish anything if it can wait until later – like taking a nap and trusting that you will live another day to take another nap?

Actor Bill Nighy (“Love Actually,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”) said it best in a recent New York Times interview about his 2013 movie “About Time.”


“It’s the thing that everyone struggles with all of the time. That idea of not having the day stolen from you by the static in your head, either regret for yesterday or fear for tomorrow. And I’ve struggled with that like everybody else, and I have been for the last few years actively trying to resist it. When you get to my age, you look at the clock, and you think: I better pay attention.

“I use work like everybody else does, as a way of structuring my life, but I’m quite good at not working. I’m quite good at the bits in between. Loafing. Reading. Listening to music. Be here now. Which is so much easier to say than to do.”

And, after 14 years of staring at that brass “later” paper holder on my desk, I’ve decided that “later” is my power word. “Later” will get me through tomorrow.

Jolene McGowan lives and works in Portland with her husband, daughter and dog and has no plans to leave, ever. She can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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