The time to think

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Recently, as full-color brochures for more and more marvelous work-saving devices clamor for my attention, I have begun to wonder about what will really happen once we gain all of the time we used to lose making cole slaw.

Once upon a time, my friend Carol and I had five children between us, all exhaustingly (and it seemed unendingly) young; we lived on the same street, sharing the brood between us, as expediency and our ambitious college schedules dictated.

One thing Carol and I used to do whenever we could was sit down together and make salads, plopping all the produce on one table and all the kids into one playroom. Together we would scrape, peel, slice, quarter, interrupted by the customary grievance committees complaining of skinned knees and fallen ice pops.

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With our time divided by five (and the need to make Solomonic judgments guaranteeing continued peace between our families), it could take anywhere from one to three hours for us to compose a vegetable symphony. But it was not the salad we prized: it was the talk. And if there was anything we needed in those harried young times, it was time to talk. To a march tempo of cubed green peppers and chopped scallions, we mulled over everything from a neighborhood hellion to the right of an elderly person to choose his own way of life.

Our five children have long since outgrown skinned knees and ice pops, but neither of us has outgrown the need to think about public education or women's rights. The world today cries out for salad time - and Carol and I now live many miles apart.

If I do not make quiet time for my hands, I will not have quiet time for my head, to think about women making peace and politicians making war, about John Lennon and terrorist bombs, and why the sane are so often passive and the insane so frequently aggressive.

In the ever-tightening noose of responsibilities we call life, we rarely allow our minds to range past the constrictions of the moment. That is why I am so grateful for ''time on my hands.'' Hands are so finely tuned to the shape and texture of lettuce and mushroom, the sneaky crevices of dirty pots and pans, the awkward curves of fitted sheets, that they seem to work by themselves. And their peaceable competence frees my fettered mind.

When Carol moved away, she gave me a blender to save me time. But I am still using the same ancient peeler and serrated knife to cut such vegetables as I am willing to ransom from the market in these days of manic inflation. And as I cube and cut and pare, I think about all of the wonderful new machines that slice and grate and chop, the shiny technology that could save me from the slow rhythm of my knife hitting against a scarred old cutting board.

I do not want to be saved.

I do not want to lose the habit my mind now has of ranging past dirty laundry and worn-out carpeting and into the great timestream where we all flounder, neither perfecting the world nor destroying it.

I think; therefore, I am still slicing cucumbers by hand. And as I sit and cut peppers into strips on my old wooden board, I wonder how I could live my life without the daily tasks that occupy my fingers and free my mind.

Carol once hinted to me that she was planning to get me one of those fancy food processors that can turn out perfect pieces of anything in an instant. I talked her out of it.

Sometimes I daydream about a dishwasher that would take away my sinkside drudgery - and with it the time my mind uses to weave poems, appreciate chickadees, and come to more peaceable terms with the limitations of my life.

And I wonder if it is un-American or just plain batty to hope my kids never get it into their heads on some far-distant Mother's Day to give me a dishwasher , and leave me without any ''time on my hands.''

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