Archives for category: Time

What are days for?

Days are where we live.

They come, they wake us

Time and time over.

They are to be happy in:

Where can we live but days?

from Days, Philip Larkin

As we proceed with the easing of lockdown here in the UK, I am thinking a lot about time: how I have spent it over the past months, and how, as I emerge from my cocoon, I might henceforth conduct my “one wild and precious life” (Mary Oliver, The Summer Day).

During this year so far, my perception of time seems to have fluctuated between a sense of days racing by, and weeks where time slowed, almost paused, suspending itself, and my life.

It’s a strange paradox, this sense of time creeping by, especially in the dark days and nights of January and February, alternating with a pressing sense of “running out of time”. The “time of our lives” is what we are all here for and busy devoting ourselves to. And yet, how much energy do we devote to time past and time not yet arrived rather than the now of our lives?

The novel A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki opens with:

“My name is Nao, and I am a time being.”

“A time being is someone who lives in time.”

We are all “time beings” but perhaps not always consciously so. To some extent, lockdown has encouraged a focus on the present, the future having broken free from any control we might hitherto have thought we had over it. The consequent sameness of the lockdown days as one rolled into the next also created a sense of time blindness or disorientation. Some mornings when I wake up, my first thought is, “What day is today?”

I asked my 22 year old daughter if there was anything positive she could say about her experience of lockdown. “Time,” she responded, “a sense of having more of it.”

Of course we don’t. Time is in itself—on an individual level at least—ultimately finite. The only handle we might have on it rests on subjective (and often delusional) perception. But my daughter’s sentiment does nonetheless resonate. In my pre-COVID life, schedules were busier, often overwhelming, and time seemed elusive. I have to some extent enjoyed the sense of less-filled time over these past months. I seem to have no problem devoting any empty (ie non working) minutes with pleasurable and rewarding activities. I am also aware, and this does at times bother me, that there is little focus or direction to this delightful idling, apart from a seeking of pleasure and a feeding of curiosity. And so time has passed, pleasantly for the most part. Is that ok, or “good enough”?

Perhaps not. From A Tale for the Time Being:

“If you don’t have clear goals, you might run out of time.”

And Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Gone, Went (a time-considered title, surely):

“Time is meant to pass, but not just that.”

And also Annie Dillard: “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

I return to my opening question: how might my experience of time spent over the past months inform how I might henceforth live my life?

I have no answers. Like Richard Hawley in the lyrics from his song Time Is, I currently reside at a place of questioning, hovering as I do in that liminal (and idling) space between my now and my future:

“What is it that you are wanting
And what are you hiding?
Do you know where it is you’re going to
And hoping to find there?”

Perhaps too much questioning only serves to distract from the challenge of bearing witness to our “time being” lives through a conscious awareness of the now…

Some final (and perhaps enigmatic) words from one of my favorite poets, Czeslaw Milosz:

“It is true. We have a beautiful time

As long as time is time at all.”

from A Mistake, Czeslaw Milosz

IMG_3521 (1)

I took this photo in the room where I currently spend most of my days. Hopper’s Automat hangs on the wall facing me, while behind is a window with bars. I sit equidistant between both. I love Hopper’s art, something about the melancholic aloneness. His work has always spoken to me, now more than ever. I watched a documentary on his life on youtube—a commentator stated that in Hopper’s paintings, time is elongated, stretched, contemplative, a sense of time slowing down.

In the current lockdown situation, I have been considering time and its meaning right now. The days pass quickly, which surprises me, but at the same time there is a slowness to my life. I seem to do things, particularly reading, at a different pace. And I like that—it feels as if I am more attentive, somehow, that life is more consciously deliberate. I was reading a piece in the New York Times by Olivia Laing. She reflects on time and its current meaning:

“Most of us are perennially short of time, and now we’re left hanging in it”

For me, it’s not a bad place to be hanging. But the sense of uncertainty does challenge. I am not in the country where I normally live. I do not know when I will see my daughter next. I do not know when I will next touch someone. Will someone I know and love contract the virus, and suffer? When will this end? Will it ever end?

There are so many unknowns. Before all this began, I thought that I had reached a place where I was relatively ok with the not-knowingness of life. But the pandemic challenges this, and me, on so many levels. The future is indeed unknown—it always was, really, and we mostly collude with the illusion that we can to some extent predict, and even control our futures.

My daughter finds solace in the shared experience that we are all going through (albeit to hugely varying degrees of suffering). I agree, the corporate nature of the pandemic—no one can escape its impact—is reassuring.

And then there is also hope. It’s too soon for me to think about the end of this, when and how we will emerge from our physically isolated worlds. And what that world might look like. But in the meantime, I am optimistic. Mainly about humanity and the acts of compassion that I observe daily. And the new connectedness that I am experiencing with friends old and new across the globe. People are what matter, they give life its greatest value, meaning, and joy.

And on the note of hope, from Derek Mahon:

Everything Is Going To Be All Right

How should I not be glad to contemplate

the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window

and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?

There will be dying, there will be dying,

but there is no need to go into that.

The lines flow from the hand unbidden

and the hidden source is the watchful heart.

The sun rises in spite of everything

and the far cities are beautiful and bright.

I lie here in a riot of sunlight

watching the day break and the clouds flying.

Everything is going to be all right.






I went to the Strand this week to see André Aciman—of the Call Me By Your Name book (and movie) fame—having just finished his new title, Find Me.

Aciman is a very entertaining, funny, and generous interviewee. Find Me is in parts a playful read, which was to some extent mirrored by my experience of its creator in real life.

Find Me is not a sequel to Call Me By Your Name, at least not so in the strict sense. Aciman teases us by not allowing Elio into the narrative until Part 2, which starts almost midway through the book. Oliver reappears much later, almost at the end. Aciman shared the fact that, particularly in Call Me By Your Name, he was not that much interested in Oliver’s character. Aciman tends to focus almost exclusively on the very few central protagonists, those peripheral to the narrative remaining shadowy and ill-defined. Take Elio’s mother, for example. In Call Me By Your Name she is sidelined and pretty featureless. The movie changed this, developing her character and giving her more of a role in the storyline. Aciman was, and remains so in his new book, more interested in Elio’s father, and thus Find Me opens with him (Samuel, named as such in the movie but not in Call Me By Your Name), and in fact gives him the largest protagonist share of the narrative.

This opening section—called Tempo—focuses on Samuel’s encounter with a younger woman. As Tempo suggests, time is a dominant theme here, and persists as a thread throughout the book. Early on, Samuel states that “…life and time are not in sync.”

He continues:

“None of us may want to claim to live life in two parallel lanes but all have many lives, one tucked beneath or right alongside the other. Some lives wait their turn because they haven’t been lived at all, while others die before they’ve lived out their time, and some are waiting to be relived because they haven’t been lived enough. Basically, we don’t know how to think of time. because time doesn’t really understand time the way we do, because time couldn’t care less what we think of time, because time is just a wobbly, unreliable metaphor for how we think about life. Because ultimately it isn’t time that is wrong for us, or we for time. It may be life itself that is wrong.”

I am fascinated by the concept of time, how we measure our lives by it, and how time delineates—and seems to control— a one way journey from birth to death. I agree with Aciman—time is not a useful metaphor for how we perceive our lived lives, yet it one that is omnipresent.

Aciman proceeds to “play” with the concept of time, and how it shapes the lives of his characters. Part 1, for example, focuses mostly on just one day, and then the immediately following days. In Part 2, we have traveled a few years to arrive at the timeline, remaining there for a matter of days. Obviously much has happened in the intervening years, but there is a strong sense that within those deliberately chosen days, these hours are where life truly takes shape, determining its owner’s direction in the years thereafter. So yes, life and time are indeed out of sync.

As in Call Me By Your Name, music is a dominant theme throughout Aciman’s new book. He believes that music, and the arts in general, do not change our lives, albeit the joy they bring. An imaginary conversation takes place between Oliver and J.S. Bach in Find Me:

“Music reminds me of what my life should have been. But it doesn’t change me…Music is no more than the sound of our regrets put to a cadence that stirs the illusion of pleasure and hope. It’s the surest reminder that we’ve neglected or cheated, or, worse yet, failed to live our lives. Music is the unlived life.”

Which brings me to another dominant theme—that of the life not lived. Aciman believes that we all have many potentially lives, a belief that I subscribe to, though it can be a challenging one to act positively on so that we truly realize our lived potentials. Adam Phillip’s Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life comes to mind:

“…one realizes how much of our so-called mental life is about the lives we are not living, the lives we are missing out on, the lives we could be leading but for some reason are not.”

“We refer to them as our unlived lives because somewhere we believe that they were open to us; but for some reason — and we might spend a great deal of our lived lives trying to find and give the reason — they were not possible. And what was not possible all too easily becomes the story of our lives. Indeed, our lived lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless tantrum about, the lives we were unable to live.”

“Our lives become an elegy to needs unmet and desires sacrificed, to possibilities refused, to roads not taken.”

And this brings me back to Find Me, and its emphasis on not having those regrets, not accepting your life as an elegy to “desires sacrificed”, but about choosing to go down one road, allowing for this to be the wrong choice, and ultimately re-navigating your path.

Find Me is a thoughtful, introspective, and philosophical read. It is ultimately an ode to love, to the possibilities of love, and the richness awarded to a life lived true to such possibilities.