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