Gloopy Time 💧
Note: this essay originally appeared in my Substack newsletter called "What's the Hurry?"
If audio is your preference, this essay is also listenable here via Substack.
Gradually then suddenly
The people we admire in the public eye often appear to magically explode out of obscurity. I’ve recently been reading Alicia Garza’s book on the Black Lives Matter movement, which she co-founded. In it she reflects on how people perceived BLM to sprout out of an isolated Facebook post and all of a sudden explode into the mainstream. The reality was very different.
Garza’s movement happened, in the words of Ernest Hemingway, “gradually, then suddenly”. Years of organising and activism alongside people and groups who would help catapult her forward, prepared her for the harnessing of collective action, the logistical wrangling, and the ability to direct the outpouring of anger and frustration that created the conditions of BLM’s rise. Her daily struggles and efforts, often in difficult circumstances and against oppressive opposition, snowballed into a vital international conversation because of the experience she had gained doing the work.
We regularly overestimate what we can do in a day, and underestimate what can happen in a year. As futurist and games researcher Jane McGonigal said in a recent interview, “we assume that ten years from now we’ll be roughly the same person we are today, just with more grey hairs. The reality is often quite different and surprising.”
Whether these changes in our lives are made up by more trite activities like eating more healthy foods, or from the larger effects of a change of location, a meaningful relationship, or starting a family, remain to be seen by our future selves. Friends from school sometimes tell me how different I am from when I was a teenager. I recognise this, but at the age I am now I assume that that’s all the growth I’m going to do. I’m wrong, of course, but I don’t know how wrong, and it what ways. There are known unknowns and unknown unknowns.1
Doctor’s will often tell an unhealthy patient to focus on losing 10kg, giving a set goal and number to fulfil, instead of prescribing them a program of gradually changing their relationship with exercise, food, and drink for example. One is statistical, measurable, and may for the individual be completely ineffectual. The other starts a path of self-discovery that may end up in some well needed therapy as much as a crossfit class. This is the sort of slow work that a results-based system struggles with.
We prioritise short term goals, emails, events, text messages, and a worried boss who messages us at 11pm. We do this because this is how our brains are wired. Short over long. Quick over slow. Re-wiring them, at least a little bit, is the purpose of this project.
Time as a measurable resource
Times are urgent, we must slow down - Bayo Akomolafe
In English (and most other European languages), we see time as a bucket to be filled (e.g. ”Twitter is a way of filling time”) or a resource to be bartered with (e.g. ”Drawing is good way of using my time”; “I love spending time with him”; “I’ll give you 5 minutes”; “They just bought them self another 5 years of life”).
Like most other things in a capitalist system, we consider time a resource to be gathered and held onto. We give time to our work, to our commute perhaps, to a certain amount of exercise we know we must do, and to friends and loved ones. In China they have named a concept of Revenge Time (‘bàofùxìng áoyè), in which workers sacrifice sleep to stay up late beyond their crushing work schedules in order to savour some time spent with their thoughts or friends.
I remember once hearing from someone that love, to them, is spelt T.I.M.E. I liked this, and wrote it down. Each time I feel myself worrying that I’m “mis-spending” a piece of time with a loved one or friend (in a dull bar, or seeing the wrong movie, or having a lacklustre conversation), I try to remember that at the very least our seemingly lame efforts at enjoying our time together are worth it at least for the signal it sends to one another. Generally, we seem to have a feeling of time running out. I remember in my early days of freelancing, when I was making little money and would wind up in periods of extended internet doom scrolling (don’t get me wrong, still happens), I would get to the end of the day and spend hours awake in bed lamenting my wasteful habits, willing myself to be a better allocator of my waking hours. In my most self-punishing periods today, I see my calendar neatly allocated with 1 hour for this and 90 minutes for that. I reject my already-known lethargy at changing activity or getting ready to go out and assume that tomorrow I will be the hyper efficient Terminator I was always meant to be.
Holiday time feels different, doesn’t it? Spending 2-3 hours at a table in the sunshine lounging around with a book or a beer and idle conversation feels worlds away from a rushed lunch between 12 and 12:15 while at home. Time seems to have less assigned value, and therefore is more charged with a treacly, gloopy joy. Despite the knowledge that it has an end, this time is a warm scarf, a cat gradually rubbing its body against your leg, a friend’s hand over your shoulder. Sitting in my (mild) Covid-imposed isolation while typing these words, I’m currently revelling in the guilt-free hours spent reading, lounging around, and watching movies.
In preparation for writing this, I read the abstract to a paper which explored the Australian indigenous concept of time and its impact on mental health strategy among the country’s Aboriginal population. The circular pattern of time they subscribe to, places an individual in the centre of time circles. Events are placed in time according to their relative importance for the individual and his/her respective community (e.g. the more important the event, the closer it is in time). Naturally, this affects not only their place within the national consciousness (as Aussie independence from Britain might mean something quite different than the arrival of European colonists, despite being hundreds of years apart), but also within a therapeutic context, in which a meaningful and traumatic event might feel very close, despite having happened decades earlier. Time in this context feels more malleable and liquid; less rational than we would like it, and more charged with emotion.
We’ve found a myriad of ways of compressing time and making it work for us. Samuel Morse’s Telegraph, one of the most important inventions in the last 200 years, allowed us to communicate with much greater speed than ever before. However, author Henry David Thoreau commented at the time that “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” One of the most pressing difficulties that patriarchal colonialist Capitalism brings is a demand that the mind should avoid daydreaming. Daydreaming is dangerous, to the capitalist system, because it may bring un-productive, immeasurable dissent. Daydreaming (whether alone, in a pair, or in a group) is ideating and questioning; it is childlike. It is easily disrupted by electronic communication, by scheduled programming, by over-administration. But to me, it is essential to a more joyful and rich life. It is associated with a more relaxed relationship with time: languorous, un-defined and brimming with gloopy value... or just as an opportunity to nap.
I’ve decided my favourite time expression is “passing the time”. It feels softer than the others, and seems to get at some space-time relationship. Time and I passed one another today, brushing by with light acknowledgement and reverence, but without any sense of ownership. We came and we went, and that was fine.
Do not mistake planning for purpose, or activity for action.
Attend to the ordinary and the mundane with care and with gratitude.
Consider that rest is not a time set aside, but a spirit brought to every time.
Refuse the ever-present temptation to control and manage the thing we call life for there is no surer way to miss it.
In Cayley’s words, Ivan Illich believed that one of the great temptations we must resist was the temptation “to bring what must begin and end as surprise under administration.”
L. M. Sacasas
Otis - The Durutti Column
Song of the Sleeping Forest - Susumu Yokota
References used in this essay:
The Aboriginal Concept of Time and its Mental Health Implications by Aleksandar Janka and Clothilde Bullen
Alicia Garza, The Purpose of Power
The Michael Shermer Show - Imagining the Future with Reality Game Designer and Futurist Jane McGonigal
BBC: The psychology behind 'revenge bedtime procrastination'