Another contemplative trip around the sun.
I walk into the 53rd St Library and realize suddenly that I feel better in the general sense, but better still for having set foot in this space. Museums, galleries, parks, libraries — these places have this kind of enlightening effect. They elevate the spirit, invite it to commune with greater things. It’s a distinctly European feeling, although there is no locality requirement, no sanctioned borders needed — any place created for people to muse and lounge, to read and stretch, any place that is accessible and open will do. In these places, people are welcome to ponder a collective essence of living, of being.
I stopped in the library to pick up a copy of Ursula Le Guin’s No Time to Spare: Thinking about What Matters. The book is actually a series of blog-post vignettes published late in her life. The spry anecdotes are about getting older, writing, feminism, her cat, about thinking and interacting with the natural and social structure of the world as an octogenarian. Le Guin’s defense of spare time, prompted in response to a Harvard alumni questionnaire, is probably the most quoted of the blogs in the book, which is understandable considering it makes for an eloquent argument against productivity culture and obsessive time management:
…I cannot find anywhere in my life a time, or a kind of time, that is unoccupied. I am free, but my time is not. My time is fully and vitally occupied with sleep, with daydreaming, with doing business and writing friends and family on email, with reading, with writing poetry, with writing prose, with thinking, with forgetting, with embroidering, with cooking and eating a meal and cleaning up the kitchen, with construing Virgil, with meeting friends, with talking with my husband, with going out to shop for groceries, with walking if I can walk and traveling if we are traveling, with sitting Vipassana sometimes, with watching a movie sometimes, with doing the Eight Precious Chinese exercises when I can, with lying down for an afternoon rest with a volume of Krazy Kat to read and my own slightly crazy cat occupying the region between my upper thighs and mid-calves, where he arranges himself and goes instantly and deeply to sleep. None of this is spare time. I can’t spare it. What is Harvard thinking of? I am going to be eighty-one next week. I have no time to spare.
Le Guin writes this on the eve of her birthday as I read it on the eve of mine. In the time since I last published one of these missives, I too will have had a birthday, I too will have grown quantitatively older. A birthday is an invitation to think about time, how it passes, how I’m spending it, how I have been changed by it. It is also an invitation to party — you’ve navigated the complicated incredibleness of being alive for another year. Have a beer! (or two.)
In considering this passage of time, I think about the factors that influence its interpretation. What is time anyway, other than recognizing that a change has taken place, from day-to-day, year-to-year? Our ability to mark change is affected and manipulated constantly, by the seasons, by moods, by being caught off guard, by learning new information, by an infinite amount of distraction. We feel that time has passed, or not, based on how we feel. The body responds to signals that things are not as they were before.
The most profound book I’ve read all year is a deep dive into this perception of time. In Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, Oliver Burkeman distills the theories and writings about the subject of time from philosophers, psychologists, and thinkers and makes a case for accepting and living by the reality of our limited amount of existence. This existence, this being, “is totally, utterly bound up with our finite time,” he writes, “So bound up, in fact, that the two are synonymous: to be, for a human, is above all to exist temporally, in the stretch between birth and death, certain that the end will come, yet unable to know when.” To be, in Burkeman’s interpretation of Martin Heidegger’s writing about time, is “to say that we are a limited amount of time. That’s how completely our limited time defines us.” If we are time, then the body, it seems, is its ultimate keeper. We internalize this constant propulsion, there is no extra to be found.
What is time anyway, other than recognizing that a change has taken place, from day-to-day, year-to-year?
Every couple of weeks, the sidewalk sign in front of the coffee shop on the way to the subway changes — a neighborhood signal that time is passing. This month, it reads: "Chapter 5 of 12. Put some spring in your step!" A steaming cup of coffee and some flowers are drawn in chalk around the kitschy saying, the ‘chapter 5’ insinuating this month, May. I think about what took place in chapters 1 through 4 — the exposition, the character introductions, the rising action. I wonder, too, what happens on the final page of this book that is metaphor for this year. I wonder, but not obsessively. This is the living of life, after all, with nothing to spare.
The entire album, really, but I keep returning to this song in particular because it feels ironic and timely given circumstances.
Also, mildly disappointed that Apple Music links don’t embed here the way Spotify links do. I’ve been listening to Apple Music a lot more lately, the quality sounds better to my ear.
The highlights of the last few months: an incredible feature about issuing birth and death certificates in rural Colombia, an essay about old wives’ tales that I read while sitting on a rock in Runyon Canyon Park in LA, the widely circulated ‘End of the English Major’ article from The New Yorker, which made me wish I had been an English major. More English major themed content to fuel this fantasy: