Something has happened to time since April. Monday morning conversations at work cannot start without people being bemused when someone asks how their weekend was and dismissing the question with “I just don’t know where the time went!”. For those of us working from home, weekdays have become nameless weekdays. Is it Thursday? No. It’s Tuesday and you have somehow still managed to be late to the first meeting of the day without the usual excuse of a delayed train.
Some fruitful observations have stemmed from this. Eli Grober’s recent musing on time, featuring ‘Time’ the business playing around with its various products perhaps illustrates the point best.
Here at Time, we’ve made a few changes you may already be experiencing that we think you should know about […] A week was once measured over the course of seven days. Our testing showed that this has been way too short, for way too long. So we made a big adjustment: a workweek now takes an entire year. From Monday to Friday, you will feel like it’s been (and you will actually age) an entire year.
This is absurd and massively relatable at the same time. In many ways, it seems we have always felt like we have some ownership over time; an ability to shape it and brand it. I am eternally promised and sucked into a “quick five minute meeting” that ends up consuming the better part of an hour. New York City may on the face of it adhere to Eastern Standard Time, but they have their own concept of a minute: the New York Minute that is supposedly quicker and more immediate, the promise of anything and everything and your fingertips instantly. But Grober’s time is one that is toying with us.
THE IN-HOME TIME-SPACE CONTINUUM
In many ways our relationship to time has now shifted significantly, not only in the ways that we perceive it, but also in how we structure our time. Working from home has meant ‘work time’ and ‘personal time’ — which for a long time have been overlapping — have now been thrust into the same space and the previous distance and commute that separated them have been removed. For those with children, lockdown has meant the loss of structured school hours. Gone are the bells signalling the end of classes and instead a scramble to balance work and teaching your child at home. Many of us have tried to find new demarcations of time. Pre or post-work yoga, a lunchtime walk around the neighbourhood, Joe Wick’s PE lessons at the start of the day. Anything to provide a structure and balance within our worlds which now consist predominantly of just our own homes.
And at a national level time and times of day are taking on new significance. 8pm on a Thursday for the past 10 weeks has been a time to come together, the nation standing on their balconies, their front steps or leaning out their windows to bang pots and pans and enthusiastically clap in recognition and celebration of the NHS. The premise would be strange to any of us if we were looking at this at the start of the year and we would not be able to believe that this would become one of the more significant moments in our weekly calendars.
But time has also become political. Beyond just the psychological way that a day can now feel like an entire week, the NHS clap has become a political moment; your own recognition of the NHS, of the work they are doing and the sacrifices being made. The hypocrisy obviously abounds as Conservative politicians stand on their own doorsteps, their backs to 10 years of austerity and cuts that have impacted the NHS and the social services meant to protect society at times of crisis. And it of course is no coincidence that this same government performed a miraculous u-turn on the charging migrant NHS workers for use of the service they work for, hours before this time on a Thursday.
THE GIFT OF TIME
Then we come “the gift of time”. My own experience of coronavirus and of lockdown in the UK has fortunately been secure and I have not had to contend with being furloughed, juggling childcare and working or living in a house-share. Both myself and my partner have been able to work from home. And like many in this situation — and for those facing evenings and weekends in their homes — it would appear that we had been given the gift of time. At the start of this I furiously wrote lists: the things around the house I would do that I had been putting off, the films I wanted to watch, the books I would read and the skills I would acquire. Trying to make something and do something in this unprecedented situation.
Almost 3 months down the road and reflecting on what I should or could have achieved, I think of Grober’s piece again: “[m]onths used to be pretty inconsistent. Some months were 30 days, some were 31, and one was 28 or 29. This seemed too confusing, so now they are all four days long”. I am comforted by this logic. If months are 4 days long, then I have absolutely achieved as much as a single person possibly could in 12 days.
WHERE DO WE FIND THE TIME NOW
Though many of those things on my list remain unchecked, this time has allowed the luxury of reflection. I was drawn to a book I had read 5 years before, at a point in my life where I felt a bit stuck and fearful of the future (understandable why this may speak to me now also). Françoise Héritier’s The Sweetness of Life is a seventy-one page musing on the small pleasures of life; of those moments that come to form and structure our lives in a different way than the clock on the wall. In Héritier’s introduction, she outlines her purpose as thus:
There is a kind of lightness and grace in the simple fact of existence, leaving aside our occupations, strong feelings, political and other commitments, and I wanted to confine my subject in this essay to that aspect. To the little plus factors that are granted to us all, and go to make the flavour of life.
Though its title perhaps sits in an incongruous way when thinking about the times, its contents offer a lot of comfort; or as Héritier calls it “flavour”. Héritier’s text has a specific resonance for these different times. She draws on those moments in life that bring infinite joy to her. It is unstructured and fluid, presenting a patchwork of moments and emotions in no logical manner. The organicness of her text is refreshing, and something that speaks perhaps to the emotions of many now who are finding the world and order they knew turned on its head. There is no beginning or end; but a joyful meander through what brings her joy.
On rereading this during lockdown, a smile broke across my face by the things that brought Héritier joy that had become defining moments in my day. Those moments which had become to provide a form of structure that before perhaps passed me by. Some example follow:
- “Sitting by an open window”. This has become something I have done a lot during lockdown. In the second week of the nationwide lockdown in the UK, both myself and my partner quarantined ourselves (my partner had lost his sense of taste which is now an acknowledged symptom of coronavirus) and so sitting by the open living room window became my access to the world in the absence of a garden or balcony. I have observed the street below, the houses opposite and the bins across the way in such great depth that I could recount them as if I had a photographic memory.
- “Waiting for the postman”. Like for many, online shopping has gained increased significance during lockdown. For many self-isolating and shielding, online food shopping has been a literal lifeline, and illusive delivery slots a highly sought commodity. For me, waiting for the postman meant waiting for a parcel of books I had ordered from my favourite local bookshops, which like many small businesses are struggling through this period. And parcels providing books that I have read and loved during lockdown.
- “Having a bath at midnight”. This one doesn’t need much explaining. Baths are warm. They are comforting. They make you feel safe. Enough said.
And there are many more like picking up a hobby for the first time in a long time or planning things far in advance that hit very close to home. These are the moments and the demarcations of time that now seem to have a greater significance. We are all still trying to work, to support our families, friends and communities during this difficult time. But there is something powerful in savouring those smaller moments.
Of course, it is impossible to live in the unstructured Héritier creates. The coronavirus pandemic is a brutal reality for all of us, and for doctors, nurses, porters, cleaners and essential workers it has been a reality more directly confronted each day. For the UK and every country impacted by coronavirus, days have been counted off by rates of infections and deaths. 5pm each day in the UK is marked now by a press conference to announce these figures. And looking ahead, time is likely to be counted by the long-term economic impact of coronavirus and how it is likely to affect millions of individuals and households. But hopefully we can hold onto the smaller moments through this.
As we begin to come out of lockdown and as infections fall, we are looking to the future and how coronavirus is likely to affect and reshape the word, both in the immediate future and the long term. A lot of emphasis has been placed on a “green recovery” combining the two most pressing issues of the day. Cities will be reshaped for increased cycling and walking, achieving the twin aims of reduced carbon emissions and air pollution as well as better social distancing abilities. Cities themselves, as thousands of office workers get used to working from home, may see a shift in who lives in them as people are able to move further away from their former offices. These are promises for the future that we are clinging to at the moment; the promises of better and more hopeful things to come.
Let us also take a moment to ensure we don’t forget about lockdown, of those moments that felt valuable and how we chose our time when so much else was out of our control. Whilst lockdowns may be starting to be lifted, the implications will be here for a long time. I’ll end you again with Grobers revisioning of a year:
Now, I bet you’re wondering what a year is. Well, I hate to say it, but we’re all wondering what a year is. The guy who was in charge of re-adjusting a year just quit, and he won’t talk to any of us, so your guess is as good as mine. But I think it’s gonna be a pretty long time.
The next year is going to be pretty long. But let’s try and find some happiness in those smaller moments of time that used to pass us by.