In some ways it’s obvious and beyond our control: time is linear and finite, the sun rises and sets, the seasons change, businesses open and close, and, if we are to be a part of society, we fit ourselves into the pattern of everyone else’s routine.
But time is so much more interesting than ticking clocks and the turning pages of calendars. The more I think about it, the more I understand time to be a bending, compressing, stretching thing; still mostly out of our control, but unique to every one of us.
How else do you explain the way some moments seem to last forever – living on as a detailed memory long after they have passed? And that there are months, perhaps years, you don’t remember at all?
Am I the only one who feels there is never enough time, lying awake at night wishing I could be three people so I could do all the things I want to do in this life, hang out with all the people, see all the movies, read all the books, learn all the things, absorb all the places and cultures, spend all the time with the people I love, train parkour and capoeira, walk the dog, watch the stars, write a book? And do all those other things, like eat and sleep?
I think back on the slowest times in my life, the ones I remember most clearly, and they all have one thing in common: I was fully present. I remember a lot of my parkour training over the years because it requires me to be present, or else I risk serious injury. I remember all those teenage firsts. I remember sitting alone on a plane to the other side of the world, unsure of anything but the fact that I was unsure. I remember being in a bus crash when I was nine. I remember conversations where I’ve connected with people on multiple levels, some of whom I only met once, briefly, and I never even got their name; conversations where the rest of the world melted away, and I learned something about them, about myself, and about the way of things. I remember dancing with my husband, tipsy and barefoot, on a beach in Boracay. I remember laughing with one of my best friends till we cried, about a shoe. I remember times my heart was full to bursting, and times it felt torn apart. I remember curling up in the middle of the courtyard on one of my first days of school, in tears, completely alone surrounded by people for the first time in my life.
And then: I pick up my phone for five minutes, and an hour disappears into the internet.
In the hours between two and four am, I lie in a daze, not quite awake, certainly not asleep, considering giving up on sleep altogether. The minutes stretch on for eternity. My stomach rumbles. My eyes hurt. And then, somewhere between four and eight am, time slides away.
I sit down to write, and the first twenty minutes is like squeezing words from an empty toothpaste tube. Then, on the best days, two hours disappear and when I ‘wake up’, there will be pages of words that didn’t exist before, not quite in that way, in that order. Like magic.
There’s a trick to this: do one thing at a time. It makes time slow down, and multiply. When we try to do many things at once, we never finish anything, we don’t realise how much we’ve actually achieved, only what we didn’t, we’re left frustrated, and dissatisfied, and incomplete, wishing we could be three people so we could do it all. We try to have dinner with our partners, look out for an incoming work email, partake in our friends’ messenger conversation, and comment on someone else’s Facebook post, at the same time, and every one of those exchanges becomes meaningless and thus forgotten.
I used to give the kids this exercise: write about the longest minute of your life. I had them think about what makes time move slowly (anticipation, boredom, tension, fear), and what speeds it up (excitement, fun, routine). Of course, it was nonsense, in a way: time moves on at the same pace no matter what’s happening for you in any given moment. But your perception of it changes, and this makes all the difference.
What if we all realised the power we have to bend, compress, and stretch time? That we can take notice of all the details when we’re at our happiest to make them last longer. And not dwell on the things that bore us, scare us, worry us, so that they don’t take over, as they tend to do (at least for me).
Time would still go on as it always has – the sun will rise and set, we will grow older.
But maybe less time will disappear into internet.
And more time will unfold in the presence of people we connect with on multiple levels.
Sometimes, partway through a workshop, one of the kids will ask: “How many more minutes?”
I say, “A millionthousandzillion.”
They laugh, and look at the clock.
“Only ten minutes!”
And they write faster. As soon as they’re focussed, even they know ten minutes can disappear in the blink of an eye. But in its place is something that didn’t exist before, not in that way, in that order. A story.
And stories last forever.