Out of time

Jen Lowe writes about time:

In 2019 I went on a retreat by myself in a forest where I had no responsibilities and people brought me (gf!) food and my main takeaway was: time is infinite. Every day was a year; there was space for so much: I read and journaled and stretched and ate and went on long walks where I had time to sit down on the trail and snack and journal some more and lie down and rest.

In the same post, she linked to an analog visual timer. I ordered one immediately. When it arrived, I excitedly popped it out of its box, tucked a battery into it, and turned the dial. Then, I watched, as nothing happened.

I thought the battery must have been dead—it was a rechargeable, and I’m wont to toss both charged and empty batteries into the same drawer in my desk willy nilly. So I went searching for another battery, one I was pretty sure was charged, and again turned the dial. And watched.

Again, nothing happened.

(You, dear reader, can already see where this story is going, because you have the virtue of reading it out of time. Stay with me—let me catch up.)

I thought perhaps the timer didn’t like rechargeable batteries—some devices are persnickety that way—so I went rummaging around the house for a regular battery, found one in the toolbox, swapped it into the timer, turned the dial. And waited.

And waited.


I gave up, and went to fix lunch.

About a half hour later, as I was putting dishes away, I heard a steady beep from somewhere upstairs.

It was the timer, going off.

The damn thing had been working all along.

I just didn’t think it was working fast enough.

I share this parable so that you can know the depths of my own foolishness, so you can know how I got here. The timer sits on my desk now, marking an hour which I have dedicated to writing. During this hour, I am not permitted to do anything except write or stare at the wall or look out the window. I am not permitted to exercise. (I except stretching or pacing from this edict; it is, after all, my rule, and I am both judge and executioner.) I am not permitted to look at the internet. I am expressly forbidden from visiting the hellsite, but all other news sites—indeed, all websites, or anything that can be accessed via a browser—are also verboten. (Again, there is an exception, in that I am permitted to consult the OED. I do this often. I look up “verboten.”)

The timer means I have no excuse to pick up my phone to check the clock. My phone sits across the room, notifications muted. It’s dead to me. A brick, for the hour.

The brick is a metaphor for something that does not or cannot move. But I like it because it also suggests something weighty, something heavy, something you can stack into a fence, a wall, a road. My house is made of bricks. The sidewalk outside my front door is made of bricks. The narrow street my house sits on—bricks. The tiny park across that street—brick lined. I am surrounded by bricks. Bricks are sturdy, dependable, unchanging.

In The Disappearance of Rituals, Byung-Chul Han writes about the stabilizing nature of things:

For Hannah Arendt it is the durability of things that gives them their “relative independence from men [sic].” They “have the function of stabilizing human life.” Their “objectivity lies in the fact that…men, their ever-changing nature notwithstanding, can retrieve their sameness, that is, their identity, by being related to the same chair and the same table.” In life, things serve as stabilizing resting points.

Han, The Disappearance of Rituals, page 3

That is, things are solid, predictable, immutable (or, at least, mutable over a long enough time frame that you do not notice them change, the way I have not noticed the chair in the corner of my room slowly sagging further). Things possess a “self-sameness” that persists over time. But—

A smartphone is not a “thing” in Arendt’s sense. It lacks the very self-sameness that stabilizes life….It differs from a thing like a table, which confronts me in its self-sameness. The content displayed on a smartphone, which demands our constant attention, is anything but self-same; the quick succession of bits of content displayed on a smartphone makes any lingering impossible. The restlessness inherent in the apparatus makes it a non-thing.

Han, The Disappearance of Rituals, page 4

The word restlessness catches my attention. Phones (and, I’d argue, other digital technology, and social media in particular) have an abundant sense of restlessness—I feel as if I am scurrying from one notification to the next like a hunted animal, one item in the feed, after another, after another, never stopping or lingering. Never resting. The word says it: restless, as in, without rest. The technology consumes all the in-between moments, all the seconds where you might close your eyes, stare out a window, sigh loudly. Wonder if a timer is moving or stuck.

In this way, smartphones consume rest. I mean to defy the usual consumption metaphor—in which we (the users) consume whatever the device makes available. Instead, I think the devices (and their attendant systems and modes, the apps and news feeds and platforms and whatnot) consume us. We are consumed: our rest, our ease, our leisure, our breath—all are eaten up by the flickering and frittering and jittering of inconstant screens.

There’s a vocabulary and a mode of talking about rest in the context of work as if rest serves a purpose—that purpose of course being to enable more work. Often this crops up with the metaphor of a battery, with the notion that you are a battery who can expend its energy and then must recharge. I find this curious for what it omits. Rechargeable batteries lose some capacity with each charging cycle, charging less and less each time until they can no longer be charged at all. After some finite number of uses, they are worn out, unusable, not even fit for recycling. Yet somehow that outcome of the battery metaphor is always left unsaid.

In Rest Is Resistance, Tricia Hersey writes:

We are not resting to be productive. We are resting simply because it is our divine right to do so.

Hersey, Rest Is resistance, page 62

Hersey makes the case for rest as something sacred and divine, for rest as grace—for rest as that which does not need to be earned because it is a birthright, for rest as that which does not (cannot, will not) accomplish any goal or objective.

What would it look like if we treated rest as sacred? As something impenetrable, something work cannot reach into. Something steady, constant, self-same.

And what if rest wasn’t only something on the edges of work—not only evenings and weekends, but in the interstitial moments, in the gaps between tasks or calls, in the stillness that’s always nearby even when we refuse to acknowledge it. What if rest was like breathing, something you always and ever return to?

Some days I set the timer and write and write and don’t even realize the time has run out, run past me, run through me. Other days, those last ten minutes go on and on, stretch themselves out. Infinite. But isn’t that how rest works? As a holding of time and space, an emptiness that is free, a quiet that is liberating. A minute that takes longer than you think it could.

I return to Mary Ruefle:

John Ashbery, in an interview in the Poetry Miscellany, talks about wasting time: “I waste a lot of time. That’s part of the [creative process]….The problem is, you can’t really use this wasted time. You have to have it wasted. Poetry disequips you for the requirements of life. You can’t use your time.” In other words, wasted time cannot be filled, or changed into another habit; it is a necessary void of fomentation. And I am wasting your time, and I am aware that I am wasting it; how could it be otherwise? Many others have spoken about this. Tess Gallagher: “I sit in the motel room, a place of much passage and no record, and feel I have made an important assault on the Great Nothing.” Gertrude Stein: “It takes a lot of time to be a genius, you have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing.” Mary Oppen: “When Heidegger speaks of boredom he allies it very closely with that moment of awe in which one’s mind begins to reach beyond. And that is a poetic moment, a moment in which a poem might well have been written.” The only purpose of this lecture, this letter, my only intent, goal, object, desire, is to waste time. For there is so little time to waste during a life, what little there is being so precious, that we must waste it, in whatever way we come to waste it, with all our heart.

Ruefle, Madness, Rack, and Honey, page 136

I look up “fomentation.” I look up “awe.”

I glance at the timer.

Five minutes left.

It doesn’t seem to move.

Related books

This compact and intense treatise argues that we are living through a crisis of community and attendant loss of ritual power.

Rest Is Resistance

Tricia Hersey

Tricia Hersey—aka “The Nap Bishop”—is here to tell us to rest, and I am ready to listen.

“I never set out to write this book,” Mary Ruefle begins. And yet, she did write it, and that contradiction is the first of many.