Time, the clocks and the lies they tell

I stopped wearing a watch almost 20 years ago. The one I loved broke and I never found one I liked to replace it with.

It turns out you can live by the clock without wearing one on your wrist – your car probably has one, now you carry a phone that knows what time it is better than you ever could. Banks like to put big clocks on their buildings, probably because their livelihood depends on your timed labor. My friends and supervisors might say that this explains my supposed tardiness, but that’s no different pre-watch or post.

The tyranny of the clock has felt worse in a COVID-dominated world. It was the only thing that seemed to move from one moment to the next for those of us in lock-down. It seemed to be describing so much more time that there used to be in a day, and less to fill it with. Combine that with work that was less about when I started and stopped and more about getting things done on any given day, and evenings that were indistinguishable from work hours, and I was going a bit nuts there for a while.

I started doing puzzles, one right after another. Finally, I’d found something that pulled my attention away from the minutes ticking away, telling me how many I’d used up and how few I might have left to exist in. I measured time by the image taking shape and the ache in my back from being hunched over so long. It helped.

I moved apartments last fall – out of a place near the heart of the city where I used leave home to work in an office – a beautiful old apartment with hardwood floors, old fixtures and no outdoor space to call my own. The new place has many great features, but the best is the yard. I bought plants and patio furniture and started feeding the birds. I can eat breakfast while watching them every single day. The plants had flowers and leaves, and then they had bare branches. There was an old, neglected rose bush that bloomed once I trimmed and watered it a bit. I planted a tree, hoping for future shade.

When winter came, I started buying indoor plants. I left my old place with four, and now I have more than 30. Caring for them – propagating and trimming and counting new leaves – is more time spent not looking at the clock, watching the slow but steady rewards of time spent focusing on things which don’t respond to minutes and tasks, but seasons and sunlight.

It’s spring now, and I’m watching the trees around me sprout flowers – a magic I never get tired of. I planted new shrubs and cleaned up winter damage, hoping for new life from old. Soon, I’ll be eating outside and wishing someone would come mow the grass.

Two years have crawled like glaciers and yet also seem not to have happened at all. 53 years have passed in fits and starts. There are likely only a few decades left for me, and yet it seems I’ve only just reached adulthood.

Physicists have determined that time moves faster closer to the gravity of an object than farther away. How can we trust any of it? How can it really mean anything, that ticking clock?

I’m actually fine, but seriously

It’s almost warm enough to sit outside and visit again.

It’s grey but not raining. I had intended to plant things and get the patio ready for use, and maybe I will, but the sun is not shining and therefore I‘m not inspired.

I know that moving the body in the direction of the thing you want helps you actually want the thing you’re moving towards. But I’m sad and I miss my family and my friends and this is not the life I was working for. It’s hard to be motivated, hence me not playing outside in my small, not great-but-brings-me-much-joy-and-also-bird-friends yard. I bought plants with yellow variated leaves because they look like the sun is shining even when it’s not, and like a miracle to this Alaska girl when it is.

I can’t imagine how much harder this would all be if I was still in Alaska – where its so much darker for so much longer and socializing outdoors comfortably is even more limited than here.

Memories return unbidden

I used to babysit a lot when I was younger – or I would go along with my older sister when she did it. Neighbors in our apartment building, friends of our parents, people we met at church.  

Some of these people would have bowls or ash trays full of loose change, just sitting on the coffee table or a stand by the door. Or one of those big water jugs with gallons of coins.

This was a shocking thing to me. They had so much money they could just leave it lying around!? I admit I would skim coins from them. Just a few from each, not enough to make an obvious dent. If any of them noticed, they never called me out on it.

This memory came back to so strongly the other day when I was searching for something and found a stash of coins in every single bag I’ve used in the last year. I probably have $10 in change… I don’t even know how much. Because I didn’t count it. I also found $12 in paper money  – and I rarely use cash anymore.

It’s been two decades or more since I had to scrounge up enough quarters to do laundry or buy a loaf of bread with dimes and nickels. My financial status is so very different from what it was.

And it’s been good for long enough that now I can’t be who I was before. I have stopped worrying about being able to pay rent, and I don’t panic when my car makes a funny noise.

But that young girl is still lurking, happy she can buy as many Starbursts and science fiction books as she wants.

Interior Design as Psychological Sustenance

I walk around my new neighborhood, and all of these homes look so interesting and deliberate, and I want all of them – manicured or wild, maintained or dilapidated. Each says something to the people who lives there, and those walking by. I revel in the way that people have made these structures and landscapes particular to them.

I have become someone who is actively constructing her environment- I think for the first time. I now want the art to color-coordinate, the chairs to match the table and the flowers to bloom. I think I am finally getting what other people have always understood about needing their environment to match their interior understanding of the world – or maybe just needing the exterior to speak to them in a particular way.

The interior and exterior are both landscapes. We spend our lives in constructed spaces. Places where someone made choices – about what to include and exclude, what to feed and water, and what to tear out by the roots. I’ve been ignoring the ways I passively managed my personal spaces, while condescending to those who spent so much time actively constructing theirs – I think because I grew up hearing what rooms should be, not what they could do.

Something about this dammed pandemic -living in one box, waking and sleeping, for 18 months – shifted my focus. I spent weeks making this new apartment my own, in every way I could think of. And now that the project is mostly done, I miss it.

Maybe I am in this new phase because I happy with my interior landscape? I always thought that the place to change your reality was inside, and the outside was something you pushed against or dove into or whatever, but the world-bending went in one direction.

I have always been more of the mind than of the body. I know that much of my attitude comes from growing up with little power to affect the world around me – but I realized early I had power over my thoughts. So I worked hard and steady (and still do) at walking that garden, planting new dreams and removing dead ideas.

I reject any rule that says fashion or tradition dictates how my living room should be decorated or arranged. But functional can and should be beautiful. A space that is set up to support the life you live, not the expectations of others, is something to covet. Readers should have comfortable places to sit, with good lighting and place to put their tea. Painters should have a room with easy -clean surfaces and stunning views (and again, good lighting). All rooms are built spaces, so they should be built to support those who must exist within them.

It’s a feedback loop that can be exploited. As a young person, the lack of basic necessities caused me to look inside, which kept me from spending time on the outside, until I cared very little for anything but basic functionality. But a welcoming environment can calm the interior and allow it to grow in new ways, which then can reach out and alter the exterior in new ways, ad infinitum (hopefully). I really enjoyed setting up my new apartment, for the first time in 27 moves. I feel like my home is no longer a static thing. The spare room has many configurations, each based on the current need for that space. This can and should be true for every room in the house (and the yard).

My friends are happy I’ve finally decided to care about what my house looks like, and for many people it seems like something I should have done all along. But the truth is, I was happy in my head. I always pictured it as an either/ or. But like all binaries, it’s a lie. There is no interior that exists beyond influence of the exterior and vice versa.

I don’t have to have a mortgage or a million dollars to build a space that increases my joy, where I can be the self I want to be today.

Writing as Performance, a rambling

I spent so many years in school, and loved it. I first wrote because they told me to. It turned out I could do it well by their standards, and so I liked doing it. But I liked a lot of other things – math, reading, drawing, gymnastics, singing.

So much of my writing has been about receiving praise from other people (mostly my teachers). The writing became about the praise. Which is why I couldn’t sustain that “help you with your money” website I started – because no one was telling me it was good and helpful. And I told myself that it wasn’t the writing I wanted to do but the helping – that what was missing was the one-on-one interaction. Which wasn’t a lie, but it also isn’t the truth. I felt like no one saw it and no one told me it was good and I was smart and kind and also a hero and a great writer. So I lost all interest in the project – in an idea had consumed me for weeks. But what had consumed me was the idea of a lot of people praising me for how helpful I was, not the doing of it. Ego, much?

Now I wonder if I’d have been as good a painter/ artist (for instance) as I am a writer if school/ anyone had spent as much time praising me for it and teaching me to hone that craft. I’m a decent painter & sketcher, and I get better the more I do it (true of most things! For most people!). And I derive at least as much pleasure from it as I ever did from writing – with a lot less need for outside validation. Not because I want to be an amazing painter – but it seems clear we all have many parts we let atrophy for lack of sunlight.

With painting, I focus on the process and therefore am less invested in the outcome, which means I end doing a better job. Or something. But with writing I can be happy as hell with the product but still not care about it if no one else is reading it.

I am a thinker, an over-thinker, honestly – and writing is really the part of school that best matches up with that tendency/ skill. And writing does clarify thinking for me, both emotional and intellectual topics (false binary!). But I don’t think it’s the writing itself that I like, or that attracts me. It’s the deep thinking about whatever topic that appeals and excites, not the writing process or the product. Writing being an effective medium for sharing thoughts is why I like it, not because I think writing is something I should be doing. Maybe those aren’t actually different things, but they feel different.

Lidia Yuknavitch says that the truth exists but using words to try to describe the truth can only be fiction – that feels like a part of it. But you can get to the truth of an idea, if not a life or an experience – with words. Ideas are quite literally only words, they can’t exist without the language to describe them, whereas all manner of other things exist outside language entirely. And that’s what excites me most. But it is the pursuit of the idea that can motivate me, not the writing that comes from that. Or maybe that’s why I want/ need that praise/ interaction? Because I can’t know if I’ve translated the idea well enough until someone else has read it and told me they understand? I don’t know maybe this whole thing is just a circle.

It’s true that writing essays about money advice really is useless if no one reads them – but quitting after five essays and two weeks or whatever is hardly a fair chance given.

So… I’m a much better writer than painter. And journal writing is an important part of my life and growth as a person. But it’s suddenly obvious that the other writing in my life is just performance. Writing is certainly the way I figure things out for myself, but public righting is about how others react to it, not how I feel about it myself. Which may be why I don’t do it much while still thinking I should be doing it and being disappointed in myself for not doing it more.

But maybe I’m only think I should be a writer because someone told me early on that I was, and I believed them. What if they’d told me I was a good artist instead? Who would I be?