finding my own time
an exercise in severance from extractive time and hyperproductivity
It hasn't even been a week since I returned to the U.S. after a month of traveling across Taiwan and Japan (my vacation to myself post-employment), but I'm already feeling that sensation of pressure creep back up on me. What are you spending your time doing now? How do you make space for all your creative endeavors? What can you do to stop failing the people you love?
It's the first time in a long time where people are asking me what I am excited about lately, and I sheepishly admit that I'm not sure? That is, if I'm in an honest mood. Otherwise, I'll recycle old answers and parade them about, earning myself a respectable number of nods and oohs and aahs, perhaps even a follow-up question or two.
I feel like I'm failing at something I'm not even competing in. I'm entering myself in competitions with people who are on different timelines: the standard career ladders, the hustle of VC-backed startups, the slow but steady roll of grad school. I feel a bit lost after being so "no-computer" brain for the past month. After my reset, I think I'm finding my reason for working and creating again. I'm rediscovering why I love the things I've always said to love and the things I've committed to doing, double-checking that the same answer comes up.
I know this is important work, probably the most crucial work I could be doing before rushing back into anything else, but I can't help but doubt if it's a waste of time. I feel the itch to get back into doing something that feels productive, that yields concrete output. I feel the urge work on code even if it's something that becomes obsolete in a few weeks. I want to write even if it's something that I hate. I want to feel like I'm useful.
Jenny Odell in Saving Time makes the distinction between chronos, the linear fungible time we're accustomed to, and kairos, the uncertain, crisis-like time that makes change possible, that offers the world to us to shape as we like. It's the kind of time that can be unnerving because we have no control over it—one hour is not the same now versus then; we have to let go of notions of productivity or efficiency in order to participate, to dance with the waves of time and open our eyes only when the music has paused.
In order to embrace the idea of kairos, then, we need to untether ourselves from the idea of linear utility, the kind that drives our desires to be productive and useful along measurable spectrums of efficiency. We must learn to embrace what the times call for, whether slow ambling and aimless wandering or hearty sprinting and fierce dreaming.
How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern.
-from The Writing Life by Anne Dillard
While traveling, it felt like I had exited chronos to enter kairos. Traditionally unemployment is a good way to swap from the former to the latter, but after leaving my software engineering job in January, I naturally filled my time with "work" during traditional work hours because that was what I was used to. But a vacationer's time is one of abundant possibility. You exist outside of the schedules of the people you are surrounded by.The role offers you the possibility of transformation.
This time I did the most minimal planning before going on my trip. I booked my flight and (most of) my lodging in researched neighborhoods and figured out what felt right when I was there, catering each day to the evolving weather and how much energy I had. This meant if it suddenly rained, I could decide to visit the museum and find some food and adventuring near there. Every day felt like possibility, and in tandem, I met so many spontaneous new friends through my wanderings that I might not have had the space to talk to if I was on a tight schedule. I zoomed through winding cliffside roads on an electric scooter, watched tai chi groups in the park, biked through the empty early morning streets of Taipei. I wandered freely, my idea of the day of the week or time of day governed only by the position of the sun and the density of young people in the streets.
Coming back, I feel the molasses around my muscles—I'm steeped in kairos. I'm still tired each day even after sleeping 8+ hours, and the uncertainty is bubbling up around my ears. I don't feel that surge that powers me through midnight coding sessions. It feels hard to breathe. My pulse is slow. As much as I want to go back to the same me from a month ago, my body doesn't cooperate. I feel called to question and meander and burrow. To find a safe place to dwell, first and foremost.
I'm scared of my own agency, of achievement, of having all the power to make everything that I want to happen happen. I'm scared of going into the zone at the edge of my comfort, to push myself to make an internet research lab, to become an established net artist, to create community around creative, inviting, playful technology and the little things in everyday life that capture our soul. My mind is far from computer mode, and I worry about whether I can become that person again (I will myself to become that person again).
I wake up in an apartment near Alamo Square to the light streaming through the bay windows. I see the top of Sutro Tower on one end, watch the clouds on their eternal journey across the blue blue sky. I think about how lucky I am to have this time for myself, how privileged I am to have escaped the tendrils of fungible, capitalist, hyper-optimized time, even if for a short while. I don’t have to know what day of the week it is or wear a watch giving me a 5-minute warning before my next meeting. I can listen to my environment: watch the sky’s color and the sun’s degree, notice how crowded my local coffee shop is and how densely packed the street is. I can eat when I’m hungry, wander when I’m restless, dig into a rabbit hole when curiosity swallows me whole. This sense of time is a rare gift, and I plan to savor each tiny moment.
This discomfort oozes with possibility. I don’t have to get back to anything, and neither do I deserve anything. To begin, I must believe. To believe, I must world.Whatever happens, however my body's time compels me, I don't want to stop moving, to stop creating, to stop dreaming. My hands crave a reason. I am moving forward, step by step, minute by minute, moment by blistering moment.
For more inspo, see this are.na channel on time by my friends and I.
Notably just traveling as a tourist to a new place does not automatically mean you start to operate in kairos. The kind of vacationing that is popular now consists of itineraries stuffed full with bucket list items, top 10 lists, and viral TikTok recommendations, sometimes with precise minute specifications for where you need, how you need to look, and what you need to feel. This kind of traveling can be an even more extreme example of chronos compared to people's normal working lives. To embrace kairos while traveling you have to take the approach of the wandering visitor: someone who is inhabiting a new place and follows their nose for what feels right in every moment.
I like searching for happy endings, so perhaps this is just one more delusion to push me back to functioning in my expertise… but isn’t so much of life delusions and religion-making?