In my family, we don’t ski. We talk; we whine; we argue. We do indoor activities.
My big brother, ever the rebel, defied this (despite talking, whining, and arguing more than any of us) and decided he’d learn to ski. After a few times, he told me he was theoretically capable of making his way down the mountain in one fell swoop.
But the idea of the whole mountain was too much. He could see, he could grasp, he could imagine part of the mountain. But not the whole thing. Not in one continuous gesture. The horizon of mountain’s bottom was, to him, infinitely far away. The mere thought of it was sublime: too much to think, to process, to make sense of.
And so he chopped up this infinite horizon into discrete chunks he knew he could handle: as he navigated the incline, he’d throw himself to the snow now and again. He created an immediate horizon, a point he could reach — even if only with a crash.
I was in school for ages — with graduate school then teaching, I didn’t finish school until I was 39. School time is punctuated with a bevy of meaningful milestones, one coming after the other. There’s September and the beginning of the semester. The first week of classes — new students, new ideas. Then starting a new text — “Death of the Author,” Ecce Homo, Cassavete’s Faces. Papers — always papers. And then grading papers; then returning papers. Meanwhile, many small breaks — Columbus, Thanksgiving, MLK. And longer, more substantial breaks such as Winter and Summer.
A word on Fall break, those mysterious days in October where students and faculty alike are granted a respite for no apparent reason. When I was an undergrad, this was newly instituted and came about, it seems, because undergrads couldn’t make it down the mountain that stretched from semester’s start to Thanksgiving and so had a tendency to throw themselves to the ground, usually from high places. Without some way of breaking up that span, some students preferred death.
Anyway, school afforded me many ways to make sense of time, all these little milestones marking achievement, time passed, new times to come. This made me indifferent to the more popular markers of time such as weekends, New Year’s Eve, Christmas. Besides being a yid, what did I care about such brief breaks? I had Winter break which superseded both Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Which meant I could ignore them and enjoy the distinctly academic punctuations of time.
And then I left the academy. Suddenly, September has no particular meaning for me. There are no new texts to teach, no papers to assign or grade, no flow of new students. Just me amidst the abyss of time.
Now, people who work regular jobs have their well regulated ways of marking time. The most common one, of course, is the weekend. Work people love weekends, a brief break from soul death. And then there are the prescribed holidays — Thanksgiving, the week from Christmas to New Year’s (for some), MLK day (for some). Man, it’s depressing just writing it here. So work folks make their own little milestones — they’ll take their vacation in June, a sick day in August, a personal day in October.
But I don’t have a regular job. I work for myself (and, of course, for my clients). I don’t have to be anywhere every day. Which also means I don’t have weekends per se. In fact, I often get work done on the weekends when there are no clients to email or call me.
And I don’t get holidays or paid vacation. This is not a complaint. On the contrary, I have much more free time than my working friends. My point is this: I don’t have any external tempering of time. The only real recurring milestone I have is when my kid stays with me and when he doesn’t. But marking my time solely around that seems, well, sad.
With no prescribed markers of time, I sometimes find myself overwhelmed, my brother at the mountain’s zenith looking down. Can I make it all the way to the end without a break? I don’t think so. It’s not that I don’t know how to fill my time. I’m very good at that. Indeed, leisure suits me. No, it’s not that I don’t know what to do without a schedule; it’s that I can’t see myself living through the entirety of my life without more immediate horizons in view. I can’t just keep doing this!
Can I find what I seek in the holidays that everyone seems to enjoy so much?
I’ve always liked Christmas. As a hebe, I have no obligations: no one’s buying me presents and I have no presents to buy. No one is inviting me over; no one is wondering where I am. And everything is weird on Christmas as everyone else is busy doing whatever it is the goyim do. They even shut down the stores! Which makes the streets eery and beautiful. The city is mine! I can’t treat it as any other day. And so I am free to play, decadently and fervently.
And I love this about Christmas. But, for me, it lacks the resonance of a new semester, starting a new book, turning in grades. Sure, I like the frivolity of Christmas day, my utter lack of responsibility. But I don’t look forward to it. It never really appears on my horizon. Which is to say, it is not a viable marker of time for me.
Then there’s New Year’s. It seems like an ideal holiday, a ready made ritual of renewal. Only, as we all know, it’s an ugly holiday filled with forced glee and poor drinkers. Last year, I tried to claim New Year’s by ingesting this and that and taking myself to the ocean. And there, for a good 20 minutes or so, I reckoned the infinite and my place in it, how I related both to the cosmos and the machinations of the quotidian. Yes, I thought, yes! This is my marker of time, my resounding, resonant reckoning!
But then the echoing hoots and hollers of the deranged masses drowned out my reverie and I was back in the commercialized nonsense of prescribed time. Because, you see, I don’t just want — need — markers of time. I need them to resonate with me, to be profound and meaningful.
New Years is 10 days away. Do I try again? Or do I abandon these rituals devoid of resonance and try instead to invent my own? It is easier said than done.
In the meantime, I remain a man in search of temporal punctuation. Because there is no way I’m making it down the mountain in one fell swoop.
Image – James Abbott McNeill Whistler