It occurred to me the other day that I might not have the time to read all the books in my bookshelves before I die. I was dusting my bookshelves while balancing on the red kitchen ladder, which is too short and produces awful squeaks but it comes with memories and so it’s the only kitchen ladder I will have. If I continue reading at the pace of today, I thought, in the time that remains after having finished my working day, after having cooked for, bathed, and hugged and hugged (and hugged) and put my toddler daughters to bed, after all chores, and before I myself lie down – full of good intentions, then feeling an exhaustion so large roll in I can’t even fathom stretching my arm out towards the books on my bedside table – I will manage about one book a week. That is 52 books a year. Take away the weeks when perhaps one of us is ill, perhaps someone visits, perhaps I become obsessed with whatever I am writing or thinking about or doing – then might I be left with 45 books a year?
There are the holidays.
If the last two years’ holidays are anything to go by, they will, for the foreseeable future, be filled with water and frogs (pond ones) and plastic cycles and barbequed sausages with lots of ketchup.
45 books a year. For how many years?
Well, it has often been said to me that, as I have inherited the somewhat weaker constitution of the women on my father’s side, I might not live that long. (The women on my mother’s side conversely have all been given the gift of eternal life.) If I am lucky and if there is no unanticipated event, will I be given another twenty years?
45 books a year for twenty years. That is 900 books.
900 books. It seems a respectable amount. Unless you compare it with the annual number of published books which, in the UK, 2011 alone, was close to 150,000 last year.
At this point, I had to sit down. I looked up at the bookshelf I had been dusting, so full that books have to be stacked lying down, rather than standing up.
I could try and sleep less, I thought, but knew as I thought it, that that would never work. I need eight hours sleep a night and any attempt at short-cuts in that domain are paid for dearly and in kind.
Why had I bought all these books? Surely I could have seen that buying five books in a week where you only manage to read one, is senseless?
I had bought them because they had to be read. They still did. No, the problem was time. The perpetual problem of time.
The time of my childhood had a sound. It’s one of the things I remember most clearly.
A loud, slow measure of passing, as gauged by the wooden wall clock in our kitchen.
The sound was peaceful, time’s rhythm being more unhurried than the one that beat within me. As so often with sounds that are continual, I rarely noticed it, but each time I did, it slowed me right down.
I’d be lying on the floor underneath the window, most likely in a tee-shirt and some white, long underpants, feet up against the balcony door. I would see the grey sky between my naked feet. I would have complained to my mother that I had nothing to do and she would have responded that it was good to be bored. A person had to learn to be bored. My mind would wander. Above me hung an old blind on which was hand-painted a whole town: a castle with towers and pinnacles, red houses with white corners, a white church with a clock tower. A river meandered in between the houses and all along it were tall trees with green leaves – maybe aspens in summertime.
The blind floated in the radiator heat and the village came alive – the church bells swung, the river flowed and the trees waved. People strolled arm in arm across the bridges – they talked and laughed. It was Saturday and they were happy because they had the day off…
My daughters might never learn to be bored. Their room is awash with toys and books and has been since the day they were born. Their days are busy with activities. But there is worth to be had in boredom. In your own mind having to create the impetus and the ideas. Will the girls at least learn to be happy in their own company? I don’t know. I need to take care I don’t always entertain them. When they are at their loveliest, happily playing on their own, I need to learn not to interrupt them.
Do I still know how to be bored?
I am not certain of that, either. I cannot remember when last I was. Most things I do seem to be designed to buy me time. If you tap in a larger amount of time on the microwave oven than you need, you can just put the plate back in and press ‘start’ if the time wasn’t enough: you don’t have to reset it. Saved: three seconds. If you order two magnets to open the childproof cupboards instead of one, you have one in reserve in case the first one is lost. Saved: effort. I have developed an array of time-savers and inconvenience-busters. But what I do with all this time I supposedly have saved, I have no idea.
There have been periods in my life when time has behaved differently. When my twin daughters were just born, the pace of time decelerated and came to a halt. I suffered from post natal depression. Or perhaps it was as my father-in-law said; shock at finding myself forty years old and responsible for two small beings – me, who had even given away the time consuming cat!
“Each minute is like an hour,” I cried to a friend.
“It is only for a short while,” she said, this mother of three, “soon you’ll think in quarters of an hour, then in half hours and one day, you’ll find that time has recovered its speed.”
She looked sad when she said it.
And, indeed, time shuddered, woke up, and began to move again. Slowly, then faster, then back to neck-breaking speed. Unoriginally, now I would give anything to have just one more day of two small beings lying in my arms, and time standing beside us, watching, absolutely still.
In her book Ten Thoughts about Time, the Swedish professor Bodil Jönsson writes about unbroken time (my translation), about how it felt as a child in Sweden to have ten weeks long summer holidays ahead of you. This was before charter trips abroad, before amusement parks, summer classes and camps. You said goodbye to your school friends and you knew you were going to be off forever. I remember it well. There were breakfasts on the stairs outside on the sunny side of the house, berry picking, playing with whoever else was out and about, and in the evening, a jazz record with my father, cucumber sandwiches and milk. I remember sitting on top of the kitchen table eating my evening snack. Oh, the freedom! On top of the kitchen table! Everything seemed allowed.
Today, there is little unbroken time. There are meetings, appointments, phone calls, emails. Nothing is uninterrupted for long. Everything has been awarded a planned number of minutes in advance, not related to value, but because that is how long it is supposed to take. How much time is given to a conversation with a dear friend? An hour? Time for a phone call to catch up with someone? Ten-fifteen minutes? Less? What about the things that weren’t planned for: the chat with the grocer in the shop, the woman who had lost her parking ticket?
I saw two young people hug outside the library the other day. There had been a fire alarm. We were evacuated. We were waiting to be let back in. She was cold and he reached out. As they hugged, they both checked their smartphones over the other one’s shoulder. It reminded me a of a TV commercial I saw playing in the Middle East: “Watch two channels whilst recording a third.” Perhaps today’s young people have abilities different from my own.
Yet sometimes, when we sit by the table, one of my daughters will hush me and her twin sister. Then, as we sit there in silence looking at her, her tiny index finger will start moving like a pendulum.
And then we hear. The sound from the clock on the wall, not a wooden clock, but, well, an IKEA plastic one. And now my daughters will not speak, but revert back to their baby sign language. They will make the sign for airplane, and then for bird, and we sit still and listen to the sounds. I don’t remember teaching them this, but they are only two years old, so I must have. We sit in silence and time slows right back down to here. And now.
Now I have wasted time by pondering it. Pointless. Some might even say indulgent. Unless wasting time belongs to the same category as being bored, that of simply being.
I look at my unread books again and I write this down. Grand words are in my mind. Something like: Small Thoughts On Time, by Cecilia Ekback.
Though surely, if anything, this is Small Thoughts on Cecilia, as glimpsed by Time.