Wednesday, 22 April 2020

A time to every purpose

I have been writing this post mentally for quite a while, long before the current situation, but it feels more relevant now than ever. I have been reluctant to share my reflections because I might sound self-righteous, and I am also aware that I am exceptionally privileged, since in my retirement I have no obligations, I have stable economy, good health and other benefits many people are denied. And yet I am disturbed by what I hear and read these days about frustration and boredom; all kinds of highly contradictory statements. Some people say time has stopped, some that it has expanded beyond reason; some don't know what to do with their time; some feel the “before” was centuries ago, some look in horror at just a few weeks back; some see no future, some cannot wait for future to arrive.

I have written a book about time in children's literature. After twenty years, I still think it is the best book I have written, unjustly not having received as much attention as it should have. In this book, I explore the use of circular, mythic time in classic children's books and the ways this archaic time – kairos – occasionally opens into linearity, chronos. But kairos is not simply here and now; it's vast, it includes all past down to the beginning of time and it stretches into the future to the end of time and beyond. It is recurrent in changes of seasons, in death and rebirth. It includes all parallel worlds, beliefs and imaginings. Australian Aborigines' concept of Dreamtime is one of the closest ways of grasping it, although it is hard for us, Westerners, to understand, because we are conditioned to value linear, measurable, goal-oriented time; we are told that the so-called carefree time of childhood is something to leave behind and grow up and start living according to clocks, calendars, schedules, timetables, and achievements. This is what children's literature endeavours to prepare us for. Yes, the little boy and his teddy bear will always be playing in the Hundred-Acre Wood, and yet we know that the boy is going away to boarding school, where he will be introduced to spelling, multiplication tables and citizenship. This is inevitable, but all great children's books remind us of kairos, of the “very long time ago, maybe last Friday”. Of the time of always, usually, habitually, every Sunday, every summer. Some languages have tenses and modalities to express this iterativity.

What no literature, children's or other, has prepared me for, is return to kairos in old age. I am not sure whether the rapidly expanding academic area of age studies has paid attention to this phenomenon. And I don't remember any work of fiction that describes it. There are of course numerous stories about old people, but usually with negative connotations, focusing on illness, loneliness, disappointment, fear of death. I cannot think of any story that highlights the pleasures of getting old. Maybe because halcyon old age doesn't constitute a good plot. It isn't as exciting as opening up childhood idyll into constant linear advancement, nor promising the vague, even if encouraging happily-ever-after. But as people of my age know, there is more after happily-ever-after. Once our linear progression slows down and eventually stops, we don't die yet. Instead, at least some of us are blessed with returning into Dreamtime, to the all-encompassing Grand Time we lost when we decided or were forced to grow up.

They say that senescence is the second childhood, but it is not true. As Clémentine Beauvais demonstrates in her research, a child is mighty because of their vast resources of time-left, time-yet-to-spend. An old person, returning to kairos after a life of stressful, competitive linearity, has limited time-left. I don't know exactly how much time I have left, but statistically it is significantly less than I had when I was a child. Yet this is only true if we think in linear, goal-oriented terms. If kairos has no beginning or end, if it has no structure, then it makes no sense to measure it the way we measure linear time. I don't have any deadlines or goals. I may still want to walk a thousand kilometers by the end of 2020 or climb to the height of Everest adding up my daily climbs; I may want to build another dollhouse or harvest tomatoes on my balcony. Yet these are desires, not goals. I have left all anxieties of my adult life behind (and yes, once again, I am aware of being exceptionally privileged). Like a very young (privileged) child, I don't have to worry where my next meal comes from. I am my own master, and unless I want them, I have no societal constraints, no rules to play by. I have got rid of as many possessions as I could; when you don't owe much you don't worry about losing it. Like in childhood, procreation is not an issue. I have no fear of death, because, although I hope to live a few more years, death will not rob me of my life, long and on the whole quite satisfactory. While a young child is not yet aware of their own mortality, I have come to terms with it and thus become immortal. My present life is a life of total harmony. A life in Arcadia. A life in kairos.

This is where the current situation comes in, and this is where I am running a risk of sounding sanctimonious. I feel leaving chronos behind is a relief. I still need to keep track of days to know when my groceries delivery is coming, and I need to know when the live-streamed concert starts, but apart from that days are determined by sunrise and sunset, meal time is when I am hungry and bedtime is when I am tired. In between there are so many exciting things to fill my days, and every day is Sunday, and it is always summer. Unlike childhood, there is nothing I must learn because it will be useful later in life. I can gather totally useless knowledge and acquire totally useless skills. I can “waste time” because I have unlimited supply of it. I have the peace of mind to feel joy about everything I do, everything I see, hear, touch, smell. I do not look back with nostalgia or regrets at my past. I do not look with hope into the future. I do not feel anxious about the future either. I am not longing for anything, least of all any return to my previous lifestyle. I enjoy being away from civilisation and close to nature. And of course remoteness and isolation are the very tokens of kairos.

All this happened to me before everyone's lives changed so dramatically. Therefore I believe I am so much better prepared for the current situation. I don't want to preach, just to share my experience. Even if you still have your commitments, stop and reflect. This is the opportunity to capture a few moments of kairos, if only to realise that it is there for you when you feel you have completed your linear, measurable, goal-oriented existence. Don't misunderstand me: I used to live that hectic life myself. We are trained to in our society. Returning to kairos involved a lot of effort and determination, but it was worth the trouble. Your voluntary or involuntary isolation is a valuable, albeit temporary escape from linearity, but not a nostalgic escape to prelapsarian childhood – you still have your adult responsibilities, and you can never shed your adult knowledge and experience; neither a blind-folded sideways escape to idyllic fantasy from which you return no wiser. It is a glimpse of the reward to come – if you let it come, if you don't lament the “waste of time”, the days and weeks and months stolen from you, but see them as days, weeks and months gifted to you as a password to kairos when your are ready. To everything there is a time and a season. A time to rush, and a time to pause.

 Ill. Kate Greenaway 

1 comment:

TC said...

I so enjoyed reading this. You expressed much better than I could, just how I feel about things at the moment. Thank you.