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By Madeleine Forbes
We try so hard to capture time—to hold it fast in schedules and calendars. We assign our days the productivity we believe we are entitled to: this deadline, that goal. Each minute, a ticked-off task. Each day, an accumulated trophy cabinet of habits and rituals.
And yet, time eludes us. Well, perhaps I can only speak for myself here. However good my intentions, however impeccable my planning, I invariably find myself defeated, at some point, by its slippery ways. An hour swallowed by Facebook, or another inexplicable slippage of the perfectly-balanced productivity schedule.
I’m slowly coming to respect the fact that my days develop a mind of their own from time to time. To embrace, even, the mystery that makes up the years of my life. Their wayward tendencies, the mishaps and wrong turns which define them; the ultimate futility of all those watched clocks and counted seconds.
After all, time’s nothing if not inconsistent. It took a genius to prove its relativity, but it takes a child to grasp it.
A slow webpage loads in seconds that last for years…an interminable torture. Centuries drag by. The circle spins. That long planned-for vacation, gone in the blink of an eye. Wait…it’s THURSDAY?
And in the big picture, time refuses to sit neatly where we leave it. Years, decades even, tumble effortlessly from our grasp. Memories shrink and vanish. I’m pretty sure my twenties took place during a six-month whirlwind of lost weekends and desk-bound days. There are whole years I’d struggle to recollect beyond the vaguest of details.
So why does that one car ride when I was six years old—kicking the back of the seat, humming along to a cassette—stick so vividly in my memory? Why can I remember, word for word, the conversation we had on the back porch that time, and the way my tummy flipped when you said the words I didn’t want to hear?
In memory I gain perspective on the stretch and goo of events. And lately, though perhaps it’s futile, I’ve been trying to tilt my head and see that flow from within it. To appreciate that some days are slow and others fast; that a moment might remain with me for weeks, ringing like a tuning fork, while others are best flung into the wind and forgotten.
I’m trying to pay attention to the pace at which the sand is falling through the hourglass. To immerse myself in the moments and attempt to cultivate an appreciation for their texture. I’m aided by this new path I’m stumbling on—rural life, and days shaped not so much by schedules as by the non-human world surrounding me. The seasons and the weather, the animals and birds.
So much of farm time is shaped by things we can’t predict. The date of the last frost, the temperature of the hottest day, the direction and speed of the wind when a wildfire starts in a nearby town. The spring morning when the little bantam hen will decide it’s time to settle down and brood a clutch of eggs, and how many of them will hatch into balls of primrose fluff. The readiness of the first seedlings to poke their slim green tips from the compost; the day the zucchinis decide to flower; whether it rains when the grape blossom is out, or gets suddenly cold as the fruit’s trying to ripen.
At first, the lack of control gave me palpitations. It asked of me a level of surrender I was unaccustomed to. I like to know when things will happen, to be able to prepare. It reminded me of waiting in the last weeks of pregnancy—the absurdity of having no idea whether each day would be one when I’d rise and waddle around the house, cooking and reading and humming to myself, in mundane limbo, or undertake the most demanding physical trial of my existence so far and bring a new human being into the world.
How could no one be able to tell me when labor might begin? How could the process be so unpredictable? I know not everyone experiences that ripple of surprise; I consider it a privilege, to birth spontaneously. And yet my own resistance to it shocked me, just as the wait to conceive had felt irrationally unfair.
Where we surrender control to mysteries outside us, we bump up against our egos, that need to time and pace the world to our own liking. Personally speaking, I think I’m better off for it, though at the time I’d growl the opposite is true.
Frustrating as I find it, the farm is softening me, slowly. I’m learning to accept that what doesn’t work this year might come off better next. I’m adjusting my horizon to accommodate a lifetime of things to learn and techniques to practice.
And perhaps because the details of each day are things we can’t predict, I find myself uniquely soothed by those we can. The time of the sunset, the swell of the moon, the growth of the fruit on the trees. The rhythm of solstice and equinox, the local saint’s days and festivals. Frameworks and rituals within which the chaos is contained; markers in the dance between knowing and not-knowing.
And so, each day must somehow be allowed to flex, to make space for what is happening then and there. The endless flow of items to be mended and fixed, parts to be sourced for the truck, fences to be repaired and sick animals to be tended to.
Given that I have the luxury of only being a part-time farmer, I am able to keep foot in a very different world. One where my to-do list doesn’t depend on whether or not it’s rained, or whether slugs have eaten the cabbages.
In the world of business, after all, we like to think we have a little more control over what’s happening. We diligently set quarterly goals, enshrine activities in calendars, plan and predict our profits. And life would certainly be more challenging if the dear editors of this publication weren’t able to rely on their writers to submit work in time for appraisal; if our dentists were unable to confirm appointment times; if grocery stores closed on whims.
But the big things in life remain out of our control. The hurricanes. The diagnoses. The accidents of fortune or fate—the person who shows up to the date when you’d sworn you’d delete the app at the end of the week. The chance conversation with the book agent; the serendipitous roommate at the conference.
Cultivating an appreciation for, or even just a tolerance of, the things we can’t predict is a practice I’m finding increasingly helpful. Our world moves fast. Extreme events of one sort or another seem to be increasing; our ever-connected society flings one thing after the other at our poor, frazzled nervous systems.
We can learn to practice a little surrender, now and then. Perhaps to leave our downtime unaccounted for; perhaps to leave some things to spontaneity. To allow our instincts to emerge, when we decide whether or not to decline an invitation; to resist looking at the clock as the very first thing we do each day.
Time might yet become a friend rather than an enemy. A succession of infinite moments, rather than an ever-decreasing commodity. Something to be savored. Sunk into. Shared.
Madeleine Forbes is a writer, walker and unapologetic neglecter of her inbox. Born in London, she left city life in 2014 to start an off-grid life in the hills of central Portugal. She’s founder of The Seasoned Year, an online project to help us deepen our connection to seasonal cycles. Most recently she’s exploring a new response to the climate crisis, rooted in the cycle of the year and our craving for deeper connection. You can sign up for free Letters from the Land and follow Madeleine’s blog via her website; or follow her on Instagram or Facebook.