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It’s About Time
The pandemic-induced reckoning about work-life balance is examined in a trio of new books about how we measure and spend our precious time / BY Nathalie Atkinson / March 13th, 2023
A historic order of Carthusian monks in the French Alps recently shook up the drinks world by announcing they would not scale up to meet increasing global demand for Chartreuse liqueur. The herbaceous green and yellow elixir has been the monastic order’s hero product since 1605, and an essential ingredient in classic cocktails like the Bijou and Last Word. Rather than embracing the hustle of success, they emphatically chose to renew their commitment to the contemplative life and to minimize the environmental impact of production and distribution.
When I read their memo, I immediately thought of artist and writer Jenny Odell’s 2019 bestseller How to Do Nothing. It was a wildly popular field guide to getting off the hamster wheel that examined creativity, the attention economy and time as a capitalist commodity, as well as the problem with productivity culture. The refusal to commodify everything — even hobbies — may have been initiated by millennials and adopted by gen Z, but the lessons have clearly trickled into the zeitgeist.
Leaning out, quiet quitting — whatever you call reclaiming your time — the impending Chartreuse scarcity is just the latest effect of a cultural reckoning around work-life balance and lifestyle priorities that was accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic pause. This month brings a wave of books that look at what comes next, because, as many have learned about the precious commodity of time, it’s always later than you think.
In a follow-up book published in March, Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock, Odell invites readers to reconsider both the times we live in and the ways we let the hours slip away. She critiques time management self-help books and considers new targets: True leisure versus the conspicuous consumption of leisure, for example, and how the latter has been ingrained and internalized through capitalist logic, so that “elements of slow living, disengagement, and self-care have become favored products in the new ‘experience economy.’” (Think of that before you post the ‘unplugged at the beach’ selfie on March Break.)
That dovetails nicely with what Dr. Pooja Lakshmin calls the tyranny of faux self-care (often driven by products and services). “Real self-care is about your relationship with yourself and your relationship with your community,” Lakshmin, a psychiatrist specializing in women’s mental health and the author of Real Self-Care, recently told Anne Helen Petersen for her Culture Study newsletter. “But in America, we have this very individualistic and commodified version of self-care right now that is completely aligned with consumerism and the idea that only something outside of you can give you what you need or want.”
Odell’s arguments are more of a disquisition of ideas around our relationship to time than a philosophical but accessible plan of attack for the time pressures that deplete people.
Katherine May’s Enchantment: Awakening Wonder in an Anxious Age offers more thoughtful sustenance. Like Odell, she builds on a previous book, the hybrid memoir Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times, released on the eve of the pandemic in early 2020. The fortuitous timing made it a bestseller translated into 25 languages around the world. Drawing on solstice celebrations, the hibernation of dormice and beloved literary figures, the English author was lyrical about of her own personal winter — a cyclical fallow season of the soul as much as of the weather, and extolled the benefits of retreating from the world for a period of time. It suggested the modern world has lost the skill and process of wintering, and coined a term that helped a lot of people make meaning of what was happening and gave permission (and a set of tools) to treat the ups and downs of life as seasons.
Enchantment, which came out in February, was written during the lockdowns, when a sense of stasis — and an uncertain future — had the author trying to make sense, on the page in real time, of her discombobulation. The last decade has filled us with a growing sense of unreality, she writes. “We seem trapped in a grind of constant change without ever getting the change to integrate it.” The ability to process anything — joy, trauma, grief, illness recovery — was one of the first difficulties of the pandemic. The book arose from May’s bone-tired, anxious day-to-day life as an entreaty to reconnection, to learn and train herself how to pay attention. But it’s a different take on the theme of awe I identified as a 2023 self-help trend in my Zed Books round-up of reading for renewal at the start of the new year.
Enchantment, as May defines it, is “small wonder magnified through meaning, fascination caught in the web of fable and memory. It relies on small doses of awe, almost homeopathic: those quiet traces of fascination that are found only when we look for them.” Darker enchantments, like fear, are part of it as well. Toward the end of the book, May covers witness accounts of a November 1833 astronomical phenomenon — the spectacular and terrifying meteor shower we now recognize as the Leonids – that made people think the world might be ending.
She divides the book into sections according to the classical elements: Earth, water, fire and air. It’s a useful framework, because nature is essential to enchantment and there’s a persuasive argument that what she is searching for is “the chance to merge into the wild drift of the world, to feel overcome, to enter into its weft so completely that sometimes I can forget myself.”
In Earth, May writes that we’ve been disconnected from meaning. “We have surrendered the rites of passage that used to take us from birth to death, and in doing so, have rendered many parts of our experience unspeakable.” There’s talk of yearning, “for depth, for meaning-making,” and of finding a greater fluidity in general. That hits on something that came up in her recent online conversation with The Art of Gathering author Priya Parker, where the authors made a distinction that what matters is meaningful gathering.
This is where Hanging Out: The Radical Power of Killing Time comes in. Author Sheila Liming, an American teacher of cultural studies (and biographer of Edith Wharton), argues that having fun is freedom from an agenda, yet that spontaneity is arguably on the verge of extinction in modern life.
In the introduction to her January book, Liming says Hanging Out is partly a manifesto, and partly an invitation to make time for unstructured gatherings and open-ended social interactions –to take back our structured social lives and simply meander.
Informed by her own experiences and anecdotes — chiefly from moving across the United States during the pandemic — Liming also brings a rich knowledge of pop culture and intellectual history to persuasive arguments about the importance of spending casual and unproductive time with other people. (Emphasis on the unproductive.) Liming says hanging out means daring not to do very much, and that, in the age of productivity, daring to do it in the presence of other people is valuable. “When we spend time with each other — without having a real agenda placed upon that time or how it has to be spent,” she writes, “what we get to produce is our connections, our social atmosphere, the world that we live in.”
One of her interesting asides is about the role social media has played in the evolution of human interaction. It used to be acceptable to stop by and knock at the door for an unscheduled visit, and now, she reminds us, Facebook is a place to collect friends like trading cards. Friendship became a system of impersonal interactions (alongside impersonal mass email invitations) rather than meaningful connection. As one whose own monthly jam sessions have been on pause since early 2020, I loved the chapter on how playing music exemplifies true engagement with those present in the room.
It’s interesting that Liming and May come back to analogies of anatomy —that meaningful social interaction uses certain muscles that have, through social media, and compounded by pandemic distancing and isolation, utterly slackened. Put the phone face down, Liming suggests early in her book. “Or better yet, throw it out the window.” She’s only partly joking (maybe). “Take off your coats. Pull up a chair. Grab yourself a beverage. Hang out for a bit.” She’s not against technology, but it needs to be put in its place. “Digital devices and technologies make that other kind of hanging out easier,” she writes, “but they also strip it of the experiences and particularities of place. What gets lost, along with those particularities, are deeper shades of connection, intimacy, and meaning.”
Among the many seemingly made-up celebration days — like National Potato Chip Day (here’s looking at you, National Napping Day), I was heartened to notice that April has a National Hanging Out Day. Unfortunately, it isn’t set aside for indolence, as I had hoped; it’s about the environmental and financial benefits of using a clothesline to dry laundry. But it turns out that hanging laundry in the fresh air and sun, with only a vague sense of when exactly they might be dry (and running the risk of rain), is a good metaphor for Liming’s argument about being unhurried and freeform.
Odell’s first book artfully expressed what many were thinking, and umpteen reports and articles have since chimed in that hustle culture is a con. Between the frequent studies on the upsides of social support and high-quality relationships, the mental health benefits of daily chats with friends, and regular studies from the Canadian Social Survey on health, wellbeing and the impacts of COVID-19 in 2021 and 2022 (the latest released in February), it’s become a truism that social connection is good for emotional health and the soul.
What hanging out produces, as Liming affirms, is our relationships with one another. “The great revelation perhaps never did come,” she illustrates by quoting Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. “Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark.”