I’ve written before on the psychology of time, about which I read initially in Thomas Mann’s book ‘The Magic Mountain’ when I was in the 6th form and more recently in Claudia Hammond’s ‘Time Warped’, published 2012, exactly 100 years after Mann started his classic.
Basically, if time as you pass through it seems to drag, when looked back on has flown by, whereas time which goes slowly as you pass through seems to stretch back a long way in retrospect. It’s all to do with interesting things happening – or not. Events which interest or excite us, capture our imagination, act as milestones in the memory. Hammond calls it ‘The Holiday Paradox’.
The effect of the pandemic exemplifies this graphically. Locked-down, seeing no-one, going nowhere, the weeks drag. It seems hardly any time at all since I arrived home from my daughter’s where I spent Christmas. Yet it’s 5 weeks. Five weeks of nothing. Five trips to the supermarket for food. 30 treks to the top of the ridge. 45 evening meals cooked. Sporadic picking vegetables, winter digging, cleaning the house ….. not a lot.
Why haven’t I made any progress on the next book I’m working on? Why haven’t I written to friends – especially those who have been good enough to write to me? Why have I not done any more woodcarving? Made any more clocks? Cut the hedges?
Finally, the light came on. It’s to do with how I’m wired. I have known for a long time that I perform best under pressure. Hard deadlines focus the mind. A report to write by tomorrow morning? No problem! Sometime in the next 3 weeks? Ooops! Now, with time stretching out uninterrupted into the unknown, hazy future – no chance! That’s the effect of lockdown. It’s difficult to break the shackles on a mind torpid from lack of stimulus.
I read a book some time ago whose main thesis was that to be truly content, we have to learn to be happy ‘being’. That’s fine for those who can, I envy them, but I can’t. I have to be ‘doing’. But I can only ‘do’ if there is a goal, a deadline. Since I retired there has not been a problem, my time has been full of activity. Until now. Now, what we can do is severely constrained, especially in winter in Grey Britain..
As well as engendering chronic procrastination, the pandemic has had even greater effect. It has changed horizons. Being confined close to home has meant narrow spatial horizons. When I went to the North of England for Christmas it was as if I was Magellan in fear of sailing off the edge of the flat earth. The sameness of every day has the opposite effect on temporal horizons, pushing them further into the future. The planned trip to Greece in May is far into the future with nothing in between except more of the same grey. May has never seemed so far away in February.
So, when overnight snow was forecast and being a chionophile, I set my alarm for 07.30 and set out up the mountain soon after, knowing the forecast was for rising temperature and sunshine so a rapid thaw. I’ve known ever since the one-and-only time I made the mistake of changing my afternoon run to before-breakfast that my metabolism doesn’t do early starts. It makes me ill. But this would be worth it. It was.
Before I set out, trees in the garden were decked with snow – and grumpy jackdaws.
The air was crystal clear, the initial part of the walk alongside the canal dramatically coloured after days of greyness.
I was under clear blue sky but ahead of me I could see a wall of mist. Looking behind was another which seemed to be pursuing me. As I started the climb towards the ridge-top, I was racing the pincer movement as the two advancing banks of mist met and started rising behind me.
Then it stopped and as I climbed, I was out of it again.
The ridge top was glorious. The snow on the trees had melted by now but there was still a covering of a couple of inches on the ground which hid the morass of mud which the ridge-top path had become with the passage of many feet in weeks of wet weather.
By the time I dropped off the end of the ridge on the way back, the mist had dispersed and the garden was in sun. A milestone day in a weeks of greyness.