Spending time in non-time.

You may have noticed that the months September, October, November, and December contain clues that they used to be at a different spot in the calendar: September was once seventh, October eighth, November ninth, and December tenth. You may also have heard that this was because July and August were added later, to honor Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus, respectively, knocking the whole calendar askew in the process.


…that this is a lie?

July and August weren’t additions to the calendar; they were simply renamed from Quintilis (5th month) and Sextilis (6th month). The renaming spared them the embarrassing fate that the following months suffered, spending eternity with misleading prefixes.

No, the reason for the shift is that the latest additions to the calendar were January and February.

Bear with me: the original Roman calendar had ten months of 30 or 31 days, starting with March and ending with December. This only took 304 days. The other 50 days in the lunar year were monthless.


A time so dark and slow it didn’t even bear naming. Just the long wait until time would finally resume in March.

Eventually, the Romans deigned to allow time to go on, even in winter, and January and February were born.

I’m struck, though, by the notion of living without time, but only for a while. Now, we are able to free ourselves from day and night, winter and summer, through the magic of electricity. A single hour of a lightbulb’s worth of light from an animal-fat candle used to require 60 hours of work. For most average people, then, night was simply dark. There wouldn’t have been enough spare labor lying around to justify lighting the night. And in winter, the nights are long and dark. Imagine sitting inside, struggling to stay warm, in the dark, for sixteen hours a day.

That is life without time. That is a taste of eternity.

Now, I’m not an ancient peasant. 60 hours of my labor can buy me actual decades’ worth of light. My HVAC system means I can stay at 70 degrees all year long, if I want to, except if I dare to go outdoors. I should be immune to winter.

But I’m not. It gets into me anyway. It feels endless, especially when the frigid wind is whipping right into the seams of my coat, and when I’m taking the train only in disorienting darkness. When there’s no hint of living green, just brown and grey through bare trees. (West Coasters: you fortunate green-winterers don’t understand).

Maybe there’s some wisdom in letting this be non-time, rather than trying to count down the days until it ends. It’s just a pause, an empty lung, a long sleep.

Eventually March will come.

Credit once again to the History of English podcast for this fun fact about January and February.

On doing nothing.

I haven’t been doing much recently.

Especially the last few days. I’ve been feeling a little under the weather. This means a lot of lying on the strangely comfortable floor under a blanket.

I nap, and play games, and read, and write a bit here and there, and FaceTime my family, and in moments of tremendous ambition, go out for a meal or some exercise.

There’s some big part of me that feels pretty defensive about this. To answer “nothing” to the inevitable “what did you do this weekend?” feels like a betrayal of conversation itself. It feels almost passive-aggressive, like I’m withholding something, or else it feels like a cry for help with a life that needs filling.

Another driver is the problem with many names: FOMO (fear of missing out). Or, if you enjoy incredible long German words, Torschlusspanik (gate closing panic)—the fear, as night draws in, that you won’t make it back inside the city gates before the gates close at curfew. Much like a medieval peasant with a dread of being trapped outside with the outlaws, I have a fear of time passing and leaving me behind, and opportunities slamming shut before I had a chance to explore them.

This is, typically, irrational and unwarranted. I am not a medieval peasant, and my future is probably not full of bloodthirsty outlaws. But that’s beside the point.

But doing nothing is also, ironically, something I’ve been wanting to do more of. In recent years I’ve had lots of moments of feeling over-committed, and I hate all the resentment and drama that tends to go. along with that. In times like these, I start to fantasize about what it would be like to have nowhere to be, no tasks that needed completing. All the freedom in the world to do what I please and say yes or no to the whims of the day.

So much of my life is spent caught between these poles, trapped in that in-between, nowhere space between action and inaction, between something and nothing, neither pursuing the relaxation that I crave nor getting tasks done, but feeling increasingly awful as I play infinite levels of a mobile game that is throwing my entire nervous system out of whack and making me nauseous.

The goal is to find that space of beautiful nothing-doingness, where I produce nothing of external value and I enjoy the minutes as they pass. Where I’m free to do exactly what is right at that moment.

This weekend, that’s looked a lot like lazy floor time. It also looked like writing this, rather than some rather more involved (and possibly more interesting) posts. But this weekend has also looked a lot like contentment, so I want for nothing.

2020 Goals, writing-related and otherwise

I am a chronic maker of lists. You should see the chaos that is my Google Keep, a mess of immediate and short-term and long-term and unknowable-term tasks all jumbled together with lists of ideas and movies I want to watch.

When things get really hairy, as they did during law school, I find myself making to-do lists that get as granular as “eat breakfast” and “shower.” Even, on dismally rough days, “go to class.” Because there is an unmatchable joy that comes from crossing something off, even if my life is otherwise a dumpster fire.

It has never so far gotten quite as bad as having to remember to “breathe” and “sleep,” but never say never.

There is a push-pull relationship between me and the lists. Part of me delights in writing them down, because in that moment it feels like proof of the delicious possibility of the future. Look at me—I’m going to run five miles and write five chapters of a book after work on Tuesday, after I cook myself dinner! God, I’m unstoppable.

But then, inevitably, Tuesday-after-work shows up, and I’m exhausted from work and also pretty cold and hungry, and I rebel against that taskmaster who assigned me the run and the writing project and the cooking assignment. I eat packaged ramen and watch Netflix and feel both free and kind of nauseous.

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Still sun

Today is the winter solstice: the least amount of light, the most amount of dark.

We don’t like dark terribly much as a species, any more than we like waiting. The winter solstice is a bit of a relief, then, because at least we know this is as bad as it gets. Even if it gets colder and it sleets from now through March, at least there will be a little more light at the edges of the day to see us through it.

(Perhaps if we were nocturnal, we’d have this same sense of relief at the summer solstice? We might be panting with relief in our stuffy underground burrow at the thought that the light will at least stop growing longer, forcing us these long dull listless days without a respite from the searching sun.)

The word “solstice” comes from two Latin roots: “Sol” (sun) and “stit-” (stationary). People who had been tracking the sunset’s journey south along the horizon were watching for the time when it would pause—pause, and then reverse its track. The solstice is that noticeable pause.

Like a deep breath that has been let out. The empty feeling in the lungs, like a rattle in the ribcage, the belly like a bag pressed flat. A sense of desolation, they say, but also a definite glow of opportunity. Possibility. The inhale is inevitable.

Soon (not too soon, don’t get ahead of yourself!) but soon, it will be spring. There is, at least, the reassurance that the mechanism hasn’t broken; the sun isn’t going to decline indefinitely. The gears are still turning, or the sun is still at its proper axial tilt and the orbit is stable, or what have you. The clock is still ticking.

But all that future possibility is to come. For now, we’re in the pause.

And we may as well enjoy the dark, for now. The reassurance that it is all temporary, that the breath will be let back in momentarily, should all give us a chance to befriend the dark, even if we wouldn’t have chosen it.

Years ago I heard a quote I can’t now find about a room used for scientific experiments that needed to be kept completely, totally dark. Even a bit of light from a door opened too soon would ruin it. Signs posted on the door warned people to keep the dark in.

What phrasing: not keep the light out, but keep the dark in. It belongs to itself. Let it be. It’s not just the absence of light, although it’s hard not to see it this way.

It’s become a pattern here for me to talk about time and the seasons as heavyhanded metaphors for phases of life. Maybe it’s my brand, who knows. But in this construct, solstices are times of change when the change can’t be seen yet. The winter solstice in our lives is the time when things have been getting worse, and darker, and it’s become harder to see a way out of hard times (see? I cannot untangle myself from disliking dark). The solstice is the moment where we notice it’s stopped, and it will turn around.

But because human lives and human circumstances are not tied to the axial tilt of the Earth, there’s no telling when things start getting better. The solstice pause is invisible, isn’t it, when it’s in your life? It’s like hitting rock bottom, which can only be confirmed when you’ve started to rise again.

On this note, I heard an interesting tidbit from Alexander Shaia about the timing of Christmas. It’s not smack-dab on the winter solstice; it’s three or four days later. Three or four days is enough time to start really noticing that the sun is scooting the other way now, back up the horizon, which means the days are just a tiny bit longer. And that’s when Christmas happens: when you can actually see the beginnings of the increase of light.

The solstice is the mysterious point of stillness before change. We can’t always notice it when it’s there; it’s only in the rearview mirror, when things are really beginning to shift, that we can pinpoint the longest night of the year. Meanwhile, that moment of deepest darkness, which marked the beginning of the increase of the light, was set silently, imperceptibly, into motion.

If the days are dark for you right now, I wish you the best. I hope the reversal is coming soon.