I’ve long dreamed of “leaving it all” for some time-soaked foreign tropical island. When I worked on Wall Street, I pictured that to be a warm slow-moving place. While in smog-covered Shanghai, my imagined island was devoid of toxic ambition. As an aspiring writer, I longed for a quiet villa near the beach, free of distractions. Of course, I knew on some level these visions were utopic. No one, regardless of location, can completely escape the stress of being alive. But I still believed there was some valuable guidance in the impulse to dream in this direction. Some place in me needed more time to think, be self-aware, feel empathetic, write, and create. Urban life in New York, London and Shanghai just hadn’t delivered.
So I landed this past December in Bali in hopes of finally satisfying my hunger. I had cleared out six months from all obligations but the essential – two children and a husband – to see if I could find the time I dreamed about. Would it be lying on the shores of this beautiful Indonesian island, or would I have to do some work to “discover” the rich treasure trove? And when I did find it, what exactly would I have to do to respect it, use it, and keep the tap flowing?
Is time a person, place or thing?
“An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length; on the other hand, an hour may be accurately represented on the timepiece of the mind by one second.” Virginia Wolfe
The very premise of my very exploration was steeped in American thinking. I used to work in the banking and consulting industries, places that abide by the principle “time is money.” Beyond these tense companies, the US is full of conveniences designed to save people time. Technology apps are constantly trying to add efficiency so we have “more time.” According to a recent New Yorker article, distraction has almost become a bad word. People value focus, attention, and mental application all as “better uses” of time than the “time-wasting” exercise of wandering through distraction.
But when my son leaned up against a metal sculpture in Paris last summer, I was reminded that attitudes towards time are very much cultural. The saying “Time is Honey,” seemed instantly true and very French at that moment. Time does drip sweetly there.
Whereas in China, time feels to me like a raft on water. It skirts this way and that way around unexpected obstacles. In India, it’s a wheel steadily rolling forward through centuries and lives. In Russia, it stops and rushes forward in unpredictable spurts. And these are just my impressions. Ask another traveler and the interpretations could be much different.
Graphic designer and author Vahram Muratyan has created a memoir, “About Time” that goes even further by offering visual depictions of different states of time in life – time being old, time being immersed in a goal, or time spent sitting on an airplane.
These collective observations do suggest that time has some relationship to space and place. It feels and moves differently on the Ganges than it does in a pub. It passes slower when someone is dying, and faster in the middle of an investment banking deal. But if something can have so many different personas, then how can it also be a fixed asset? How can time have so much varied personality and also be tangible like money?
The only way to reconcile these two ideas is to assume time can be everything and nothing at once. Or assume, as Albert Einstein is credited with saying, that “time is an illusion” in the way we normally think about it.
So is the quest for more time a fool’s journey?
Bali started out like a dream. Days floated by while I typed up my books and articles. Evenings passed with kids laughing on the beach and bedtime happening whenever we felt like it. My husband and I walked for hours. It was bliss, and I felt as though I'd found an entirely new life.
But about six months after my arrival, I was jolted awake at 2:30am with an all-too-familiar sense of anxiety. A flood of worries rushed back in, all of them time related. I had just a few weeks left there before moving to Singapore on June 28th, and so much to do. My computer was full of notes that still needed to become something. My refrigerator downstairs was empty. My children’s school had a full calendar.
I felt as though the windfall of time I’d won upon arrival was now an impending bankruptcy.
This went on for a few days. I got an ear infection and passed away a few afternoons knocked out on painkillers. This made things worse. Nothing could stop the sensation that time was being pulled out from under me, ripped through my fingers, yanked out of every corner.
I felt depressed. My husband reminded me that I’d enjoyed some accomplishments over the months. But in a different twist of perception, these seemed part of the less important past. I still didn’t have that new and peaceful relationship to the present time I’d always dreamed of.
Then I heard a story about our neighbor and driver, Gede. He’s a lovely man in his mid-twenties with a son, beautiful wife, and really chill attitude. He works hard and is trying to make the best way for his family. Someone we knew had swindled him of a lot of money.
Steeped in my own deficits, I felt for Gede. I imagined him feeling stressed out like I was at the time he’d spent earning money and lost. The next morning when he came to take the kids to school, I brought him two chocolate chip cookies and said I’d heard.
“That’s a real shame,” I said.
“Yes,” he said and kicked a stone with his shoe. “But I’m fine.”
He took the cookies, put them in the car and placed his palms together in front of his chest as a thank you. The moment felt connected and suspended, far longer and tangible than the hours I’d already spent catching up on emails.
As he drove away, a smile on his face and my two children waving from the car, my vision pulled back. I didn’t see my losses as much as I saw these few seconds of gain, and this lightened my perspective.
I began to wonder what really dictates our human relationship with time. I think it’s our expectations on it. We grow up learning to expect a task will correspond with a certain movement of hands on a clock, and are irritated when it doesn’t. We are conditioned to think a day can contain a fixed amount of activity. When it can’t or doesn’t, we get anxious. In the same way, when we forget our expectations on time, lose track of its passage, it flows more freely and loosely.
In other words, our expectations morph time into a box in which we put a hundred things to do, or turn it into a melting ice cube warmed by a lazy afternoon.
Which also explains why time felt so abundant upon my arrival in Bali and so tense near the end. I had no expectations on it in the beginning, just a sense of wonder and exploration. At my exit, I tried to make time a suitcase and quickly stuff everything in it.
But as I sat back that evening with a nap in me and a cocktail in hand, I reminded myself that I don’t always have to put my time into confinement. In fact, the more I sprinkle at a park, spill onto my children’s paintings, or spend on a meeting, the more time I’ll have. This is admittedly, an easier state of mind to have in Bali, but not one that can only be found on a tropical island.
For more on what Bali taught me about creativity and stress, check out:
For more on life as a nomad in general, check out: