The Year Behind, The One Ahead (Or, On Time)

Dmitri and I take a surfing lesson in Los Cerritos, Mexico.

There was this one afternoon in 2017 when I broke down in tears. I don’t mean to sound like I’m writing a melodramatic self-help post here, but I’m afraid there is no other way to say it. I had been in the middle of one of my depressions. These happen to me from time to time. Sometimes they are triggered by something situational, but as often as not they are not triggered by anything in particular. I know enough about depression to know that there is something chemical going on that is not my fault. The only remedies as I see them are medication, self-medication, or no medication, and throughout my life I have normally gone with the latter two options. I won’t bother here to defend this choice necessarily. I am just laying the groundwork for the scene.

So there I was, in the middle of a depression, when it suddenly got much, much worse. This thought came to me: time only moves forwards. It couldn’t be reversed. I couldn’t go back. Each moment, each hour, each day, each week, month, and year passed by me, and it always had, and it always would, no matter what. When this thought came to me, I wasn’t just in tears – I began to sob almost uncontrollably. I was in bed. My partner, Stana, was there, and through the sobs I managed to tell her what was going on with me, that I was crying because time only moved forward. Even as I said it I could watch myself saying it, as if I were floating above the bed, looking down on myself under the covers, and at Stana sitting on the edge of the bed and leaning over to hug me, and I could see the humor, the irony of the whole scene.

I say scene, because that is how my brain works. What kind of scene was this? A dark comedy, where you don’t know whether to laugh or cry? A sober drama where the main character hits rock bottom? Or maybe some kind of farce? Floating there, above the bed, watching myself, I thought: well, it could be any of those.

That is how I have seen this life for some time now: full of contradictions, both lovely and glorious and filled with indescribable pleasure, as well as a monotonous slog of mental and physical suffering, characterized by self-deception and punctuated by long hours of work and one day death. As a screenwriter, I could write this scene any which way, in any kind of movie. As a journalist, I tend to report the events as dispassionately as I know how. As a human, I naturally want to tell a story. The stories are how we make sense of the contradictions of living. If only we could figure out what the story is, we think to ourselves, then – then! – we could make some sense out of all this seeming chaos and arbitrariness. These things that happen in our lives. The arc of it all.

This sudden moment of clarity I was having about the nature of time did not strike from the blue of course. It had been a long time coming. Perhaps it had been coming my entire adult life. No one who knows me would ever miss my obvious focus on the contemplative. And this brings me to the year behind, and the one ahead.

For the past four years, I have been engaging in some form of active resistance against the march of time. That is to say, I have been conscientiously planning each year to leave something behind that just may outlast me, to engage in some kind of productive, usually creative, pursuit, on some dark and fog-filled path toward a glimmer of immortality. Each year for the past four years, I have set these goals, and, at the end of the year, marked them done or not done. Perhaps if I could make a movie, I thought, that would be a thing, however small, however insignificant, that at least would allow me to register a gentle fuck you to time itself. Perhaps leaving something behind that people could read, or watch, or contemplate, would be a way, if not to forestall it a bit, at least to declare my objection.

I have found that the plans have resulted in more creative output than I had ever hoped. There are three short films, and a Pilot episode to a TV show. There, a feature film that I wrote and directed sits on Amazon, available for people to watch. There, a 44,000 word draft of a memoir of my creative work, ready for a dozen rewrites and more than a few ruthless edits. And more that I don’t wish to tally here. And so I have kept at it. At least, when all is said, it will not be said that I was among those who talk and never do.

But this thing about time has worn on me this year. It is one thing to register objections along the way, to make a mark along the path, to break a branch along the way, or leave a little rock pile for the next traveler. This year, I have also began to think about the path itself. What is it like to walk it every day, that is, what is the substance of the actual time spent? We focus so much on the turns, the decision points. The forks in the road. Perhaps not enough attention is paid to the thing itself. It is no great insight to say here that we humans were not meant to spend our time sitting behind a desk for eight to ten hours a day, in a cubicle, in an office building, with an artificial light overhead and a framed picture to the side. And so I don’t. I have been half parts lucky and half parts wise to find myself in a fine-paying job that can be done almost entirely remotely. But then what?

There is the parable of the Mexican fisherman, which I recounted a few months back to a colleague who is an accomplished physician and a successful executive. I thought everyone knew this story, but he hadn’t heard it. A Mexican fisherman spends his mornings catching fish, which he feeds his family and sells at the market. In the afternoons he spends time with his wife and children, and in the evenings he has a drink and plays guitar with his amigos. An American businessmen comes on vacation and sees the fisherman come in from his morning catch. You know, he says, If you fished all day long, you could catch and sell enough fish to buy a bigger boat. And what would I do then? the Mexican fisherman asks. Why, you would catch even more fish, and buy another boat, and then hire some extra fishermen to work for you, the businessman says. What then? asks the fisherman. Well, you could open a cannery, and can the extra fish, and sell them on the international market. What then? Well, then you could move to New York, and do an IPO, and get rich. And what then? Then, says the American businessman, you could retire to a small village in Mexico, and you could spend time playing with your kids, and in the evenings you could go have a drink and play guitar with your amigos.

This year, I have been thinking: what is my version of this story? How do I want to spend this incredible resource I have, which only moves forward, and marches by whether I like it or not, and which will one day (no one will tell me which day) come to an end?

My planning up until now has been focused on breaking those branches, leaving behind those piles of rocks. But this year, my planning includes both branch-breaking and the other thing. This year, I have turned some attention to how I want to spend time. Written like that, it seems as if perhaps I never did this until now. Far from it. My entire being sometimes feels as if it is preoccupied with the question, and always has been, to the point where I struggle to appreciate the moment I am in. There are days of day-dreaming and procrastination that pass which could have been better spent driving to a forested path and going for a walk. Perhaps in the coming year I will recognize those days before they pass by me, and do something about them, rather than looking back in retrospect, filled with regret and self-loathing.

What is different this year than past years is that this process of goal planning and the resulting creative output, which has worked for me so well the past four years, is now being integrated into my newly crystalized awareness of the tragedy – the utter fucking tragedy – of time. In the past, my goals were creative, financial, and personal. Each of them was expressed as a clear output: produce a short film, for example, or save X amount of money. This year, I am adding a layer on top. Each set of goals is expressed under a subheading of values. The goals are not ends in themselves (though that has worked fine for me in the past). The goals now act in service of things I value.

So, what do I value? Simply:

  • Time with family and friends
  • Time outdoors
  • Creative endeavor
  • Continuous learning

All of next year’s goals fall into one of those four categories. Just as in past years, each of the goals is worded in language that is actionable and measurable. Who knows if these are exhaustive. I have an ever-present fear of missing something, missing some experience in life that it turns out I care about. Ultimately, that is the measure, right? It must be. It must be that, if I die, I have done the things which I would regret not having done. It must be that, if I die, I will be able to look back at how I spent the irretrievable resource, and have some measure of peace that I spent the time how I really wanted to spend the time, or at least as close to it as I could get.

 

 

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