Ticking Away

March 29, 2013 § 10 Comments


Awhile back, Doug W left this comment on the SAVED page. I’d meant to turn off comments for that page, which, after taking his down, I did. But he raises such fantastic questions, ones that permeate almost every aspect of my life (and, I’m guessing, at least a few of yours’), that I feel compelled to devote an entire post to his comment.

The unspoken other topic here and in all the recent posts about money is the matter of time. The two have been linked ie either you have the time or the money in a given situation. But what about time in and of itself? How do we experience it? Is really scarce. Is it linear or really cyclical? Is it possible to live in the eternal present in the modern world? One of the most common experiences around a homestead is to become lost in a specific task, to be totally present, and immersed, activities like fencing or cutting wood without any sense of the passing of time.

I’m not even sure where to begin with this subject, because it’s just so huge and important. As seems to be my wont, I suppose I’ll start with a personal anecdote.

It was 1998 when we first moved onto our property and began immersing ourselves in the many land-based tasks that now comprise the majority of our waking hours. I remember feeling lots of things during this period, but most pertinent to the issues of time and money is that I recall being amazed that anyone (and in this case, by “anyone,” I mean Penny) would so willingly work so damn hard to raise, say, a crop of tomatoes that could be purchased at a grocery store for a price that, if applied to the literal fruits of her labor, meant she was pulling down a coupla bucks an hour. At best. (It is probably worth noting that at this point in my life, I was far more interested in riding my bike and skiing than sticking a shovel in the ground, which seemed to me like a whole lot of bother).

I suppose what I’m saying is that I was still a believer in the adage that “time is money”; as such, I could not imagine exchanging my time for a measure of recompense that, when measured strictly in dollars, could not compete with the commodity market.

It is amazing to me now to consider how many lies and misconceptions reside in that one sentence. For instance, the notion that time is money. There are innumerable ways to dispel this idea, but I suspect the most poignant would be to ask someone with a terminal illness how they feel about it. If you think their thoughts on the subject don’t apply to you, bullshit.  All our lives are finite. Some are just more finite than others. I’ve said it before, but I think it bears repeating: Our societal belief that time and money should be conflated is extraordinarily convenient for a commodity market capable of producing (usually crappy) products at a price that makes it compelling to consume, rather than produce.

There is another flaw to this line of reasoning, and it is this: That the labor we invest in producing for ourselves does not have its own value. In other words, that we should consider it a burden, rather than a blessing. The truth is (and this is not unusual), Penny was way ahead of me with those tomatoes. She understood that the hours spent amending and seeding and watering and picking and processing should not be detracted from the final tally, but added to it. In her view, it was a blessing to have the privilege of entering into that relationship with those tomatoes and this relationship had a value that could not be expressed in monetary terms.

The older I get and the more of these relationships I enter into myself, the more I find myself able to, as Doug W suggests, fully inhabit the moments of my life in a manner that entirely alters my relationship to time itself. It’s not that it slows down or speeds up; it’s just that it feels like it’s mine. There’s actually a term for this: Temporal autonomy, which can roughly be defined as the capacity to spend your time in the manner that is most satisfying to you.

If there is any single motivation for how we live our lives, that’s it right there. We want to spend our time (which is to say, our lives) in the manner that’s most satisfying to us. It just so happens that what satisfies us is to be on the land, to have relationships with our animals and our trees and our kids and the ground beneath our feet. Almost every decision we make around issues of money – should I write this article or not? Should I take this speaking gig or not? – are made only after we’ve determined whether or not it will enable us to deepen these relationships. Of course, that’s a over-simplistic way to put it, but it’ll work for now.

Befitting such a long post, I will leave you with a relatively long excerpt from SAVED. And that’s it for today. Because, you know, I’ve gotta get back to work and make some dough.

…the inescapable and somewhat unsettling conclusion remained: Erik’s relationship to time was different from mine, and I say “unsettling” because I was fairly certain his relationship was less dysfunctional. I’d first noticed this more than 6 months before, during that November day I stopped by his house to find him contentedly cutting boards with a dull handsaw. During our mushroom hunt, I’d twice noted it, first when our search continued past the span of time that seemed (to me, at least) reasonable and again in response to my query about the hike from the cabin. There was something in the unhurried nature of Erik’s day-to-day existence that made it feel as if he owned his time to an extent that most of us have forsaken.

In his book Discretionary Time: A New Measure of Freedom, Robert Goodin points out that time is both inherently egalitarian (everyone has access to the exact same 24 hours per day) and inherently scarce (no one has access to more than 24 hours per day). Goodin talks about “temporal autonomy,” which is the ability to make choices regarding how one’s time is passed. Given the egalitarian nature of time, not to mention its scarcity, the capacity to choose how we spend our time could be viewed as the ultimate expression of wealth, and it struck me that Erik’s unhurried, almost languid temperament suggested a particular confidence that could only evolve from an abundance of temporal autonomy. Or, put more simply, from the certainty that he could damn well do what he pleased, when he pleased.

For a moment I probed my memory, but I could not recall a single instance when I’d heard Erik worry or even wonder about the time. And I thought how interesting it was that watches have become such a symbol of status in our culture that people are willing to spend thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars on a little clock to ride on their wrist. Perhaps it was merely the jeweled aspect, the diamond-studded bezels and gold-striped bands, but I couldn’t help wondering if it was also something in the auspicious display of the timekeeping mechanism itself, as if reminding the world that the bearer’s time is so very valuable as to demand such royal carriage. And then an irony struck me: If one’s time is so damn valuable, why in the name of Rolex would anyone allow a clock to rule it? Viewed in this light, being beholden to a clock could be seen not as you owning your time, but as your time owning you.

It occurred to me that unlike most of us, Erik does not compartmentalize his time; he does not seem to differentiate between the hours spent in pursuit of a paycheck and the hours spent in pursuit of either mushrooms, a finished cabin, or a pair of dumpster’d sneakers. He seemed to understand more clearly than anyone I’d met that there is only one thing human beings truly own, one thing that cannot be claimed by others: time. Furthermore, he seemed to respect the rather uncomfortable truth that none of us can rightly claim to know how much we own. As such, he seemed determined not to convert his unknown quantity of time—in truth, his life, for how we spend our hours and days is, of course, how we spend our lives—into a commodity, to be sold to the highest bidder.

At first, I struggled to square this with the languor he applied to so many of his tasks. For who would spend hours cutting boards with a rusty handsaw but someone who felt as if time were very much on their side? If Erik were really so cognizant of the true value attached to the ticking clock of his life, would it not behoove him to at least get a freakin’ Skil saw? But the more I observed him in action, the more convinced I became that I had it exactly backward. Indeed, it occurred to me that Erik had an absolute respect for time, to the point that he was able to exist inside any particular moment with tangible contentment. He understood that the value wasn’t to be extracted by rushing to get to the next project, but rather by truly inhabiting each and every moment he was fortunate enough to experience.

§ 10 Responses to Ticking Away

  • Dirk Anderson says:

    Ben, I haven’t read your book yet, so I don’t know to what extent your time-isn’t money musings touch on the works of Thoreau (or, knowing you, crib from them shamelessly). One of my favorite parables from Walden is the following. I’m sure you’ve read it, but it seems particularly relevant to the topic at hand:

    One says to me, “I wonder that you do not lay up money; you love to travel; you might take the cars and go to Fitchburg today and see the country.” But I am wiser than that. I have learned that the swiftest traveller is he that goes afoot. I say to my friend, Suppose we try who will get there first. The distance is thirty miles; the fare ninety cents. That is almost a day’s wages. I remember when wages were sixty cents a day for laborers on this very road. Well, I start now on foot, and get there before night; I have travelled at that rate by the week together. You will in the meanwhile have earned your fare, and arrive there some time tomorrow, or possibly this evening, if you are lucky enough to get a job in season. Instead of going to Fitchburg, you will be working here the greater part of the day. And so, if the railroad reached round the world, I think that I should keep ahead of you; and as for seeing the country and getting experience of that kind, I should have to cut your acquaintance altogether.

  • Jenn says:

    Reblogged this on Bramblewood Acres and commented:
    Ben so often is able to write exactly how I feel. His words are the ones I would write if I could put my thoughts into something as cohesive and understandable as he does. His simple, rich way of life is one I am working towards…slowly but surely.
    This post in particular struck me as so applicable, especially this time of year.
    I get up each morning, drive to work, and during those 8, 9, or 10 hours (not including my two hour daily commute), someone else owns my time and I give it to them, for a price, both monetary and psychologically. While I’m at home, working my farm, concentrating on my animals, the land, my gardens, my time is mine and I do get lost in the moment. And I love each moment I am lost in.
    But, for me, it is an exchange. I trade my time at work for money, so that I can “buy” that time back at the farm. Do I wish it was different? You betcha. I’d gladly trade my “saleable” time at work for more of my own time at the farm. But, if I didn’t give trade time for money at my job, I would not be able to live at my own pace, on my own time, at home.
    This time of year especially when I want to spend my time in my own way at my farm, in the dirt, in the garden, in the woods, with the animals or just enjoying my piece of the world, I am instead spending it at an office. I frequently have to remind myself that I make the trade because without one, I could not have the other.

  • Jenn says:

    This speaks to me so loudly, especially this time of year when I wish I did have more control over how I use my time. But, it’s a trade I make…for now.
    I reblogged this post over at bramblewoodacres.wordpress.com

  • Laughing at your Thoreau response…
    Excellent post. And isn’t it telling that our very language equates time with money, that is, you “spend” your time…
    I love that you bring it down to relationship, which resonates very strongly with me. There is a Zen saying that I live by: “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” What’s the difference? The difference is mindfulness…

  • Karen says:

    Ben, I really loved this post. I find that when I become lost in my tasks, whether it is working in my garden, cleaning my house, cooking, walking in the cemetary near our house, that those are the most satisfying times. Total immersion in a task that feeds your soul is like a prayer. I try to be aware of those times and be grateful.

  • Doug W. says:

    Ben, thanks for writing about time. I had wondered if it had been mentioned in Saved. The discussion of owning our time reminded me of an anecdote. Elliott was the four year old son of a co-worker I had a few years back. At the time Elliott was in pre-k and had run afoul in some way. He was riding home in the truck with his dad talking about the situation. Elliott summed it up, “I just want to do what I want to do when I want to do it.” Whoa Elliott, don’t we all! That temporal autonomy thing must be hard-wired.

  • ncfarmchick says:

    I have an older friend who was a regional sales manager for Timex years ago. He told me something a while back I have never forgotten. He said that people wear watches not to know what time it is but to know how much time they have left before their next obligation. I thought this was an amazing observation. I gave up wearing a watch many years ago (for the non-philosophical reason that I just don’t like the feel of something on my wrist) but I think it does help one live more presently than always being future-focused. Unfortunately, it is hard to get away from clocks. They are, of course, on every phone (rendering watches unnecessary for most except as a piece of jewelry), in vehicles, on appliances, etc. Nothing like engrossing farm work to make you lose track of time which is one of the most freeing feelings I can think of at the moment. Thanks for another great post!

  • […] that time is our most valuable commodity, the cost of a bus ticket from Boston to Hartford is a bargain for two hours of travel not spent […]

  • A powerfull piece of writing. It really makes you looks at the world around you differently.

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