Time is what we have and what we are—our memories are made in time and in turn make us—we make meaning from time and so how we use it matters. As Annie Dillard notes in The Writing Life:
How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives…
Days build into lives and days with rituals that sustain us, that enable us to work, love, live and write well, allow us to make deeper meaning of time. In the endless uncertainties of life our rituals and routines as writers enable us to give shape to what would otherwise be a flow of chaos. Writing gives shape to the world, renders it meaningful and, to some extent, knowable, even when there remain so many things we don’t know.
For the love of life
But it’s never done in a vacuum. We write to witness to the world. We write to understand other lives. We write to prophesy. We write because we love. Writing in The Guardian, the novelist Ottessa Moshfegh reflects on her 2018 My Year of Rest and Relaxation in which her character chooses to self-isolate as a way of healing her traumas. But in the light of 2020 and the Covid pandemic, the idea of isolation looks different to her, especially when it is an isolation that is imposed and about hiding from illness, not chosen and about seeking wellness. She concludes that the only real thing outside herself is love:
Without it, life is just “doing time”.
To be really meaningful, then, our writing has to be not merely a desperate attempt to fill our days with “something” but a way of witnessing to the importance of love. And this in its broadest sense—love of others, love of life, love of this earth, love of beauty, love of living with uncertainty and doubt but holding onto hope…
For now and the future
So often when a catastrophe comes we become backward-looking. It’s human and eminently understandable. In the more than two years of missing my oldest child or the almost two-years of not seeing my older daughter and her family, including a grand-daughter who I’d met only once when she was three-weeks old, I did a lot of looking back and longing. I’m still doing it for my younger daughter who works in Indonesia and who I haven’t seen since October 2020.
Faced with this loss that we’ve all experienced recently, the artist and children’s author Sophie Blackall began to illustrate a list not of things she missed, but things she looked forward to. As she wrote the list evolved into both a looking forward, already grateful for what would come, and a celebration of the presnt moment, in which many of the small pleasures were, she realised, already available, even during lockdown.
A beloved song, a cup of tea, or a rainbow could still be relished. She could still sew a torn coat or spring-cleaning an attic. She could savour the weather on a solitary walk and take in the elements. And these ordinary blessings weren’t counted in some protected bubble. She and her partner faced financial issues during the pandemic and had to give up their apartment to find somewhere cheaper. Unable to be with family and friends, they also cancelled their wedding and she was separated from her children. Then she learnt that the father of her children, a dear friend, had died. Struggling with doubt and finding it hard to stay hopeful she writes:
I have often found myself romanticizing the Before Times, when we could travel the world and hug our friends and shake hands with strangers, but I have come to the conclusion that it’s better to look forward: to gather the things we’ve learned and use our patience and perseverance and courage and empathy to care for each other and to work toward a better future for all people.
This is writing that is not a distraction from the challenges of life. It is a witness to life that is anything but just ‘doing time’ and instead makes meaning of time. And it is so because it is all about love—not only romantic love, but every kind of love.
For generosity and abundance
So often gratitude is muddied by sentimental nostalgia. Of course we want to look back with thanks, but we need to do so in ways that also allow us to move forward with hope. We need to be in love with life in order to carry gratitude with us as an act of generosity and belief in abundance—something that Billy Collins demonstrates in this poem from his collection Nine Horses:
As if to Demonstrate an Eclipse
I pick an orange from a wicker basket
and place it on the table
to represent the sun.
Then down at the other end
a blue and white marble
becomes the earth
and nearby I lay the little moon of an aspirin.
I get a glass from a cabinet,
open a bottle of wine,
then I sit in a ladder-back chair,
a benevolent god presiding
over a miniature creation myth,
and I begin to sing
a homemade canticle of thanks
for this perfect little arrangement,
for not making the earth too hot or cold
not making it spin too fast or slow
so that the grove of orange trees
and the owl become possible,
not to mention the rolling wave,
the play of clouds, geese in flight,
and the Z of lightning on a dark lake.
Then I fill my glass again
and give thanks for the trout,
the oak, and the yellow feather,
singing the room full of shadows,
as sun and earth and moon
circle one another in their impeccable orbits
and I get more and more cockeyed with gratitude.
For the story that outlives us
And gratitude that both celebrates the past and remains in love with life and the future, doesn’t only come from those who feel confident about having a long life ahead of them. The extraordinary neurologist and naturalist Oliver Sacks, writing his final book, Gratitude, as he approached death, noted:
It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can. […]
Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life.
On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.
There are experiences in all our lives that concentrate our hearts and minds—the shared experience of pandemic, the awfulness of loss and grief in its many forms, an unwanted but inescapable diagnosis… It’s salutory that is so often those who are on the knife edge of life who are able to see clearly enough to be grateful for past and future alike. And as writers we have a great deal to learn from such gratitude.
If we are serious about telling a different story in our broken world then we need to be full of the love of life that gratitude gives us in order to write a future that others can go on being grateful for.