Of Calendars and Clocks, Existential Dread, and Clarity

January 16th…it’s not too late to post about the new year, is it?

(And also: Trigger warning—this is yet another overly long and weighty post that deals with mental health and existentialism.)


About a month ago, Kate and Rita had a discussion about getting through the dark, cold depths of January and February, and this conversation got me thinking, not for the first time, about how I envision the months of a year.

Do you picture the year in your mind’s eye? Here’s what I see:

As you can see, I picture the year as a clock. Now, a clock has twelve hours and a year has twelve months, so you’d think the months would be evenly distributed, but no: January is at the 12 o’clock mark, but June is at 3, which means that the first six months of the year are squeezed into only three hours. July and August, lazy and hot, stretch out, taking their time and meandering from 3 to 6, while September, the ninth month, packed with paper and pencils and new prospects, runs from 6 until at least 8. October and November follow, shivers that are barely there at all, and December is a month that is so filled with expectation and pressure that it takes nearly a full quarter spin of the dial.

Sometimes—as I’ve pictured above—the gap between one year and the next is non-existent: December 31st is stitched on to January 1st and one year flows seamlessly into the next. Other years, however, it feels as though there’s a rip in time, as though there’s a well of blackness at the 11 o’clock mark and we’re being forced to take a leap across a chasm. The leap from 1999 to 2000 felt enormous, and—if I had been awake for it—I’m certain 2019 to 2020 would have felt the same. But the biggest gap for me was forty years ago, when we sailed from 1979 into 1980.

I was 12 years old on New Year’s Eve 1979, and I had been dragged along to my parents’ friends’ house. I was the only child in their house that evening: My parents’ friends’ much older children were out celebrating, and my brother, 14, had been allowed to stay home. For a while, I wandered the basement, half-heartedly playing a solo game of pool and throwing darts at the board that hung on the faux wood-panelled wall, but as the evening wore on, boredom was replaced by something else: It was almost as though my physical body—the liquid in my veins and the miles-long spools of DNA in my cells—had suddenly become dizzy with the knowledge that it, they, I was situated on a ginormous rock that was spinning in space and hurtling around a star. And as the clock ticked toward midnight, and I was called upstairs for the final countdown to 1980, a suffocating dread of the future hit me and it was all I could do to not—what? Scream? Cry? Take some unspeakable action to remain in 1979? I honestly don’t now know, and the incident didn’t repeat itself until many years later, but I still remember the pain of that moment as though it were yesterday.

I’ve often wondered what it’s like in other people’s heads. Do other people picture the year as a clock? Do other people think about being on a rock hurtling through space? Do other people have brains that spider web out and stick to everything, silently spinning language—beautiful and hideous, comforting and comfortless—providing an endless and exhausting running commentary and analysis of every. single. thing they encounter?

Of course, short of each of us scribbling down our every waking thought—or short of a new technology that turns our thoughts into live-stream videos (please let that never happen)—we can never truly know. That brings me to this:

The other day, my 14-year-old son and I were discussing solipsism, the philosophical framework that says you can’t ever truly know what reality is and that can almost make you believe you are the only real being on this planet.

This wasn’t the first time a conversation with my son has gone miles deep and philosophical. He was only nine when existential dread descended, making every nighttime tucking-in a torturous event filled with tortuous discussion, all answers fielded night after night, week after week, by me. I knew exactly what he was going though, after all, but it broke my heart that he hadn’t managed to at least make it out of childhood before having to deal with such weighty thoughts.

I remember being in first-year university and sitting in an introductory physics class in a dusty lecture hall, my body wedged into one of the small desks that were perched on a ratcheted slope, feeling hemmed in on all sides by the dreams of a few hundred others. Turning to my new friend, a kind boy who had grown up in small-town Alberta, I asked, “Do you ever wonder if all this is a joke?” He looked at me quizzically, not understanding. “You know,” I continued, trying to find words to convey an idea that would form the plot of a movie 13 years later, “Do you ever feel like one day some being will pop down and tell you all this is one big experiment?” The expression on his face slipped from quizzical to incredulous, and I thought, No, clearly, you don’t.

Rita once said (paraphrased because I can’t find the exact post) that we are all the narrators of our own stories, and while solipsism is the narcissistic height of all that, I almost find myself wishing that all this—the world in which we’re living—actually is an experiment.

Of course, harbouring a hope that none of this is real—that I don’t actually live in a province where the government tears down wind turbines and wastes millions on court battles to fight the carbon tax and to make beer more accessible, that the prime minister of another country didn’t actually fly off on holiday while his country was ablaze, and that the president of the most powerful nation on the planet isn’t actually rolling back environmental rules, denying climate change, and mocking schoolchildren—is not only insanity, it’s also sheer irresponsibility.

A couple of weeks ago, I listened to a call-in program on CBC Radio about the generational divide over climate change, and while many people were supportive of the children who had protested in 2019 and even said that the divide was not generational, but political and ideological, there were also one or two callers who said that the children who were protesting climate change were naïve.

This charge of naïveté makes my blood boil.

What is Greta Thunberg’s main message? She’s asking adults to do the Right Thing. She’s asking adults to listen to the scientists. She’s asking adults to be responsible. This is not naïveté; this is a child who has absorbed the lessons that she’s been taught in school: I’m not a teacher, but I did spend about a decade shelving books in school libraries, and I know for a fact there are no books with titles such as This Is Too hard, Let’s Just Give Up! or Someone Else Will Clean Up the Mess! or Pollution: A Noble History or One Person Can’t Possibly Make a Difference! 

I suppose I’m now coming off as naïve. Perhaps you’re saying—while bristling—Of course we don’t teach children to pillage the Earth! That’s just the way the world works, that’s just collateral damage from the system we live in. What do you actually expect us, as individuals, to be able to do about the mess we find ourselves in?

Maybe I am being naïve, but I think the most important thing we can do is staring us in the face. It’s right there in the arbitrary number we use to mark the passage of our rock around our star: 2020.

20/20

(Yup, it’s so painfully obvious I didn’t want to write it.)

We can open our eyes. We can seek clarity. And once we do—once we recognize that this mess is an existential crisis—we can focus on what’s important: Community, conversations, connections, and caring—for our planet and all the life on it as well as for each other. After all, this is the only rock we have.

15 thoughts on “Of Calendars and Clocks, Existential Dread, and Clarity

  1. I really love the way you weave threads of thought together–time, and existence, and meaning, and our environment. I also see each year as a circle, but mine runs counterclockwise. I think it’s because of an illustration in a book I once had in childhood. The time is evenly spaced for me; all of the months pass swiftly. More and more, I see my lifetime in terms of that circular year, which, although it is, in some ways, infinite, also has a beginning and end point. It has been somewhat disconcerting to realize that I am most likely–if all goes well with respect to actuarial tables–in the autumn of my life. Perhaps the late autumn?

    As for children and existential crises, I had a son who also thought deep thoughts. He once hoped that humans would go extinct because of the damage we are doing to all other forms of life on the planet. He felt there were positives to war, as it has historically thinned the population. He learned to keep these views to himself.

    I don’t know that seeing is what is needed; I think plenty of us see everything quite clearly. Others can’t bear to. And while I try to do my individual part, I am under no illusion that it will change anything or save us. I know that individuals can have huge impacts on large issues, but my personal use of plastics, for example, is not going to move this issue one way or another. We are at the mercy of those who don’t care about us. (Since we’re sharing existential dread and all.) What is needed is some power and leverage that will make those who don’t want to use theirs for good lose it.

    I am glad you hit Publish. I always, always love to see inside your head. It feels like a familiar place.

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    1. I’m so glad you were able to get through and leave a comment this time 🙂 .

      I hope your son has found a way to manage his deep thoughts. My son is doing better, but I think once the door is opened to this way of thinking, it’s not possible to ever entirely close it.

      I take your point on “seeing”—because seeing without acting is useless; there’s no doubt about that. And I also acknowledge that there are many in the environment movement who have been pushing back strenuously against the idea that it is individuals, and not corporations or governments, who must do all the work to save the environment. But while many people think it’s either/or, I think it’s both/and. We have very little power as individuals, but individuals collectively have enormous power. New products sink or swim because individuals vote with their dollars, governments rise to power because individuals vote at the ballot box, organizations/churches/businesses thrive or die because individuals vote with their feet. I think it’s also worth mentioning that we ARE the system: corporations and governments are made up of individuals, and there are examples of governments and corporations from around the world (New Zealand, Norway, Denmark, Patagonia, Microsoft) that ARE doing the right thing. With regards to plastics specifically, if each of us—as an individual—looked at the next bottle of water or pop that we were about to buy and saw (actually saw) the cradle-to-grave cost of it, if each of us—as an individual—was sufficiently disgusted and decided that we didn’t want to take part in that, these products would not exist. There’s no doubt that there are many products that we need that are bound up in useless packaging, and yes, for those products we truly are at the mercy of corporations (and governments who don’t regulate those corporations), but there are also many products that we don’t need, that we see the true cost of, but that we buy anyway. And if we continue to do that while claiming we have no choice, well, I think our children have every right to voice their disappointment in us. It’s occurred to me that maybe we would actually be doing our children a kindness if we were to strip our school libraries of all those idealistic do-gooder books; after all, if we can’t/won’t fix this then we can at least spare them the pain of cognitive dissonance. (I apologize for coming off as tetchy. It’s not directed at you, but at the world in general. And—it’s been a brutal week and I now realize I probably should have just stayed silent.)

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  2. As always, I love your posts and the window into your thoughts. I don’t see things a clock so much because the months all blend together – it’s the seasons I notice. The cycle of a short spring, a summer and winter that seem to stretch endlessly, and a too brief fall….

    Abram said to me today that he thinks humans only have 100-200 years left before we’re wiped off the face of the earth. It breaks my heart to hear my ten year old say that. It breaks my heart that I said it at the same age and things have only gotten worse in the 30 years between us.

    But I’m also EXHAUSTED with anger and despair. I think Rita mentioned in a comment recently about joy being part of the resistance and I WANT that. I’m ready for both/and. The world is horrible and beautiful. The news is tragic but so many people are good. I can’t change the world but I can steward my corner with kindness and grace.

    I’m sorry you’re having a brutal week, Marian. It’s a hard, hard time to be a gentle and serious person.

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    1. Thank you for your kindness in this comment, Kate. I, too, am exhausted. My heart aches for your son, and for you, having to look in your son’s eyes as he said what he said. I’ve had to do the same with all three of my own kids; the only comfort to me was that I could say to them that we, at least, were trying to do everything we could to avert what was coming. I’m glad, for your son’s sake, that he has the comfort of that particular timeline.

      “I can’t change the world but I can steward my corner with kindness and grace.” I think if we—all of us, everywhere—truly did steward our corners with kindness and grace, that WOULD change the world.

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  3. No apology needed. Lots of tetchy to go around. I, too, had brutality in my week (I’m sorry you did, too), and I’m sure it was coloring my comment. I, of course, think it’s both/and. I have made (and will continue to make) changes in the way I’m living and consuming. I do it as preparation, and I do it because it’s the right thing thing to do. I am on a constant seesaw in my thinking about power and powerlessness. I think all of us in the western world, but particularly in the US, have been fed a lot of crap about individual power–and it has kept many of us (*raises hand) from seeing the larger structures and forces at play. At the same time, we do have individual power, and individual power harnessed and used collectively can create change.

    I also, of course, cannot sign on to the stripping of books from libraries. 🙂 Cognitive dissonance is painful, but necessary. Like Kate says, the world is full of both/and. Glad I have kindred spirits here with whom to navigate the mess.

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    1. You have no idea how grateful I am for this comment, Rita. It’s funny—while I was writing my reply to your original comment, I spent about 20 minutes rambling on about the hyper-individualism that runs through American culture, the way I see it applied to some areas of life (and accepted without thought or evidence) and utterly disregarded in other areas of life. I deleted all of it partly because it was starting to feel as though it should be a post of its own, and partly because while outsiders are often able to see situations with more clarity than those in the thick of things, that sort of commentary is rarely welcomed.

      I knew you wouldn’t be on board with the stripping of library books 🙂 . I didn’t actually mean it, of course. I like to tell myself that when all other methods of communication fail, that satire or sarcasm is perhaps worth a try. But because sarcasm is pretty much my bread and butter, I probably reach for it more often than I should!

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  4. Marian, Your drawing of how you would see a year as a clock is interesting and quite clever (12/12). I enjoyed it. So I did an experiment and drew a circle to see how my year as a clock would look. It looked different than yours, but it was quite fun!

    I read your post twice and completely understand. And the 20/20 was clever as well.

    Nice to read your writing! TD

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    1. Thank you for this, TD. I’m glad you enjoyed doing a visual of how you picture the year—it’s nice to be among people who also like to hear about the different ways people think about and see the world.
      🙂

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      1. Yes! So many different experiences and perspectives!!
        I laughed today when my lunch server gave me my second drink and ask if I would re-use my straw “trying to save the turtles” he said. The have to serve drinks with a straw. I really didn’t ever need a straw!

        And sometime over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, I was walking the beach. Very few people this time of year. I came across a tourist who thought she was helping a 14” sea turtle. She took it from the shoreline to the upper sand are and was rubbing her hand round and round its shell trying to warm the turtle. I stopped and didn’t ever say anything negative as I knock she was doing what she thinks would help. I called our “sea turtle rescue phone number” and volunteered my time to stay with the turtle and gave them the mile marker and location. We have an excellent program here.

        The tourists didn’t know to leave the turtle where it was and definitely do not rub human hands all over it.

        The program volunteer did come, meet me, and took all the scientific information.

        At least I did ONE good thing in 2019. One person at a time and each day at a time… I can only do tiny things.

        I thought of you that day! TD

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      2. I love the way you gently took care of the situation with the sea turtle, TD. We humans often don’t know the right thing to do, but we insist on acting anyway, despite the fact that in many instances the right thing is to do nothing at all. (I suppose that’s a post in and of itself…)
        xo Marian

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  5. I was born in 1970 so the decades and my ages always correspond nicely. Childhood – blur. early teens – angst. Late teens to around age 30 – I could tell you the exact month certain things happened. The next 20 years have gone by slowly then very quickly. Like I know I’ve probably watched The Sopranos, The Wire and Breaking Bad at least twice through each, but I can’t remember much about them. This weekend is odd as there are lots of Glastonbury performances from the last 30 years or so on the telly. I was actually there for some of them, but everyone looks so young, but it was only yesterday.
    The Queen allowed some museums in the UK permission to display some of her collection of drawings by Leonardo da Vinci last year. I was lucky enough to see some. All I could think of was “these are 500 years old. How insignificant is my existence.”

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    1. I can relate to what you’ve said here about watching shows but not being able to remember much about them. I experience this too, and not just with shows, but also with books. I’ve sometimes wondered if this is just me—if there’s something wrong with my brain that I can read a book and just a few short years later be hard pressed to remember the plot—but perhaps I’m not actually alone in this.

      “How insignificant is my existence.” This is something I’ve often thought. I have the feeling that many people find the idea of being small and insignificant disquieting, but I find it comforting.

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      1. I never had any children (through choice) but have left things behind. Over a dozen patchwork quilts, a few anthologies and other crafts. I like the invisibility that comes with being older. It’s very freeing.

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      2. I’ve always been fascinated by the things that flow from human hands, especially women’s hands. (That’s a post in and of itself.) But it’s only been in the last 15 years or so that I’ve allowed myself to work on writing the same way I allow myself to work on crafts. Writing is something I’ve always aspired to, and yet it’s also incredibly difficult, not because of the writing itself, but because as soon as you write, you’re no longer invisible.

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