On Spending Time


There should be a Writers Anonymous club: “Hi, I’m Elizabeth, and it’s been three weeks since I handed someone a half-baked draft for feedback.”

See, I suffer from something I like to call Supportive Audience Deficiency (SAD). I get SAD when I spend hours crafting beautiful words, flowing sentences, and snappy dialogue and have nobody to assure me it’s all worthwhile. Sometimes it feels like maybe I’ve misdiagnosed myself—maybe instead of SAD I’ve got egocentrism problems. I’ve had the argument with myself before:

“I just want someone to reassure me that I’m not wasting my life.”

“You mean you want someone to compliment you.”

“No, I mean if this isn’t going to work out, I want someone to tell me now, before I waste my life on it.”

Wouldn’t life be easier if everything came with a clear designation? “This will take five hours a week and be vital in the long run,” or “This will take seven hours a week and be enjoyable, though you may regret it from time to time.”

Unfortunately, life isn’t like that. For years, my best alternative has been to hand someone a draft and judge by positive or negative feedback whether it’s worth the hours I might spend revising it.

And now I’m realising that I’ve gone about this all wrong. Life isn’t a budget to be balanced. Art isn’t a carefully calculated investment risk.

So I’m turning my back on the worrying and the second-guessing and the needing to know the outcome before I invest in the process. I’m doing what I love right now and letting the long run take care of itself. Instead of letting SAD symptoms dampen my enthusiasm, I’m enjoying the moments as they pass, living my life as it happens instead of waiting for the future.

Maybe the piece I’ve spent years on will never be read—so what? I enjoyed the process. I wrote for myself, not for some hypothetical audience years down the road. As I wrote, I learned self-discipline. I got to know myself better, faced dark parts of my own nature, confronted big questions, and did not surface with all the big answers. I let my imagination run wild and I lived in a new world created entirely at the crossroads of language and ideas. All of this may never be measurably relevant to my career, but it is immeasurably relevant to my being.

The most meaningful things in life may never give quantifiable returns on my time and effort, but perhaps that makes them more valuable, not less. I am shaped by the interests I pursue, the people I encounter, the ideas I entertain. I am formed by minuscule everyday experiences, not by some intangible ledger counting my time down to a bottom line. Every moment, I am growing and becoming. The most significant return on my time is not measured by what I do, what opportunities I have, or where I end up, but by who I am.

And for that, I need no supportive audience. I know the answer without asking—it is always worth my while to be.



I can’t breathe.

I find myself pacing, restless, needing to do something yet having nothing to do. I have no deadlines. I have no commitments. I have no classes, no job, no rehearsals.

Is this what it feels like to be an adult? I wonder.

It feels aimless.

To be fair, I’ve submitted eight freelance job proposals, attended a wedding, read a few books, revised twelve chapters of a novel, and unpacked and repacked almost constantly since arriving home from university. I’ve played poker and gone hiking napped on a mountain. I’ve washed dishes, made pizza, and come close to dying because I thought I was in shape and tried to sprint a mile.

It’s not like I’ve done nothing since graduation—and yet I find myself still with these terrifying pockets of undesignated time.

It’s an hour here and three hours there, ten minutes while the coffee perks in the mornings and fifteen minutes while I wait my turn for the bathroom at night.

And suddenly, without more homework than a human being can possibly get through, without work to rush to or emails to answer or events to attend, I find myself hemmed in by spare time.

I’ve dreamt of leisure for years—while I was working during high school, while I was reading textbooks during university, while I was job-hunting and tax-filing and internship-applying and apartment-cleaning and…

…and I’ve spent so much time wishing for freedom that now, with time on my hands, I feel restless. What do I do with the moments, the hours, the days? I feel lazy if I sit for a few minutes and do nothing. I sleep badly because I must be forgetting to do something.

I’m free, but I can’t enjoy it. Like a scared dog released from a small cage into a new environment, I huddle, immobile, terrified in my spare time, certain the appearance of freedom hides some trap.

And somehow, in the midst of newness and change, aimlessness and fear, I find myself breathing. I find that time is not, as I’ve been led to believe, a valuable commodity that I’m likely to fritter away.

I find it’s something bigger.

It’s the silence in which my heart beats and my eyes blink and a thousand thoughts race through my mind. It’s the chance to work, to invest, to learn, yes—but it’s also the chance to breathe. To look around me, to be caught up for minutes together in the beautiful flicker of leaves in the wind, to bond by lounging in aimless togetherness with my family, to sleep until I wake naturally and to marvel at the unfathomable interaction of my waking mind and my unconscious dreams.

Living, I see now, isn’t a matter of getting everything done before you die—it’s a matter of breathing.


Synaesthesia, or: Seeing People Past the Time

“So my mother and I were talking about synaesthesia,” I say as we pull out of the driveway.

“Oh! Debbie has that,” my aunt says.

“So do we,” I say. “Mum said to ask about your calendar.”

My aunt and I have what’s sometimes called spatial sequence synaesthesia: we see time.


I see the calendar as an undulating, multi-coloured ribbon extending in front of me, curving away to the left, rising and falling with weekends. My aunt sees a circle like the clock’s face, with winter at the top and summer at the bottom.

We agree that we both see deadlines.

We’re driving to the airport, the car curving along overpasses at the same angle as time, and somewhere into the conversation, she asks my friends in the back seat if they see time.

As it turns out, they don’t have a visuo-spatial sense of the calendar.

“I think of events,” one friend says. “And people, and the things we’re going to to do.” She explains that she has an emotional sense of time. When she thinks of last summer, she thinks of New York, the places we went together, the museums she saw.

I see New York, too—my flat, the Empire State Building, the Brooklyn Bridge, the pillars of my subway station, all rising from the waving curve of yellow summertime off to my left.

So I ask, “Do you see events bounded by time?”

My aunt tells me that I’m misunderstanding, still thinking my friends have a visual sense like I do.

I ask my friend if she sees deadlines. She says no.

I ask what she sees when she thinks of tomorrow.

She thinks of getting home, and of our roommates arriving back at the flat. She thinks of how we’ll hug them and ask how their Christmas was, and of whether they’ll want something to eat.

I don’t think of our roommates at all. I see tomorrow in lines—pale blue 5:30 am, when our flight will land, and then the long blank space of the day, which I plan to sleep away, and the darker line of evening.

I see the limits.

She sees the people.

My aunt and I talk about the lines—the time until things are due, the blank spaces that aren’t blank, because they ride above deadlines. We agree that we feel pressured and annoyed when people demand attention during those spaces, because we focus on finishing things on the lines.

My friends talk about people—about events to come, and people to be met and parted with, and time to be spent over tea and coffee and conversation, and my aunt says that perhaps we should step off the line sometimes.

I have synaesthesia. I see time.


Because of this, I’m good at getting things done. I finish projects. I don’t turn things in late. I see the boundaries of my time and I pack things in, filling the blank spaces.

But I don’t always see people.

People show up in my blank spaces uninvited, and I often brush them away. I can see the lines drawing nearer, and I forget that the people are far more important than the to-do lists that hover along the ribbon of time.

It’s an odd fact of life that the easiest things are seldom valuable, and the most meaningful things are seldom effortless. I see time without trying; it’s a part of my psychology. To see people, I have to try. And maybe having to try a little harder makes seeing people, caring for people, just that much more meaningful.

If you’re interested in reading more about synaesthesia, here are a few great blogposts and articles I enjoyed:

The Wikipedia article, which is actually quite comprehensive and well documented

The blog that first made me realise I might not be totally normal

A rather dense scientific exploration of some benefits of synaesthesia

An even denser discussion of categorising synaesthesia