‘Empty time’

From my earliest childhood I had the problem of empty time, of afternoons as ominous as the gaping mouth of an abyss.

__César Aira, Artforum

In that singular act of literary theft (not to be confused with plagiarism), Aires caught and stole my own dread of vacant time. It’s a sensation I associate with summer afternoons when my mother took us on her visits to her aging parents in Rochelle Park, a lower-middle class enclave in northern New Jersey. It was a regular destination as my mother was of the generation that continued to help out at her parents home, even after she was married with children. In her case, the help was truly needed. My grandfather had had a stroke; her oldest siblings had had polio; and my grandmother couldn’t manage alone. In addition to observing the usual rituals of visiting relatives, my mother was modeling what would be expected of us as daughters when she brought me and my sister Christine along on these trips.

And that’s how I thought of those visits even though they only took a half hour by car. They were trips. I knew that the dentist who lived on across the street took ‘trips’ to Europe with his family, but it was insinuated that they were almost immorally extravagant. My family took ‘day trips’ to the Jersey shore and, for many years, short trips to Rochelle Park, where my parents grew up. It’s a small town about a half hour from Manhattan, but for a child of the 50s, it might as well have been Aires’ Argentina.  It was another country. But then everywhere outside my house was another country. Even sleep-overs were tinged with anxiety. My limited experience braced me for the possibility that I might have to do something strange like wear socks to bed or deal with the fact that some families thought nothing of drinking soda at dinner.

I loved my grandmother, but her house was an alien sensorium made up of ammonia on linoleum floors, Noxema face cream, fluorescent kitchen lights, dull brown wallpaper, and grainy black and white television operas watched by my grandparents and my uncle who loved to show off his false teeth. You would think that being told to go outside would have come as a relief. But what I really wanted was to stay inside where I could read or draw—activities that to this day can block out the world around me. At the time, ‘the world’ was my grandparents’ microcosm, which hovered just above the poverty line. Nonetheless, at any sign of good weather, we would be chased outdoors and away from adult conversations about insurance, doctors, bills, and fraught exchanges about minuscule sums of money. (“Marie, Please take it.” My mother: No, please keep it.” The ‘it’ being two or three dollars.)

The problem with ‘outdoors’ was that it had no shape, no story—or none that I could see. You had to impose a story onto the geographies of backyards, fields, empty lots, or woods. Some children thrived on it. But for me the outdoors was alien, and it made me nervous.  My imagination shut down outside. I thought it was dangerous. There was always a chance of encountering children and adults you didn’t know, who might be up to no good. I still think I was right to be a bit fearful.

The exception to my aversion to ‘going outside’ was the sandpit at the end of my grandmother’s street. The sandpit had a shape; it had boundaries. A squarish dusty hole in the ground, it was probably a lot waiting to be developed in the postwar housing boom. It’s hard to imagine it being considered child-friendly today. Its banks were so steep that to avoid falling head over heels we had to slide down on our backs. It was kind of like sledding in the summer. That part was fun. But it wasn’t enough to fill the seemingly endless hours before we could leave. It never occurred to me to make the sandpit more entertaining by, say, pretending it was a desert. After all I’d never seen one. I was an extremely literal child.  (Now I wonder if that lack of imagination accounts for why I can’t write fiction, even though most of what I read is fiction.)

Once we’d exhausted the possibilities of sand as we found it (which were few without water to make it hard enough to mound), we made our way back.  By then we hoped we had spent enough time outside to appease the powers inside.  It was time to close the yawning mouth of the abyss of what felt like wasted time. It’s something that still makes me anxious, as much as I try to outgrow the feeling that time is something I need to hoard or there won’t be any of it left for me.

Even into the second year of the Covid pandemic, with almost nowhere to go and nowhere to be, I still fear the abyss of lost time. Or rather time lost. I begrudge the minutes it takes to get dressed (I’m aware of each button buttoned as a task), to change the batteries for my hearing aids, to put the dishes away, to figure out where my pens have gone, and above all, to vacuum. I do all these things—sometimes simultaneously to save time—with a mild resentment that they are robbing me of time that could be spent making something. I’m sure there is something wrong with me that I cannot give in to the minutia of daily living or that I notice these things. And, paradoxically, in addition to thinking of them as thieves of time, I also think of them as accomplishments–boring accomplishments along the lines of paying a bill or making a doctor’s appointment, but accomplishments nonetheless. I take note of these mundane rituals to prove to myself that I’m not really wasting time, at the same time resenting the time they take. I think it’s a genetic malfunction:

I once had an uncle who we all thought was supremely lazy. He would go to Florida on vacation and call my mother before he came back and ask her to open the clothes washer, put in the detergent, and set it to the wash cycle, so all he would have to do is put his dirty laundry in the machine. It was selfish and absurd. But now I think it get it. In his mind, he had better things to do.

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