The joy of living off the clock

For the next few months in New York, we’re going to have daylight until 8pm. As the sun stays out longer and the days get warmer, there’s a playful and slightly reckless charge to the air. Summer is coming, and one can’t help but feel a little giddy, as though the season could still bring with it the old childhood possibility of endless days to fill. Those weeks and months when there was no worry about things that needed to be done, or places we needed to be.

As an adult, the idea of unstructured time can feel like such a dream from another world, wishful thinking, essentially unattainable. One might say that’s what holidays are for. But I know few people whose last vacation consisted of empty days in which they felt free to just let the hours go by. That’s understandable: we all have genuine responsibilities to juggle, be it work demands, small children or caring for other relatives. Yet I also think we are conditioned to think of unstructured time as wasteful. To have nothing on the schedule can feel as though we are not fulfilling our duties as adults.

As a writer, I need a few hours of time during the week, where my mind gets to roam. It is essential to the act of creating something new, or delving deeper into something that already exists. Sometimes those hours are chopped into 30-minute segments simply because of how busy life is. When I don’t get that kind of time at all, my work suffers for it.

Yet there’s a richer kind of time, when we don’t feel an undercurrent of worry about the need to accomplish something quantifiable, to be productive. Rather, time that permits us the grace to just be, by ourselves or with others, and that in the lack of pre-determined direction opens up uncharted space for life to flourish. When we feel overwhelmed with to-do lists, or spread too thinly at work or between our personal and professional lives, unstructured time can be both generative and healing.

In his 2022 painting “Get Home Before Dark”, the Harlem-based artist Khari Turner depicts a scene that sends us back to a moment when unstructured time was part and parcel of how we lived. Three children dressed in brightly coloured shorts, T-shirts and Converse high-top sneakers are poised on bicycles, ready for a day of possibilities and adventure.

These kids could be anyone, and they could be anywhere. The orange swirling sky and the patterned blue ground makes it seem like a dream world; their bikes could take them to the ends of the earth. Their faces are either out of the frame or somewhat abstracted, but we still get the sense that they are staring straight at us, as if letting us know they’re ready for whatever comes their way. There’s a confidence in their body language. Staying open and available is the to-do list.

‘Get Home Before Dark’ (2022) by Khari Turner
‘Get Home Before Dark’ (2022) by Khari Turner

The girl has one elbow propped on the handlebar of her orange Creamsicle-coloured bike, her hand lightly touching her face. One of the two boys is standing on the back of his friend’s bike, resting his hands on the other boy’s shoulders. The three of them are a team. Remember what that was like? The excitement and sense of freedom that came from getting your crew together, even if it was just one friend or your siblings, and going out into the day without a plan.

We’re not kids any more, and days like these don’t exist for us. But part of me also wonders if in choosing to fulfil certain desires and pursue certain goals, we’ve curated lives where making space for unstructured time in the midst of regular life doesn’t make sense, feel appropriate or is just not possible.

The painting “Two Girls Fishing” by John Singer Sargent is a meditative image of the painter’s nieces on a family trip to the French Alps in 1912. When it was first exhibited at the Cincinnati Art Museum in 1918 it was an instant crowd-pleaser. It’s an easy scene in which to dreamily envision oneself, with its warm palette of earthy browns and blue-greys.

The two young women are perched comfortably on the banks of the river, attentive but relaxed. This is not a sportsman’s fishing trip, but a stretch of time to pass together. Theirs is an attention to leisure, not to responsibility or demands, internal or external.

‘Two Girls Fishing’ (1912) by Jon Singer Sargent
‘Two Girls Fishing’ (1912) by Jon Singer Sargent © Bridgeman Images

It makes me think about the many ways there are to spend time with others we care about. I often see social media memes that joke about how hard it is for adults to schedule leisure time with one another, requiring us to make calendar dates months, if not years, in advance.

With certain people, friends or family whose presence I deeply enjoy, I find myself wishing we could share more truly free time together: spending a morning, afternoon or evening completely liberated from outside demands, and open to letting the day steer us into expanding conversations and spatial explorations. It seems that in such spaces, new ideas, meaningful unveilings and deeper understandings come to the surface.

The Nigeria-born artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby is known for her layered works addressing identity, culture, history, community and politics. Her 2018 piece “Remain, Thriving” depicts a domestic scene in Brixton, London, in which grandchildren of the Windrush generation — the people who came to Britain from the Caribbean between 1948 and 1973 — are visiting one another. There are empty plates on the table, and the men and women are relaxed. A toddler stands in the midst of them.

The radiogram, the portraits on the wall and the wallpaper itself allude to the culture and the history of the Windrush generation. There is a tangible sense of this younger generation being enfolded by their history, both the resilience and strength of their ancestors and the challenges of life in a country where they are still seen as “other”. A television in the corner is broadcasting news about the 2017-18 Windrush scandal, which revealed that migrants from that era had been detained or deported, despite living legally in the country for decades.

I was first drawn to this work because it reminds me so much of growing up in a Nigerian family. No matter which country we lived in, there was always the expectation that friends and relatives could just stop by your house.

If we weren’t home, we’d return to hear that visitors had come, and at some point down the line my own family would return the unannounced visit. But if we were at home, then there was really no saying when the visitors would leave. In fact, my mother would often ensure that food was being prepared, on the assumption that guests would be staying long enough for a meal to be cooked.

These visits were a reminder that the adults in our lives, though they worked extremely hard and took pride in their work — I mean, we’re talking about Nigerians — also believed their lives were about more than accomplishing goals and meeting benchmarks. I never got the sense from my parents that such unannounced visits were unwelcome. It was just the way we lived, with this implicit understanding that the weekends were more fluid, and that our plans and schedules could be interrupted for others. There was always a clear and strong sense that life was to be deeply enjoyed, and that happened when people came together, sometimes with no agenda at all. Maybe something is lost when we’re unable to turn off the ticking clock.

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