An exercise in accumulation
Today is duodi 22 Nivôse in the year of the Republic CCXXVI, celebrating salt. Or, it is Thursday 11th January 2018, and you can celebrate whatever you want. The Gregorian calendar, unlike the short-lived French Revolutionary calendar, doesn’t tell us which vegetable or rock type to dedicate our energies to on any given day, but it dictates some things all the same. One commandment I find particularly stressful is this: Thou shalt find something to do on New Year’s Eve, and if that happens to be staying home you’d best be vocal about how great a decision that is on social media. Another: Thou shalt begin anew. Or something like that.
‘From here on in I shoot without a script,’ Rent
How do you measure a year? How do you measure your 2017? I took stock a few weeks ago, the moment the calendars flipped over to December, and measured the Hell out of mine. In accomplishments, failures, miraculous strokes of luck, trips to the hospital, and everything short of coffee spoons. Most strikingly, I felt the compulsive need to measure my year in lists. I’ve been like this for a few years, since I started spouting all that data into the void like an agony aunt nobody asked for. We who luxuriate on the chaise longues of social media don’t just want to think about how much we’ve done, we want to rank it, recommend it to all who should deign to click. Most of all, we want to rank our content consumption.
It’s reciprocal, of course, I want to read those lists in turn, consume them if you will, and rank each in terms of priority. ‘This list was the most eclectic, least predictable,’ or ‘I’ve read 8/10 books here so I know I’ll like the last two.’ It is, in a way, a lovely kind of connection-by-numbers.
Each December 31st I find myself snowed under with browser tabs containing listicles, roundups, clips from Charlie Brooker’s ‘Wipe’, a stream of Big Fat Quiz of the Year, resolutions, suggestions, playlists, and trips down the memory lane of twelve long months. I’m obsessed. But underneath all that are the deeper, seismic movements which will outlast this need to quantify. It’s been nineteen months since Britain voted to leave the European Union, fourteen months since Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, three and a half years since I dropped out of my first university, eight years since my first kiss, twelve years since I decided I would one day become a neurosurgeon. Part of the full switch to laptop means I have no opportunity to write the date wrong anymore, muscle memory reminding me of this very fact, but that doesn’t mean I have full temporal clarity, that I experience everything in convenient blocks and passages. There is trauma I can’t shed, ancient things I can’t help but remember as though they happened last month, and eighty percent of the past year I know I’ve lost forever to the void of forgetting. There is a continuum of joy I experience all at once, or in pieces, fragments, sparks when two memories rub together in the right way. I don’t rank them and I don’t chronologize them – I’m not sure I could if I wanted to. I can’t cast off 2017. I’ve gained it and I’ve earned it. I am not necessarily deserving of its bad parts but I am deserving of having lived through it.
I’ve been most struck by the passing of time on two recent occasions. Once when I read aloud Carrie Fisher’s last advice column on the Guardian, sitting on the sofa with my mother. It’s a response to a young person asking how to feel at peace with their bipolar disorder. Carrie’s response is measured and honest, and the last paragraph begins thus: ‘You don’t have to like doing a lot of what you do, you just have to do it.’ I read this aloud on the one year anniversary of her death and promptly burst into years. The second occasion was on January 3rd, walking home from a friend’s house and realizing I’d missed – for the second year running – the first three days of 2018. I’d spent the time indoors, cooking and sleeping and talking endless nonsense. Again. I remember nothing of those three days at the beginning of 2017, only that I walked home scrolling through Twitter and seeing how much I’d missed, of news and of memes. Last week’s mini holiday is beginning to blur, too, as will the majority of this year.
At the height of ‘top tens’ season, my Twitter feed was filled with people frustrated that they hadn’t read as much as others, that they hadn’t listened to as much music as others. It’s a sad thing to see, a hierarchy of quantified enjoyment. Personally, I am stricken with the need to consume new media, new content, all the time. I find it very difficult to reread books I know I love; I often can’t find comfort in the TV shows which got me through months on months of hardship. It’s a compulsion, and it’s symptomatic of the hyperproductive milieu in which I have dragged myself up. We need to be honest about these things. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder means that I am far too preoccupied with the notion of ‘losing time’ to things I’ve already consumed to even think of re-consuming them. They are disposable. I have an allotted amount of time and I want to cram as much in there as possible. It’s horrible. OCD means these things, but technocapitalism legitimates them, makes it less about the fact that time is one day going to run out and I won’t have read Villette and more about expanding, never falling behind, always growing. On one hand, my mental illness, telling me I lack sufficient time; on the other, the world, telling me that despite all that I can always be watching listening reading playing doing thinking talking going showing quantifying it all and posting it.
Wouldn’t it be great if I could just come to terms with that lack in the first place? There is too much of everything and not enough of nothing to fill with it all. So give up on the everything and allow the nothing to just be, sometimes. Let the nothing breathe.
A journey into maximalism, Howl’s Moving Castle
When I think about last year’s mistakes and breakthroughs, they don’t belong wholly to the past. Things are chaotic, and I’m a chaotic person. My actions have consequences which far outlast the nominal event, the ‘this happened on this day.’ I’m still recovering from the humiliation of peeing myself at a music festival several years ago – in fact, I think I’ve mythologized that moment so that it affects me now even more viscerally. We all know the past doesn’t stay in the past, that experiences are not linear and recovery even less so. Allow me to emphasize, too, that I’m not in the business of mocking those who do make New Year’s Resolutions. All of us are deserving of that rallying feeling, that newly energized effort.
It’s the blank slate I take issue with. I live in a country which reifies accumulation in (almost) everything but time. How many holidays you took last year, how many bedrooms, how much battery life. Personal development is fine, but in the rhetoric of ‘New Year New Me!’ and starting over, of cutting people out and downsizing and minimalism. Marking time makes sense, it means something, or I wouldn’t have started crying on the sofa reading Carrie Fisher’s words. Each new year is not a reset button, it is a new line on the tally, a marker of another trip around the globe – doubly nifty if your birthday happens to be January 1st. It is here, perhaps, that we can find the strength to recognize that not everything has to be fantastic, not everything has to be top ten, not everything has to be list-worthy. We really don’t have to like doing a lot of what we do. We don’t even have to remember it. I have gained another three hundred and sixty-five days, which I can allow to bleed into these next ones, so that nothing ever really starts off blank. If I have a Resolution at all, it’s just that: to live in that mess and recognize it for the sense it makes. •