Harriet Walker: There is no such thing as living in the moment any more


I think I am drowning in Stuff. Not a minute goes by that I don't feel it crashing down on my shoulders, knocking me flat and pinioning me by my chest, bubbling up my nose and washing over my face. My eyes are closed tightly against it, but it infiltrates the warm bits between my toes. This is what life feels like now, I realise.

Sometimes the Stuff takes the form of a million bags of varying durability and environmental friendliness, all toted with equal grim-facedness through snow and rain and heat and gloom of night to work and back on the bus. Sometimes the Stuff is a JavaScript of tasks running through my cerebral filters, blocky green typed to-do lists on the black behind my eyes, always whirring, always ticking over. Often interrupted, but never switched off, even when sleeping.

#autosnore. #define "breakfast". #define "cup of tea". void lie-in <alarm clock>

I am never empty-handed and I am never empty-headed. That vacant look on my face is simply me trying to remember what task I was in the middle of, or where I put down my 900th carrier bag along the way.

I've always had irons in the fire. But now it feels like the irons are white-hot and my asbestos gloves are wearing out. I can't juggle them and keep all my plates in the air, to mix metaphors in a way that translates almost exactly to the muddle in my head.

"How are you?" I asked my friend in an email last week. (We speak only via email these days because our brains have been reconfigured from telephone-speaking and actually meeting up face-to-face into sitting down and waiting for each other's pensées to ping into our peripheries while avoiding drowning in other Stuff that doesn't involve human contact.)

"I feel like I've been sautéed," she replied.

I knew exactly what she meant. All of her starchy fibrousness, moral and otherwise, had been leached out of her by the leaden gloop of Stuff that surrounds her every day. No wonder we only ever email, I thought; it's a downright liberty suggesting someone take time out from dealing with their Stuff to meet up for a friendly chat. The arrogant presumption!

Most people now live the sort of lives that require us to be about five or seven steps ahead of where we actually are. I feel like everyone around me is thinking ahead and then running to catch up with themselves, like a cartoon flipbook whose pictures have become muddled. There is no such thing as living in the moment any more. If you try to do that, you'll be left behind.

It isn't enough to leave your house in the morning and contemplate your next move when you come home that evening. You need to be thinking about what you'll need about your person for the next 72 hours (hence the million bags of Stuff); you need to know what should be done at work by the end of the week (hence the JavaScript); you need to know your plans six months ahead and you need a pension. You need to know where you'll be in five years' time, whether you want to have children, and the address of the house you haven't bought yet because you can't afford it.

But the tidal surge of Stuff means you're rarely concentrating on what you're actually doing – you're just keeping your head above water and lugging around literal and metaphorical baggage as you do it.

Witness a nation trying to swipe its travel pass across the lock on its front door and puzzling impotently when it fails to let us in. It's the handbag put away in the fridge, the five internet windows showing our work email rather than the weather forecast we've been trying to check for the past 12 hours, the deadline approaching even as we realise we've forgotten to do 15 other things.

I met some friends in the pub the other night. They were standing next to what looked like the pile of bags left on the pavement by the coach at the end of a school trip. It was their Stuff – gym kits, laptops, spare shoes – and I added mine to it. One of them had been at a conference, where lots of people in her field had gone to talk about Stuff. She'd been served lunch standing up, on a plate with a bulldog clip to hold her glass so she could eat with one hand and network about Stuff with the other.

We drowned our sorrows, said goodnight and then went back to drowning ourselves.