Harriet Walker: Time's always there, till you think about it; at which point, it's gone and you could have spent it more wisely


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On a recent trip to Paris, I noticed that the French are really quite tardy about taking down their Christmas decorations. I can't speak for the private homes of individuals, but in the streets, there they were, twinkling on against January's grey skies.

I couldn't decide whether it was incredibly bleak – the delaying of the inevitable, the stretching of Christmas cheer like so many post-yule waistbands – or a heartening indefatigability in the face of deepest winter creep. Either way, it made me think about how we're supposed to deal with time. Time passing, time standing still, time to put our heads down and get on with it. It's always there, till you think about it; at which point, it's gone and you could have spent it more wisely.

I'm neurotic about the passing of time: I remember things in terms of hours to go until the next thing to look forward to, years spent idling or efficiently, the comparison of this hour to the one before it, or to its counterpart 365 days ago.

Everyone feels vaguely "got at" when it comes to time. We feel like we should be doing more with it, or we feel it slipping through our fingers, grains of sand pulled by the waves that will drag us to our inevitable demise. Sorry. Enjoy your Sunday, won't you.

Some people think men and women see time very differently. Men view it as a straight line, they say, an arrow flying towards a target, whether it hits or misses. That's why men are scared of death and commitment, and asking for directions, because these things are simply Tube stations on the journey to nothingness.

Women, meanwhile, are said to see time in a more cyclical way, because they're the ones having children, perpetuating it all and never truly becoming dust and air.

I'm not sure I see it quite that way, although the meanderings of this column may well have persuaded you that women are incapable of thinking in a straight line.

My point is, January seems like a terrible phase, doesn't it? We're all so keen to get it over with that we cease to be, truly. We don't go out, we stop drinking or eating sugar, we pause our lives. Then February comes along and we remember that there are things worse than January and it's so much harder to get into gear again.

My mother has always told me not to wish my life away. When I was little I didn't heed her too much because even a day feels like a year when you're little. But now that I can remember what was happening to me 10 years ago (I was reading a Shakespeare play a day and not getting enough vitamin C) and even 20 years ago (I pretended I was a radio DJ by recording Annie Lennox on to loads of blank tapes and talking over it), battening down the hatches and just getting through January seems a waste.

Most people I know agree: they tried the not drinking and the not socialising, and they all failed, to a linear man and a cyclical woman. Because if they weren't out every night, they were having a beer on the sofa. And as much as they weren't chatting rubbish in the pub, they were doing it on the sofa with their nearest and dearest. Arguably, their existence – and mine – crystallised into something more real for the lack of nights out, getting dressed up. No social ephemera to take the edge off, you see.

It brings about a sort of identity crisis, thinking too hard about how you spend your time. Because you realise that the things you thought were decent ways of spending it are actually not. That half-asleep chat you had last night before you put out the light is worth more than anything you screamed over the din of a Friday-night bar before Christmas, if only because whoever you were talking to probably heard what you were saying.

There are all sorts of phases of life that you have to allow to happen to you. Like spending more than a third of your life asleep. Like the fact that the average person swallows seven spiders and ingests a cup of washing-up liquid in their lifetime. (Doing it all in one go not advised.)

So it comes down to whether you, like the French, are content to allow January to become an extension of your life before Christmas, or whether you're more keen on introducing aspects of January to your life more broadly. I'm opting for the latter. And I've spent a lot of time thinking about it.

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