In the Museum of Science in Boston, there’s long been an exhibit about our senses and perceptions, including but also beyond what we normally think of. One of its features is a simple activity related to our sense of time. Hit a button, and, simply doing your thing, without counting seconds, hit the button again when you think it’s been a minute. Then, a screen tells you how long it’s really been.
Often, our first tries come up short—way short. Anecdotally at least, whenever I’ve observed people giving the activity a real go, about forty seconds seems to be the first length of time people wait before hitting the button again—two-thirds of a minute.
With practice, accuracy increases. I took the idea home from the museum with me after a trip in August, played with the stopwatch on my phone, using thirty seconds, a minute, a minute and a half, two minutes, until I could consistently hit the stop button within a few seconds of the duration I’d had in mind.
It became a mindfulness game. It’s not about how accurately you can count the seconds—as you’re not supposed to count—but being able to hold the clock in the back of your mind as you do something else. What does one minute of washing dishes feel like? What does two minutes of folding laundry feel like?
I often preach a mindfulness practice’s uses in submission. In anticipatory service—you have to be mindful of someone’s cues and desires, without just staring at them constantly. In learning protocols—you have to be mindful of your speech, posture, and beyond, without contract permanently in hand and while also functioning in conversation. When serving in the kitchen, the ability to put something back in the oven for just another minute without always running for a timer or burning it is near priceless.
I found it best if it became natural, and practice makes perfect.
A few months after the trip where the stopwatch game really caught my attention, we were doing our normal maintenance discipline routine, Fridays after brunch. As the final part, Mistress puts me in the corner in the bedroom—for about ten minutes, the exact timing at her discretion. When time is up, she comes and gets me.
That day, I waited as usual. In a way, that time is hers, as all of my time is—she dictates where I am and how I stand and what I (don’t) do and for exactly how long. Yet, it’s mine, too. I’m alone, and wandering off in the relative freedom of my own mind. Maybe it’s more like she forces me to take a few minutes to myself.
So my mind wandered, then began to come back towards the present moment, usually a decent sign that time’s almost up. But she didn’t come get me anytime soon. At first, I wondered if my internal background stopwatch was a little off, but after a while, it became clear this wasn’t an issue with my perception of ten minutes or so, or that it had been bumped to fifteen minutes. It simply had to have been way more than ten minutes. Which meant she’d forgotten about me.
It wasn’t the first time, hence my guess. Mistress doesn’t share my fascination with the little stopwatch exercise, and generally sets a timer to tell her to get me out of the corner. And today, she’d clearly forgotten to set the timer.
I lacked options except waiting for her to remember, as my body started to heartily protest that our Corner Position wasn’t built for this kind of duration. I had one thing coming to save me, though: I had a meeting in a little over an hour from the time she’d put me in the corner. I’d set myself a reminder alarm that would go off about an hour after she’d put me there. If nothing else, she’d hear that alarm.
I was starting to get a little antsy, though. Really, I’d wanted to do prep for the consultation beforehand, review what the my consultee wanted and write down some initial ideas—in time I’d assumed I’d have between maintenance and the meeting. The reminder alarm was just the final call for plugging in my computer and my webcam, booting up Zoom. After thinking through what I could, and thinking about my lack of time, I estimated at one point that I had about ten minutes left until my alarm went off. Bored, I decided to let myself just count to six hundred. That would be about ten minutes, and then my alarm would go off.
I got to about three hundred and sixty—about six of the ten minutes I’d estimated. Then my alarm started ringing. Nothing happened for a rather anxiety inducing minute or two, and then Mistress came into the bedroom. (She later told me that she’d heard my alarm, thought I’d shut it in a second as normal, then got confused I hadn’t, and thought she’d come shut it for me, and go find me and alert me to the fact it was going off, and thought that I would appreciate that.) She then realized what had happened. She let me out of the corner, somewhat mortified, and I—after collapsing to the floor briefly as my body, still screaming in protest, gave out—bolted to my meeting (with permission) the second I could manage the requisite curtsy.
Later, I ran the numbers. My guess had been off by counting another two hundred and forty seconds—about four minutes. If my estimation of an hour had been off by about four minutes, that meant I was off by only about four seconds per minute of that hour. That was kind of neat, but my time estimation skills were also, in that situation, kind of useless. Perhaps there were better things I could’ve thought about—even pleasant distraction—or been mindful of—like calming breathing. But I couldn’t help the mental stopwatch.
And if you’ve ever been forced to stare, statue still and silent, at a wall with your nose pressed to it for an hour, as the sun moved in the sky, maybe you’ve also wondered: what is a second? What is a minute? What even is an hour?
I came back to those thoughts months later, reading a wonderful book called Saving Time by Jenny Odell. The book challenges many of our cultural ideas about time. The first critical question it asks is, “Whose time is it, anyway?”
As I mentioned above, I’m very clear on whom “my” time really belongs to. I had the privilege of choosing whom to give it to, but it’s not really mine now.
And why did I choose how I did? I wax rhapsodic in plenty of writings about why service and why protocol and why slavery, but often it comes down to, I enjoy X, and service or protocol or slavery gives me X. But why do I enjoy X? After a certain amount of digging, I often have to accept my desire for X as seemingly basically innate.
I created a prettier final write up for my scribbled notes on Saving Time. I centered one key takeaway in an accent color, framed by two strips of thin, patterned washi tape: Never turn your back on the ocean.
While I was working farther down on the page, Mistress came in to talk to me. Later, about to leave, reading what I’d been working on over my shoulder, she gave my hair a hard yank. “And never turn your back on the ocean, you understand?”
“Good, because I sure don’t,” she said, humorously, but also forced to take the spotlighted note somewhat out of context, and left.
We talked about it later, though: what the note is getting at is the importance of nature. Nature is largely going to do what it is going to do—and you turn your back on it at your own peril. High tide will come whether you are looking at and ready for it or not. Trying to control nature is both unnatural and frequently impossible.
And what brings me to this dynamic is my nature, that it is a place I can let my nature be free. Where my desire to submit is not seen as unsafe or demanding too much instruction or provoking guilt or a product of a rigged system. In my case, it is in my nature to submit, and my nature will shine through whether I am in an ideal place for it or not.
I turn my back on that fact at my own peril.
The book also explores other senses and scales of time beyond our systems of minutes and hours and days. Time is not really all equal—seasons vary by place and are inexact, days grow longer and shorter. There are multiple, overlapping patterns of the natural world that tell time—foliage blooming and fading, the phases of the moon, the patterns of the tide, the migration seasons of birds.
If nature—my nature—is what brought me to this dynamic, perhaps it makes sense that the dynamic should run by such patterns of nature. Yet, cultural influence isn’t that easy to escape. I often hear that I run my life—primarily being, my slavery, my household—like a business. With contracts, logs and reviews and check ins, alarms and timers. Even as a slave and homemaker, Friday came to mean more to me than sunrise.
But I was getting burnt out. Trying to solve my apparent time problem, I tried time tracking.
Yet any kind of time tracking I did seemed kind of lacking. Some things fit neatly—running a TNG munch, teaching a class. But if I made dinner for me and Mistress and my mother as a guest, what was I doing? Self care? I was eating and socializing, after all. Serving? I was required to make Mistress dinner, after all. Hosting, maybe? We had company, after all. Whose time was it, really?
Saving Time proposes that just because you give something or someone time doesn’t necessarily mean you lose it, or that you took it from something else. You don’t only subtract—time can be shared, invested, planted like a seed. That time at dinner could be shared among the three of us. It was a rejuvenating time, investing in my later energy. Just like those minutes in the corner that are, ultimately, Mistress’, but also, mine.
Trying to simplify that fact wasn’t helping. Sometimes, the familiar time systems themselves were failing me. Much as my internal background stopwatch didn’t help me when I was in the corner—if Mistress hadn’t heard my coincidental alarm, I would’ve been there until she just remembered me, regardless of the minutes or hours or my meeting—traditional time seemed unhelpful in other areas.
But a major point of time tracking was figuring out how long it took to get things done. And trying to cram how long things took into the boxes of hours and minutes and exclusive percentages of the day, with little regard for energy and consciously or subconsciously shared time, wasn’t working. As long as an activity was clearly serving at least one of my priorities, I decided I shouldn’t get too caught up on which others it might also serve.
Seeking the whole truth, I noticed minutes and hours slipping away a little.
I noticed, in quiet moments, other methods of telling time. How long it took for the bread dough to rise, how long it took for Mistress’ tea to steep. Yes, those things averaged a certain amount of minutes or hours, but why was that always the superior translation? If it had been three hours and the dough still hadn’t risen for some reason, it hadn’t risen. And if it had been seven minutes and the tea was still weak for some reason, the tea was still weak. I couldn’t reason with bread dough or tea leaves in terms of minutes or hours.
Yet I’d been desperately trying to shove nature into the box of the twelve-hour clock and Gregorian calendar, frustrated when it didn’t fit, calculating based on how long it was “supposed” to take (based on cultural, and often ableist, ideals). And if something supposedly took me an hour to do, I didn’t measure how much energy it cost me, ignoring my body entirely. (Like when it was wrecked for far longer than that hour I spent in the corner.) Instead of time is money, which I’d long questioned, I thought, maybe time is energy. Even though the time (kind of) added up, I needed to do less in order to do what was really important to me, like serve.
I still believe there’s a place for a stopwatch and time in mindfulness—you can train mindfulness without the thing you’re practicing being mindful of being important—but what about also simply coming back when the tea is done steeping or when the bread dough is done rising instead of when it’s been X minutes/hours?
I also still believe there’s a place for alarms and timers and such—but you can’t always cram nature into them. Perhaps they should be more descriptive than prescriptive, the way we gave certain tasks and protocols a chance to form naturally before the contract described (and prescribed) them. Before I decide how long it should take to do something, maybe I should do it a few times and see how long it naturally takes, and how much energy and how many spoons it actually costs, beyond just minutes.
Improving efficiency has to be about more than time. Doing something with less time didn’t always mean I was doing it with less energy, and as hours freed up and I filled them with more things, the energy meter went negative.
I had turned my back on nature at my own peril—hyperfocusing on the exact minutes and hours society dictated instead of how long the natural patterns that really ran my service (and my health) took—and lost, burnt out.
Embracing those natural, inexact, overlapping patterns of time brought me closer to nature’s sense of time. I set the bread dough out to rise, and later, I start steeping the tea. The tea will be steeped, and later, the bread dough will have risen. Maybe when the tea is done but before the bread has to go in the oven, I can fold some laundry, regardless of if it’s exactly three o’clock.
And embracing those patterns brought me closer to my nature, too—to enjoying service, instead of agonizing over minutes and seconds and hours.
And that shift was what brought me peace.