LONDON — Humans have a tendency to carve up time into manageable segments: weeks, months, semesters, days, nights, years. Of course, this is an illusion. Time is actually a series of moments that stretch out infinitely and terrifyingly into forever. This was my epiphany as the sun began to rise outside my window, a left-wing conspiracy theory documentary blasting from my pelvis-propped laptop (my fifth that day). I was catatonic, except for feeding myself chunks of salmon roe rice ball (my eighth that day), from the 7-11 in Nakemeguro, Tokyo.
The Saudi royal family and Halliburton probably invented weeks, months, semesters, days, nights and years to sedate the masses! Anaesthetize us with schedules so that we never seize the liberating potential of forevertime!
I picked a stray salmon roe globule from my keyboard, wedged between “cmd” and “<.” Because I couldn’t reach the trash can from a 180-degree angle, I contemplated eating it.
These past few months have been an experiment in structureless time. I’ve been searching for a new guiding principle to my life, since my old one, “going to Yale,” has expired. Raised by American parents in London with no sense of community, nationality, religion or meaning, I didn’t have much of an identity to explore.
But my dad’s Jewish, so I went on Birthright.
The trip was full of awkward moments. Like telling everyone I wasn’t really Jewish. And when one of my fellow Birthrighters asked, “Why don’t we just bomb Gaza into nonexistence?” But I also had a lot of alone moments in Israel and after dancing at the Western Wall, camping in the Negev desert and breaking down in Yad Vashem, I finally embraced my Jewish self. In the form of a red Kabbalah string bracelet.
The next day, I cut it off, buried all my new stainless steel Judaica in the hidden pockets of my suitcase and went to Beruit.
Lebanon, land of contrasts! From panoramic, knee-buckling natural beauty to towns that “Lonely Planet” says are full of “cinnamon smells luring you down labyrinthine passageways” but are actually full of ocean rot stench luring you through war-torn industrial wasteland.
As newly minted Jewesses, my sister and I visited a Palestinian refugee camp and found ourselves more welcomed and comfortable than on any street in Beirut. We hiked through a cedar forest with a Sunni Muslim, a Maronite Christian and a Druze, and discovered that we all ultimately believed the same things. Except for the Druze kid, who doesn’t really know what he believes.
Then I went to Tokyo, on a journalism fellowship, where no one believes much of anything. I hung out naked in an “electric bath” with an elderly, and also naked, Japanese woman. I accidentally fell asleep on the side of Mt. Fuji and woke up completely numb, the rising sun making acres of cloud glow pink. I slipped on blood and fish ooze and landed on an eight-foot tuna carcass. These are the things that happen when you’re in Japan and alone 90 percent of the time.
But I realized I couldn’t live there, because Japan is where irony goes to die. For example, a 40-year-old Japanese man in a Hello Kitty tee is not being ironic. He loves Hello Kitty, because Hello Kitty is really cute.
I decided that there was something refreshing, even beautiful, about a life of earnestness. So I made an inspiring line from a left-wing conspiracy theory documentary one of my Favorite Quotes on Facebook. “Did someone hack into your profile?” a friend asked on my Wall.
My identity was in crisis.
Too much free time can be existentially traumatizing. I was beginning to doubt the decision I made approximately a year ago, to spend the next year alone in Berlin. I made this decision based on the fact that I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and my only skill — according to my resume — was a working knowledge of German.
This month, I start a Fox Fellowship, studying Islamic radicalism in Berlin’s Turkish ghettos. It will be 10 months of empty days to fill, which is exciting, except that my summer experiment has taught me that forevertime isn’t always liberating. Its bigness can be paralyzing. Sometimes I freak out.
I’m now back in London, my hometown, after two and a half years, about to give a talk on Yale at my high school, a place and period of my life that I’ve mostly repressed. Putting Yale in the past tense, I hope, will be a way to transform four messy years into a tidy life chapter. I’m trying to stop approaching my future, similarly, as forever messy years. There’s just The Summer and Next Year and then The Year After That.
Humans, I think, need manageable time-chunks to stay productive and directed and sane, especially Yale humans, who tend to thrive on deadlines and implode without them. For this reason, I’ve made a checklist of self-improvement time-filler activities for the coming year: Read biographies of inspiring people, like Mahatma Ghandi and Roald Dahl; learn to make Japanese food; strike a balance between irony and earnestness; read all the Holy Books; take a dance class; watch one and only one left-wing conspiracy theory documentary a week.
Thanks, Mom and Dad, for the graduation gift, a watch that I’m too afraid to lose to ever take off.