Queering Time: The Offering of ‘Kairos’

“We aren’t our bodies. I believe when we die our soul pops out,” my aunt Monica’s eyes get big, and the hand not holding her electrolarynx voice box goes full jazz hand. Extended fingers. “It pops out and enters another dimension where time doesn’t exist. And it’s okay.”

“Ah, like reincarnation. I think I believe in that. I’ve been going to a Zen Buddhist center lately. Do you believe in reincarnation?”

“I’m Lutheran so it’s a spirit-lives-on type of thing.”

“So, same same, but different. Have you seen the movie Past Lives?”

She shakes her head.

I tell her I think she’d really like it. I tell her about in-yun, the Korean term to describe how our souls transcend time and space; that fated paths entwine people across past, present and future. That when you marry, it’s thousands of layers of in-yun over thousands of lifetimes. Even when you make eye contact with someone in the street, you’ve known them before, and it’s in-yun.

I realize I may be conflating in-yun and reincarnation, but I find the concept comforting, and I tell my aunt this.

We start walking outside. She wants to show me her sculpture art project. Despite being in painful cancer remission, she has been spending her time spray painting in the yard.

“A philosophy conversation right away. We haven’t even had coffee yet.”

Awkward laugh.

“Yeah, I like that stuff.”

Three weeks later, I was at LAX, unpacking my book, eying my gate from a cafe. My polish was chipping, more naked nail than Lincoln Park After Dark, confirming my month-long should-I-live-in-LA experiment had come to an end. The monitor counted down 25 minutes to boarding as the sun set on the tarmac, warning of winter’s official arrival. My little mandarin travel cream neared its bottom, whispering that almost all four seasons had passed since we bought things as a pair. I listened to a voice note from a college friend, weighing me with the realization that it’d been a whole decade since we graduated. Finally, I stared down at my aunt’s funeral program, playing the part of bookmark. I’d attended the church ceremony one week ago and shared a coffee with her eight days prior. Time is a trip. It was mostly tick-tick-ticking along with the functionality of the clock, but feelings seeped in and woke me into a time-is-weird presence.

The book in my bag was Jenny Odell’s latest nonfiction work, Saving Time:Discovering Life Beyond the Clock. As advertised, “this dazzling, subversive, and deeply hopeful book offers us different ways to experience time — inspired by pre-industrial cultures, ecological cues, and geological timescales — that can bring within reach a more humane, responsive way of living.” The book’s been loosening my reins on time. Or maybe, the reins time has on me are loosening.

I’ve shifted my attention to “vertical time”, known as “Kairos” time to the ancient Greeks, which questions the rigidity of “horizontal time”, “Chronos”.

Kairos appreciates how moments and memories stretch, warp, forget, color, burst, blur, halt, slow or speed up time. I’ve seen it referred to as “God’s time” and “effervescent moments.” We all know how a certain kind of kiss can eclipse time. Units of time, like a minute, are not created equal. Our sensory, feeling, perceiving selves can’t be clocked up.

Saving Time is a call to question time and capitalism — and everything, really. To tilt our heads at how we define living. Are we moving through life in minutes or moments?

My last day in LA, a calendar notification popped up: Dia de Los Muertos with Monica. 

I scanned my QR code and walked into cymbals and stomps and big straw hats. I forgot mine, so I held up the program at my hairline and proceeded. I saw altars for bikers, for migrants on the California/Mexico border, migrants on the Phoenix border, and family lineages I’d never heard of. I saw a Dia de Los Muertos Barbie photobooth and a peafowl exhibit. Banana and apple and orange offerings baking in the sun. Open-air castles made of marigolds. Incense floating up up up to the Heavens.

To my left, a modest booth with colored popsicles, sharpies, and mini sandboxes. A place to pause, where we could write the names of our lost loves and stick them into the sand. It felt like I was bringing their ghosts together. Hang out up there! Play a game of bridge and say “far out!” Make art together. Be a beautiful band of misfits. I’ll see you soonish. 

She passed away a week after we shared coffee in her backyard next to her bunny sculpture paint project. She was about to start a Phase 1 clinical trial for her returned cancer. The chemo she last tried wasn’t working. Now she’s entombed beside her late husband, Richard.

Monica went to Dia de los Muertos every year and wanted to take me. I went solo. And I saw her in it: the joyful revelry in music, dance, and embrace of loss. A reimagining. A positive spin on death. The end of the note she left her brother read, “…and then go on cheerfully about life and living.” Cheerfully marching behind the dancers, I sipped my $20 horchata out of a plastic skull I planned to keep, a sensitive mortal clinging to mortal things.

Another factor interrupting my autopilot assumptions about time and space has been my re-entrance into Buddhism and Dharma talks at The Zen Center SF. And during my time in LA, over dinner with an old friend, I learned about the Akashic records. In my own words, I’d say it’s using meditation and prayer to tap into a state of mind where you can access your soul’s library of information and memories from past lives, your eternal intuition called to speak.

To me, this practice, and the belief in reincarnation or in-yun, is an extension of Kairos time. What’s more fluid and questioning of the clock and Western constructs than that? And what’s more queer than questioning?

The “God’s time” of Kairos surprises us. Catches us off guard. Doesn’t have a schedule. Love is like that. Queer love, even more woah. How a moment in time can quicken your heart, take your brain offline and place you in a time vacuum. A smell that hugs. A song that transports.

Moments in your embodied life today are intertwined with ancestors, known and unknown, love ghosts deceased and living. With people you shared a dance studio with; you dated; you sat on the same bench as decades later. Sometimes, you’ll get glimmers of that when you’re not looking. A butterfly settling on your sleeve or a perfectly timed text. Sometimes, it’s in an intentional act of meditation, in the receiving place at the bottom of your ‘hara’ exhale.

For those of us with our feet super-glued into a world of status calls, scrolling “breaks,” and steps tracking, Kairos is an offering. The word spiritual might spook you, or ick you, but I must say, this vertical time is a generous place to be.

Even when love is expansive and unbound, our time on earth, in this specific body, this life, these relationships, isn’t. We can have infinite love, but if love gets expressed through attention, and attention is time, then what? I vote we reach toward infiniteness and come up human.

The average person has 4,000 weeks to live. Society and technology work overtime to keep us to a schedule, to keep our time productive, to feed the insatiable machine. Perhaps inviting a Kairos counterbalance is the move; perhaps there’s no such thing as wasting time; perhaps we should all go collect shells and rocks and think about how, in this life, we’re just little babies compared to them.

If you welcome how time stretches and snaps — if you let time be weird — I don’t think you’ll float away too far into the ether. If you do, please say hi to my love ghosts.

And last but not least, a mnemonic to carry with you: Chronos is clock time. Kairos is kiss time. Go forth and Kairos.

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Julia Smith-Eppsteiner

Julia lives in San Francisco and is learning to write again.

Julia has written 3 articles for us.


  1. Thank you for this piece. May your aunt’s memory being you joy and help you through the grieving.

    There’s also a great 6-part podcast series about time for anyone whose interest is piqued and would like another resource; it’s called The Longtime Academy. Highly recommend it.

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