Remember when you were a kid and time never moved? Waiting for Santa was torture. Waiting for school to end for the year was cruel and unusual punishment. And forget your birthday. It took so long to get here that you learned your fractions while you waited. I’m 8. I’m 8 ½. I’m 8 ¾. I’m 9. And the countdown resumed as soon as you blew out your candles.
Gradually, almost without warning and certainly when you least expect it, time speeds up and you slow down. Maybe it’s the cultural messages. Hair dye. Wrinkle cream. Love handles. Gym memberships. Mom jeans and Dad bodies. Maybe it’s just biology. High cholesterol. Low testosterone. Osteoporosis. Colonoscopies. Prostate checks. And then, when you turn 50, your new best friend is AARP, and the other mail you receive is a veritable Greek chorus of constant reminders of your imminent decline: hearing aids, adult diapers, cell phones with ginormous key pads, Life Alert necklaces, retirement communities, cemetery plots, cremation options. This confrontation with our mortality often prompts a stroll down memory lane while we can still take it. A reflection, perhaps an assessment, of our successes and failures, roads not taken and all that. We book that cruise, reconcile with an estranged relative, write that novel, or, at the very least, write our wills.
As unwelcome as these changes and reminders may be, they’re pretty normal. Except nothing is ‘normal’ anymore. When the pandemic became a way of life in March 2020, everything changed, including how we perceive ourselves in relation to time. Before COVID, the day was recognizable. We woke up at a given time, completed our morning rituals, went to work, ate relatively healthy meals, ran errands, ran miles, pursued hobbies, made plans, just vegged.
With COVID, the day is a blur. Time has melted, like the clock in a Salvador Dali painting. The lockdown erased any distinction between work and life. We woke up whenever, maybe showered, brushed our teeth and combed our hair, reconsidered the usefulness of wearing a bra, re-evaluated the benefits of bran versus Cap’n Crunch, doing sit-ups versus just sitting, watching Judge Judy versus PBS, working at the dining room table or in the basement or not at all. Nothing much changed by nightfall, if we even noticed.
For centuries, the world told time using historic milestones: BC, AD. Now BC means Before COVID and, at the risk of sounding sacrilegious, is an equally monumental marker in human history. We’re moving into the third year of the pandemic, and people don’t designate the passage of time by dates anymore. My daughter got married BC. Our last real vacation was BC. I haven’t been to New York since BC.
We have lost track of psychological time as well. We need to be reminded of important dates and deadlines, but now, why they were important in the first place has disappeared from memory. This is not a senior moment thing. You know, walking into a room and forgetting why you came in until, eventually, it comes back to you. This is different. If there is no distinction between day and night, between Tuesday and Wednesday, what, exactly, is there to remember?
Each day crawls by, repetitive, unremarkable, and incredibly exhausting. Yet we’re three years in and where did that time go? Why does that happen, that disconnect between the time in our day and the time in our heads? I am that cliché. I have more yesterdays to contemplate than tomorrows. Not rousing on a good day, but during a pandemic? Let’s just say I really resent COVID for bringing me (us) to this place. I’ve also lost my motivation. Classes resume on Tuesday, and I’m not excited. I am working on a scholarly article for an anthology, but I would rather have root canal without novocaine than write. I’ve even started and stopped this piece at least six times, and it’s clearly not a contender for the Pulitzer. But I have read ten Elin Hilderbrand novels since Thanksgiving. What does that tell you about psychological time? I have forgotten who I am.
Poets have struggled with the time-memory conundrum since forever, so don’t expect an epiphany here. The Greeks conveniently gave us the River Lethe. Shakespeare – need I say more? For Wordsworth, life is an endless déjà vu of our prelapsarian existence. Proust’s madeleine inspired a 1200-page memory. And then there’s William Faulkner, whose interminable, unpunctuated sentences capture the mutability of time and memory in that vast stretch between “one cap and one period.” “History is not was, it is.”
Ironically, it’s Faulkner who offers a tentative balm to all we have endured and lost. “And sure enough, even waiting will end . . . if you can just wait long enough.”