I have never, in my life, heard so much talk about washing dishes.
When we could still roam free, the answer to “how was your day?” tended to be light on the details. Unless there was drama to unpack, a new idea to explore or a discovery to share, the conversation could safely move on to other things.
Now, heading into my fifth week of confinement, I find myself recounting (and listening to) detailed replies with great tenderness and interest. “I read my book, aired out the place, cleaned up my playlists, wiped down the doors of my kitchen cupboards, watched more of that Spanish series, made bread, napped, FaceTimed, tried to do an online Pilates class…”
The kind of minutiae that even my 80-year-old mother would shrivel away from.
But we have to quantify our time differently now. Stripped of the schedules that kept us in line — freed from the brag of just how busy we are — we have to find new ways to define our experience of time. The clocks have been unspooled and us along with it. Rather than focus on achievements and how we cheated time to get more done in the waking hours allotted to us, we have turned to new metrics. Small details have attained a more precious status. That list you roll out holds the key to your health, your sanity, your survival. Each previously-insignificant moment is now part of a precarious new pattern, one able to yield a remedy when the lens tightens. “Did I exercise today? Is that why I can’t sleep? Maybe meditation would help? That worked the last time.” And now that our usual landmarks have become meaningless, that list also creates anchors in an increasingly blurry week. The chronology of when they happened seemingly less important than the fact they happened at all. That list like a manifesto, I am still in this body, I am still doing things, I am still trying to generate meaning every day, I still have hope…
Our old world is gone, and so is our old relationship with time. This pandemic has separated us from the model of time we long-ago manufactured to give us the illusion of control. That reassuring sequence of tasks and displacements that tempered the fears that can haunt a body. This pandemic has forcibly (and thankfully) freed us from the oppression of past-present-future; it has pushed us to experience time as it actually operates in the natural world.
If you have read the books of physicist Carlo Rovelli, then you have been exposed to the idea that “linear time is a lie”. We have always needed to believe that everyone shares the same notion of time — if you and I live on the same block, my 9AM is your 9AM, otherwise chaos would ensue — but Rovelli persuasively posits that “now” is entirely local and individual. Rovelli proposes that “time is not a single thing”, but a multi-layered experience grounded on different levels.” To put it more simply, on a basic physical level, things are happening, but the order and speed at which they are happening depends on where you live and how your brain interacts with the world. Clocks do not give us a sense of time flowing; rather, our emotions, memories and experience are what give time any kind of texture and meaning.
Being Italian, Rovelli is unafraid to dip into philosophy and art to make his point, “Our present swarms with traces of our past. We are histories of ourselves, narratives. I am not this momentary mass of flesh reclined on the sofa typing the letter a on my laptop; I am my thoughts full of the traces of the phrases that I am writing; I am my mother’s caresses, and the serene kindness with which my father calmly guided me; I am my adolescent travels; I am what my reading has deposited in layers in my mind; I am my loves, my moments of despair, my friendships, what I’ve written, what I’ve heard; the faces engraved on my memory. I am, above all, the one who a minute ago made a cup of tea for himself. The one who a moment ago typed the word “memory” into his computer. The one who just composed the sentence that I am now completing. If all this disappeared, would I still exist? I am this long, ongoing novel. My life consists of it.”
If you let this sink into your bones (and I know you have the time for it), you’ll have to concede its seductive truthiness. Time is a lie. The only truth is your experience of it. Our hold on the past is tenuous; our memories made unreliable by our fears and regrets. Our forecasting of the future is mostly futile; reality always ends up being either much weirder or much more magnificent than what we imagine. Once again, the Buddhists sorted it all out centuries ago — there is only the present moment and our experience of it.
Consider the absurdity of the 2020 planner on your desk. The bright numerals on your alarm clock that don’t trigger an unpleasant clench in your throat. The response, “I have to run”, a dead ash on your tongue. Now that all of your usual markers have been stripped away, our perception of time has become entirely individual. We are all more aware of how responsible we are for making our “now” and how we populate that now.
What are you putting on that list? And what does it tell you about who you are?