In September, I bought a visual timer for Bert, my 8-year-old son. It’s just like a clock, but instead of hands, it has a red plastic film that turns the hour into a kind of pie chart. Set it to 15 minutes, and it silently counts down. Three beeps when it’s done.
I ordered it when I realized that Bert and I were fighting endless battles over what time meant. As the pandemic lockdown wore on, there were demands for Minecraft sessions to be extended because the previous hour “didn’t really count.” At bedtime it was suddenly urgent to do something else. It was never the right time to walk the dog. The child who had been stuck inside all day was unaccountably tired, with the aching legs of a geriatric.
The clock brought a surprising truce, with Bert obediently turning off his iPad at the end of his allotted time. It reminded me that time is a conjuring trick, but a necessary one. Time is slipping for all of us. November is almost over and it feels like we’ve skipped from one winter to the next without the intervening summer. I sometimes jolt as if from sleep, but it’s really the thud of falling back into time, remembering that it should be binding me to the concurrent lives of other people. It always comes with a terrible shot of guilt, this experience of forgetting, of letting things slide.
My early weeks of lockdown were spent fighting my husband for the scarce resource of time to concentrate on my own work. Emails about home-schooling tasks from my son’s teacher were left unopened, at first by accident and then entirely on purpose. As spring rolled into summer, I only sometimes remembered to look at my calendar, and then panic howled in me: What am I supposed to be doing?
The answer was usually nothing.
Over the long summer, my brain gradually ground to a halt. At first I thought it would pass. It did not. A fog settled, grew thicker. I felt slow, and then slower, and then incapacitated. I couldn’t bear the thought of any more doing. I couldn’t do. When I tried to work, my attention flitted away like the soft avoidance of two magnets. I was engaged in a process of perpetual forgetting: I would try to work, and then find myself not working, and wonder, dazed, what had happened in between. In all these months since Covid arrived, while I was trying to be defiant and industrious, I was slowly winding down.
Every night, when I reached for the serum that’s supposed to fight the action of the years on my face, it seemed only seconds away from the last time I did it, and the time before that. It was startling: There went another 24 hours, all in a rush. It was as if these moments were pleated together with a single stitch, the fabric of existence gathering so tightly that my whole life could be drawn together and would pass that way, quite suddenly.
At the same time, I watched so many people around me suffer while I got off lightly. I did not, like several of my friends, lose a parent or a partner. I did not, like a family dear to me, see my teenage daughter admitted to a hospital halfway across the country at the start of lockdown, and have to wait three months to see her again. I did not lose my income or watch my business putter into nonexistence.
In the absence of these things, I felt I had to wear a brave face and make the most of it. I tried to tamp down my fears that the world was carrying on without me, while I stayed at home and succumbed to the fog. I felt a responsibility to be the one who coped. But that’s not how this works. You cannot parlay your suffering against the endurance of others. You don’t get to choose when the undertow drags you, or how.
It just comes, and comes again, and the only option is to let it take you.
The suspended anxiety of this year is not entirely unfamiliar to me. I have fallen through the cracks of life before. I’ve come to think of these times of life as wintering, a season outside the usual ebb and flow, when the comforting bustle of everyday society falls out of reach. Most of us have been to this place. We arrive there in the wake of illness, depression or bereavement; that darkness may yawn open during major life events like divorce or job loss. However we come to it, wintering is usually involuntarily, lonely and bitterly painful.
This year has brought us into close contact with loss. Many winters have come all at once. But within these winters, there is the seed of something necessary. We tend to imagine that our lives are linear, but they are in fact cyclical. As we grow older, we pass through phases of good health and ill, of optimism and deep doubt, of freedom and constraint. There are times when everything seems easy, and times when it all seems impossibly hard. Each time we endure the cycle, we learn from the previous round, and we do a few things better. This is how wisdom is made.
When the time arrives, we will be ready to go back into social spaces with a renewed sense of purpose, with compassion recharged. We will take better action because of it. We are learning something in this free-floating time. Something about the easy way that all human life can be overturned. Something about the slow heartbeat of the seasons.
Katherine May is the author of “Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times.”
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