Time is predictable. Constant and cyclical. We’re born, we live, we die. For most of our history, this didn’t surprise us. Humans lived by the sun and the seasons. We recognized that the sunrise and the sunset were the same entity. We didn’t just smell the flowers. We planted seeds, watched them germinate, tended them as they grew, and saw them wilt and decay. Over and over. Birth, Life, Death. We were intimately acquainted with all three.
In the early 21st century, we set out to define and standardize that cycle. We measured it, and created notches and signposts throughout it. We invented days, weeks, months. We created schedules, calendars, deadlines. We developed clocks, timers, watches. We placed the weight of them on our lives. We flattened and stretched the consistent cycle into a linear plane-a timeline- where we couldn’t look back, we never quite stood under the sky, and the horizon was always just out of reach.
We coined phrases like we “don’t have enough time”, like there would ever be, or “when the right time comes” as if there ever was such a thing, or “time waits for no man” before scurrying head-down to the next appointment, meeting, gathering. The standard answer in polite company to “how are you doing?” was “Good. Busy!” as if our efficiency at meaningless tasks, careers, and accumulating materials were equivalent to our emotions, our sense of self, our purpose. As if filling our calendars meant we were doing anything, going anywhere, discovering anyone let alone ourselves. As if our belief in an afterlife would net us a return on time. Finding comfort in the promise of an ellipsis to dull the impact of the period.
Instead of watching the seasons change, we “make the time” to go on vacations, love others, and visit family as if we could magically make time appear tangibly in our hands.
Instead of planting gardens, we “take the time” to smell the roses as if it were a luxury and not a vital necessity.
We chide and lecture the children who impatiently want every bit of happiness, attention, and love they can get right now. We sacrifice the elderly and bash the old souls since they sense the hollow, rotten core. All they want are the boring, analogue things. Good books. Good sex. Good music. Good food. Good people. We isolate our children, our elderly, our old souls. Imprison them in schools where no-one teaches, nursing homes where no-one visits, and friendships where we either want their wisdom or their empathy but never both. We hem them all in with words and labels. Impatient, naive, intense, capricious, lazy, depressing, exhausting, careless, too sensitive, too empathetic, overthinkers, unproductive, too much and not enough at the same time.
We were wrong.
They were simply close enough to the sun to glimpse it. They saw the distance between Birth and Death too clearly to be complacent and loved us too much to be silent. They saw that the present gap of life between the two cannot be extended with promises of a horizon. This time is all we’ve got.
As a child, I could never tell you the time. Even with the half-moon imprint of a watch on my left hand, I still wouldn’t have been able to help. The time to eat was when I’m hungry. The time to sleep was when I’m tired. The time to love was always. For the first seventeen years of my life, I was the girl who was late to everything simply because the fields were too beautiful to speed past, the people too lovely to ignore, and the sun asked me to watch it dance with the wind in the trees.
Whenever adults would ask me “what do you want to be when you grow up?” I would falter at the sudden blindness of my heart. I knew they meant what job do you want to have, but my answers to the question never quite fit right. Like a pair of high heels when I really wanted to be barefoot in a forest. Who knows? Who cares? As I got older, the vision never got clearer until I realized it was the wrong question. I’m more interested in who I want to be when I’m 80, and careers won’t get me there. Neither will achievements, other people, or legacies.
Lately, I pace like a ghost around my living room in the dark. The music’s stopped playing. The books don’t hit the same. I’ve watched all the Netflix I can stand. The conversations are draining. The tea’s gone cold. I’ve joked with friends that I wasn’t going to wear pants for the next two years, but I’ve been fully dressed each day. Dressing nice like I’ve got somewhere to go besides my desk and someone to see besides my bed.
As the muggy heat of July fast approaches, I’ve started wearing the only sweatshirt I own and my holiest pair of jeans. (I don’t own or like sweatpants.) I became the woman who was always five minutes early for work because I was told the fields couldn’t pay my bills, the people wanted small talk with a smile, and the sun was nowhere to be found. Maybe you ended up here too? We just couldn’t afford to “buy the time”.
At the beginning of May, I posted a simple invitation for people to share with me whatever they wanted and messaged my number to whoever needed it. Almost instantly, the calls started pouring in, and about 100 people called within the month to share what was rattling around their chest.
On some days, people called to share happy news they hadn’t felt able to spread: breaking toxic patterns, newborns, the hard-won diagnosis of a child, the unexpected love they’d found. Most days, it was job losses, quiet regrets, spirals: a rash of vents, tears, fears, and confessions spilling into my ears and my heart. For thirty-one days, I listened to 2–4 people a day for 3 hours on average as they shared their newfound cynicism, their old angers, their pain, their sorrows. No solutions. No promises. Just dashes of extremely morbid humor and a listening ear.
Friends keep saying “if I make it through this’, and I know they mean whatever fresh horrors tomorrow brings, but I can’t help but hear ‘if I make it through life’ when I’m talking with them. 2020 didn’t start the burning of our hearts. We did. The regrets were always there. They’re just the only things to stare at besides the wall now. Time has both accelerated and slowed down. Suspended us in mid-air and crashed us to the ground.
In June, I deactivated my social media channels. To bolster my mental health. To give me time to grieve the world in private. To write a new country. To give my heart a break. To make good food, talk with good people, read good books, listen to good music.
Right now, we’re all suspended in mid-air above the timeline. Grasping and scrambling for what felt like solid ground. Minutes feel like hours. Days feel like weeks. Months feel like years. We can’t remember exactly what day it is or quite how long it’s been. We make jokes. Remember when we had plans? Schedules? Wore pants? Strangers have become soulmates. Enemies have become friends. Oceans have become figments of our imagination. We can’t remember exactly what tragedy is happening at the moment or which trauma triggered which catatonic state. For the first time in years, I cannot tell you the time. I’ve found I measure time in heartbeats, and my heart is not a reliable clock.
We were always asked “what do you want to be when you grow up” as in how do you plan to sell your time? We were never asked “who do you want to be when you grow up” as in how do you want to live your life? Even though we knew we weren’t ever guaranteed to make it to 80, let alone next year, we were all banking on the last half of the question. We’ll figure it out when we grow up.
We’re aching with regrets-realizing that the future was the present all along. We’re cooking our grandmother’s meals the way they did-slowly, leisurely, sprinkling in generous amounts of love as nourishment for ourselves. We’re awash in nostalgia-climbing back into our childhoods for comfort.We’re rattled with emotions- anger, fear, sorrow. Resignation and hope intermingled. We ignored the cycle until it arrived in such heartbreaking clarity. Until we had no choice but to watch the seasons change.
Time is predictable. Constant and cyclical. We’re born, we live, we die. For most of our history, this didn’t surprise us. Humans lived by the sun and the seasons. The sunrise and the sunset were the same entity. We didn’t just smell the flowers. We planted seeds, watched them germinate, tended them as they grew, and saw them wilt and decay. Over and over. Birth, Life, Death. Humans were intimately acquainted with all three.
How will we measure this year?
Only time will tell.