Two Whole Years

My sense of time has been obliterated. 

In the BeforeTimes, I would have a pretty good sense of how long things took. I would often know the time without having to check a clock. I used weekly and monthly timelines to help strategize at work, and would say things like “let’s wait until after week nine to start that project; we rarely get any instruction requests after that point in the spring semester.”

Looking at it now, time, and the passage of it, was one of the main organizing forces in my life.

On Monday, March 16, 2020, I worked at my library in the morning, then went home in the afternoon. It was my last day of in-person work and my first day of remote work. To help keep in touch, my department started using an instant messaging service where you could set your current status. (This experience was not entirely unlike AOL Instant Messenger; shoutout to the geriatric millennials in the room!) On that Monday, I set my status to read “Day 1.”

As days became weeks became months, I used that status to keep track of time. Every morning when I logged in, I would update the day. I started Zoom meetings by saying things like “Today is Day 117, how’s everyone feeling?” Acknowledging and measuring the passage of time was important to me that first year.

By mid-March of 2021 I stopped counting the days. The idea of an entire year at home, away from friends and family and museums and restaurants and baseball games was just too much. It was too incomprehensible, too uncanny to contemplate.

So I started leaving my status blank.

I got my first vaccine dose a couple of weeks later, and suddenly it seemed like the world might come back. There would be a time “after” this pandemic. We all know how that turned out, but I still remember that feeling, which I now recognize as naivety, of being excited to “get back” into the world.

I understand the impulse to want to “go back” or “return,” but as I am slowly learning, that’s not how time works. The world didn’t leave, I just stayed inside. Things kept happening, time kept moving. 

Now, as we’re approaching the two year anniversary of those first shutdowns, I find that there are whole months that I can no longer recall. I regularly have to look at the clock and calendar in the corner of my computer screen not to identify the time, or even the date, but rather the year. I think it’s lunchtime at 4 p.m. and have spent several Tuesdays convinced that it was Friday.

I know there are reasons for this. I know that lots of folks are having similar issues.

But as I wrote in my last post, I want to find hope where I can, and here’s what I’ve found: Being unstuck in time has made me infinitely more grateful in the moment. I spent so much of my career, so much of my life, counting up to the next thing. “A leads to B which sets up C and then D.”

And now? Sheesh. It would seem having so many plans wiped out, becoming so unmoored from past practices, has allowed me to gain a degree of mindfulness and gratitude that I wouldn’t have previously thought possible. I’m hesitant to use the phrase “silver linings” when discussing something as awful as the pandemic, but I suppose that’s where I am. And I suppose the rest of my life will be filled with conflicting emotions about these two years.

Anyway, I’m writing this out and sharing it for two reasons: 

First, to encourage others who are struggling with time to try to look at it differently. In other words, if you don’t know what time it is, maybe it doesn’t matter what time it is. You are wherever you are, and that can be enough. Appointments can be rescheduled. Events can be canceled. Somehow, someway, the world keeps spinning.

Second, to state something that is probably obvious, but I didn’t realize until very recently: Even in a world where COVID never happened, the spring of 2022 was never going to look like the spring of 2020. There is no “going back.” Not only is “return” not possible, it never should have been the goal. Instead, my hope is that we collectively engage with our reality in a way that doesn’t rely on notions of “return;” let’s focus on making things better. I know that seems naive at a time when lots of things, frankly, suck. But I have to believe that things can get better.

In order to get there, I think that I, and we, need to push back on the language of “going back.” It’s been two whole years. Even if it doesn’t seem like it, we’ve moved into another future, and we need to acknowledge it.