After all, our units of time, like the workweek, are a human invention we have collectively adopted, as Judith Shulevitz, a cultural critic and the author of “The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time,” pointed out to me. Part of the way humans have long structured time is through gatherings and festivals — whether they are weekly, like the Sabbath, or seasonal, like Easter or Passover, or the secular equivalent, Spring Break. “The point of festivals is collectivity,” Shulevitz explained. “These are times when the work routines are broken, a time for friends and family that is of a different quality” than a normal day.
We can’t see friends or plan for festivities months in advance, since the vaccine rollouts and virus trajectories are so unclear. “You have this uninterrupted block of time, and you can’t rely on any of the markers of the passing of time that helped you break it up and structure it, so it’s depressing,” Shulevitz said. It sure is!
So how do we get through the next few months without continuing to run into that mental brick wall I find myself hurtling toward each night when I try to fall asleep? Shulevitz suggested communing with the natural world. She started tending a garden for the first time in 2020. “All I can think of is when are my bulb flowers going to come up?” she said. “That’s what I’m looking forward to, that I know is going to happen. It’s the rhythm of the earth.”
While I can look forward to longer and warmer days, I’m more of an indoor cat and I live in the city, so you won’t find me elbow deep in soil. My solution is to try to get into the head space of my 4-year-old, who has no concept of time and greets each day with ebullience and hope. For her, everything that has happened in the past is “on the other day,” which could mean last week or last year. Everything in the future is “on the next day.” At any point, on any day, I can kneel down and offer to play dolls with her and enter into her consciousness for however long I can stand it.
My daughter’s notions of time, and my attempt to live with her in those moments, remind me of this passage from Heidi Julavits’s book “The Folded Clock: A Diary,” which eschews a strict chronology for a more meditative approach:
Today I spun tops with my son. We did this for six straight hours. So much of the pleasure of hanging out with children is successfully losing yourself, if only for a minute or two, in the activity with which you’re both engaged. Suddenly, I am drawing a shoe that makes us both happy. The cogs of the day smoothly and quickly turn. Once I’ve finished the shoe, however, I am back to wondering — how can this day not mostly involve my waiting for it to be over? Yet when this day has ended my child will be older and I will be nearer to dead. Why should I wish for this to happen any sooner than it already will?
My 4-year-old is undoubtedly my last child, and I know from my older daughter that 4 is the last gasp of earnest babyhood, before sarcasm and self-consciousness take over. One of the few unmitigated joys of the pandemic has been that I get to see more of her and her sister in these particular moments in their lives, which otherwise would have passed more quickly and without reverence.