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How To Cope When We’re All Locked In The Perpetual Present

High aerial like - panorama view from Ornesvingen eagle Road observation viewpoint deck of Geirangerfjord Fjord and Geiranger village in  Sunnmore region of More og Romsdal county, Storfjorden, Norway on September 1, 2019. The area of the West Norwegian Fjords is inscribed in the list of UNESCO as a World Heritage Site since 2005.   The fjord is one of Norway's most visited tourist sites, Geiranger is a branch off of the Sunnylvsfjorden, which is a branch off of the Storfjorden (Great Fjord),  part of the steep Trollstigen mountain road . (Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
High aerial like - panorama view from Ornesvingen eagle Road observation viewpoint deck of Geirangerfjord Fjord and Geiranger village in Sunnmore region of More og Romsdal county, Storfjorden, Norway on September 1, 2019. The area of the West Norwegian Fjords is inscribed in the list of UNESCO as a World Heritage Site since 2005. The fjord is one of Norway's most visited tourist sites, Geiranger is a branch off of the Sunnylvsfjorden, which is a branch off of the Storfjorden (Great Fjord), part of the steep Trollstigen mountain road . (Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

We’d been talking about the allure of places that we’ve known and loved — particularly now, when we are spending so much time stuck at home — when my art teacher suggested that we draw a picture of one such setting.

But while several candidates fit the bill — the Maine beach that I will not name in hopes of keeping it a semi-secret, the lake house in Quebec at which my family spent so many gorgeous summer and winter vacations — I found myself Googling images of fjords and drawing a place I’ve never been.

My teacher’s prompt had sent me straight back to fourth grade where I’d spent far more time than was necessary leafing through my geography textbook. Lightly illustrated, chock full of flags and foods, kings and capitols, each chapter also featured a day-in-the-life story of an alliteratively named child in that country — Pedro of Peru, Jiro of Japan, and my favorite, Niels of Norway. In truth, I remember little of Niels. But the turquoise water and craggy walls of the fjord on which he lived nested in my imagination, and has retained its perch there for over 50 years as a place I’ve never been and still long to go.

But why was Sunnylvsfjorden the place I chose to draw on that particular Monday, three months into our near-lockdown?

I’ve been suspended in the paradox of time -- between feeling ... a panic that there’s never enough time and a complacency resulting from having too much of it.

Because as I approach the far side of my mid-60s, keenly aware that I’m a member of the COVID-19 high-risk population, I’ve been suddenly, acutely conscious that my time on this earth is limited, and inundated with images of all I haven’t yet done.

I realize that this awakened consciousness of mortality is a normal stage of adult development, but the monotonal quality of a socially distanced life has made it that much more acute. Like so many others, I’ve been suspended in the paradox of time — between feeling a driving sense of urgency and a lethargy borne of so many unstructured hours, a panic that there’s never enough time and a complacency resulting from having too much of it.

Time is a paradox here,” wrote Kelly Thomas, a researcher who has been in Antarctica since November of 2019. “To me, it always feels like it’s flying by at light speed, yet it feels like we’ve been here forever.”

During this COVID lockdown — a sort of temporal Antarctica — many people have nervously joked about losing track of time. Absent the commute to work or the weekend soccer practice, without all the milestones that segment weeks into days and days into hours, we find ourselves in that liminal state between blissfully unanchored and disturbingly unmoored.

And for the over 60 crowd, that disorientation is amplified. Most of us experience days and years as less distinct, passing faster and faster the older we get. That’s because there’s an inverse relationship between the volume of new experiences we have and how we feel the passage of time. When we’re young and everything is new, time feels like it’s progressing slowly. As we age, more becomes familiar and automatic, our ability to process stimuli slows down, and time seems to speed up.

“Humans are much better at remembering novel things, or moments of change,” explains Linda Rodriguez McRobbie. “…With too much of the same thing, we have no way to highlight specific moments.”

But I think time feels slower when we are young thanks not just to the rapid succession of new and profound experiences, but because we have so much to anticipate — starting school, summer vacation, our birthdays, graduating high school, our wedding day, the birth of our children, getting our first good job and eventually leaving it. There’s a delightful agony in awaiting the next big milestone, a drive to push the boulder of time out of the way so that you can reach the start of your next adventure that much sooner.

I got reacquainted with that feeling, so familiar from childhood, as my retirement approached in January. Though it took until March, I was finally able to dramatically cut back my work hours to about 30 hours a month. And after a lifetime of working and raising kids, the promise of time to call my own for the first time in my adult life was intoxicating. I looked forward to winding down my work life as the chance to do all that I’d so often deferred — not just to write, but to volunteer out in the community, to go to the gym every day, and most thrilling, to travel.

... while being perpetually in the now may be good for the senses, I mourn the loss of anticipation.

But almost immediately on the heels of my release from the office, the pandemic struck and I’ve been largely housebound ever since. I realize how lucky I am to be housed and healthy and solvent, and my days are not unhappy. I’ve been savoring this gorgeous spring, cooking up a storm, writing my novel.

But I’m still struggling to make that enough. After years of pursuing mindfulness, after struggling to be attentive to each moment, I’m now unwillingly locked into the permanent present. And while being perpetually in the now may be good for the senses, I mourn the loss of anticipation. Eagerness for what’s next has helped to keep me feeling young.

Niels of Norway looked forward to reaching the high meadow with his flock of sheep, where he could camp and look out over the cliff down to the luminous water. Uncertain about when or even if I’ll get to float on that distant fjord, I’m trying to draw it instead. Wobbly as a fawn, I’m learning something new. If I’m lucky, in these created moments, I’ll make memories out of the imagined.

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Julie Wittes Schlack Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Julie Wittes Schlack writes essays, short stories and book reviews for various publications, including WBUR's Cognoscenti and The ARTery, and is the author of “This All-at-Onceness” (Pact Press, 2019).

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