“The days are bleeding together and I no longer know what the passage of time is,” a friend in Melbourne messages me. She’s five weeks into her city’s second strict Covid lockdown, but what even is a week any more?
Her days, as she describes them, are mostly work, a monotony broken up only by exercise, cooking, reading, sleeping, eating, as well as an activity she simply calls “balcony” – one that all locked-down apartment dwellers intuitively understand.
“It just feels interminable,” she writes. “And the only thing that changes on the weekends is I don’t (always) get up and sit at my desk.”
When describing this strange year, we reach for cliches like “unprecedented times” or “the weirdest timeline” – expressions that partly capture living through a plague, the shutdown of our cities, the rapid adoption of new habits like passing army checkpoints on state borders or actually using QR codes.
But we’re also living in a moment where time itself, or at least our perception of it, is being configured anew.
In places under hard lockdown, the days, naturally, can feel endless and indistinct. A survey of 1,000 Americans in April found half felt that time had slowed down – views researchers said correlated with respondents feeling nervous or stressed. Time flies when you’re having fun – it’s little wonder it drags when you’re doomscrolling, looking for jobs that no longer exist or waiting for the next day’s Covid numbers.
But even where the harshest restrictions have lifted, many of us are living discombobulated lives, absent from the activities and structure that used to demarcate morning from night, work time from leisure time, and the days and weeks and months from each other.
Despite utopian hopes that working from home would give us more time to ourselves, many of us are finding the opposite – we live at work now, in front of our screens more than ever, and have to make conscious effort to contain the work day to something approaching the hours we’re paid for.
Last week (I think?) I got a knot in my chest when I read that my local pub had been named as a potential Covid transmission site on a night in late July – one of a series of venues a young guy who’d since tested positive visited on what sounded like a freewheeling and distinctly Before-Times-style weekend. Shit, I thought, I had a drink there recently. Last week? Three weeks ago? A Saturday – or was it Wednesday? What day is it today? And since when was it no longer July? I had to scroll through text messages and photos on my phone for clues to my movements over the last few weeks, looking for any little breadcrumbs to find my way back through the thickets of my memory (my last visit, it turns out, predated his by a full week).
We don’t live in a timeline anymore, more of a timesoup.
Perhaps ironically, this sense of slowness or disorientation can be overlaid with anxiety about the year passing quickly, because many of us haven’t really done anything. That it is already August – August! – feels stressful, galling even.
Everyone has their own version of this anxiety, not so much FOMO as just MO – jobs stalled or ended, fertility treatments delayed, overseas moves or trips scrapped, weddings or milestone birthday parties cancelled. Women my age tend to already face particular anxiety about time passing – hectored daily about ticking biological clocks, returning to work, slicking the right kinds of oils and acids on your face to deny the passage of time itself. We are always supposed to be on a journey of personal growth, of optimisation. But in our homes, month after month, it can feel like the only things growing are the monsteras and that pile of unread books. As 2020 rolls on, it can be hard to quiet that familiar busybody voice whispering “tick tock” inside your head.
What makes defeating that voice harder is that the future is so uncertain – plans are almost impossible to make. We are all having to yield to Covid time in a way, to accept a pause in place of relentless progress. And within it, finding new ways to process and enjoy the time we have.
In her recent book Funny Weather, Olivia Laing writes about how gardening situates you in a “different kind of time, the antithesis of the agitating present.” Liang shares a story from Virginia Woolf’s diary in 1939, when Woolf called her husband in to listen to Hitler on the radio. “I shan’t come in,” he shouts from the garden, “I’m planting iris, they will be flowering long after he is dead.”
Another friend tells me watching her toddler son getting bigger and learning new words was one of the only things to break that sense of stasis during her first lockdown. “The only thing marking time was him,” she said.