“These days are so long!” my roommate exclaimed one summer day around noon, throwing themselves dramatically down onto our communal couch. “I know,” I agreed grimly, and at the same moment that they said, “I love it,” I said, “I hate it.”
Interminable was the word I used most frequently to describe the days that constituted this past summer. Or — in the same vowel count (neat!) — They dragged the hell on. Within the span of one week in mid-March, the rhythms and routines of normal life shut down; my in-person teaching job was suspended, indefinitely; and I broke up with a person I was wildly in love with, for the simple sucker punch of a reason that he wasn’t wildly in love with me. A few months later — and again in the span of one week — Northern California was set on fire, my apartment in Oakland was visited by bedbugs, and my grandmother died unexpectedly in my mother’s house. Plague, Brimstone, Pestilence, Death: these horsemen of my personal apocalypse arrived in my life with comedic synchronicity. I do not think that these conditions were any worse or more tragic than the average person’s in mid-2020. It’s just that they were mine.
What followed these developments was an undetermined duration of time in which I avoided leaving the house, for well-documented public health reasons; I missed my students, who I saw through computer screens that spring and fall for distance learning but who I went an exceedingly grim three months during summer break without seeing at all; I did yoga badly about four times a day; I developed embroidery skills and carpal tunnel; I lost nearly all sense of healthy routine or time-bound structure. Throughout this period, I experienced a front-of-mind awareness of heartbreak I’d never felt before, and my sense of lost optimism and the bad sort of nostalgia colored my consciousness from the time I woke up to the time I went, fretfully, to sleep.
The duration of such an epoch is undetermined because, in many ways, I am still living it; things have shifted in my life since last summer, even when I didn’t really believe they would, but most of the core circumstances are the same. In my quarantine I’ve developed a new relationship to Time, never having realized before what a SHREW it could be (I debated many other choice words there; please fill in your preferred expletive). I have always been a restless person, forward-looking and rarely satisfied and casting about, more often than not, for a good reason not to have to sit still. But I’d usually felt pleased, overall, to be the age and the stage that I was; I’d never before wanted to break the clock entirely. Furthermore, I’d never before in my not-griefless life asked the question, “How do I stop feeling this way?” and received the answer, “With time,” and wanted to rebel, violently, against not just my interlocutor but against Time itself.
And I feel guilty about this, because in so many fragile, life-or-death ways, Time is a gift. It’s what people pray for: MORE TIME. It might be what people pray for more than anything else, ever.
At various stages of my post-breakup life, I have tried to convince myself to replace the role my ex-relationship had played in my life — the gravitas of it, the whole damn romance of it — with other relationships in my life. My relationship with myself, for example, and my friendships, and my relationships with my siblings, the latter of which I’d placed on the back burner of my life for far too long (I can only consume so much romance, but I could read and write a thousand stories about siblings). And indeed all of the relationships listed above did grow and deepen and change for the better after my breakup, except for my relationship to myself, which broke down entirely and is only now being pieced back together. But I think the only relationship that can possibly rival the gaping hole in my life left behind by my ex-boyfriend (and if you think that sounds unfeminist and dramatic of me to say, you’ve clearly never been a feminist in love before, and also, please show yourself out) is my relationship with Time. It contains entire worlds, as well as each of the version of myself I’d never met before getting my heart broken. It is a brutal relationship, a fistfight to the death. It’s a waltz in which both parties are armed.
Throughout my life, I have sometimes engaged in a thought experiment: Given the relative way we experience time, which stretches and shrinks to accommodate the fun or tedium with which a particular allotment of it is charged, would it be possible that, had I decided, when I was 8 years old, to go lie in my backyard and stare skyward, without distraction, without task, from sunup til sundown — in other words, if I had had the foresight and the willpower to make myself fantastically, unavoidably bored — might I still be lying there now, thinking about pickup soccer games and the second grade, counting blades of grass and squinting to see the faces of my dead relatives in the clouds?
Recently I have been reading Octavia Butler, whose chief protagonist, Lauren Olamina, reckons the most powerful and terrifying and challenging (and, eventually, liberating) force in the universe to be change. The theology she builds around this concept — God Is Change — felt to me like nihilism at first, but I came to take great comfort in it. Still, I do not feel it spoke exactly to what I was, and am, going through. Change is not something I struggle with; I have known it all my life, in ways both big and small, and early on I accepted and internalized my own mother’s mantra of “Change is hard but good,” which perhaps singlehandedly carried her through a particularly difficult series of years in our family’s history. And while I didn’t necessarily believe that my breakup happened for a reason, I did believe that it happened, and something else would happen next, a whole series of something elses that would maybe, with luck, lead one day to a someone else, and maybe this someone and I would feel equally wildly about one another. But I felt nothing good at all toward what was supposed to happen between today and someday. Give it time, conventional wisdom on heartbreak says, but what do you do when time grinds to a halt, backing up whole highways worth of emotional traffic as it does? The something elses that have accumulated like crumbs since last March mark the year (!) since the breakup in ways I alternately worship and resent. I worship these small somethings — camping trips, books read, meals cooked — because they represent something new, something not involving my ex and thus more wholly my own. I resent them for the exact same reasons.
Change is hard, yes, but good; I’m not sure I can say the same for Time. Time is, in fact, my greatest sparring partner right now, my arch nemesis, my Public Enemy # 1. It’s caused me to become intimately familiar with a whole host of weaknesses I never knew I had; like my 8-year-old self in my recurring thought experiment, I wrestle with it from dawn to dusk. It is not (yet) healing my tender heart the way breakup folklore says it’s supposed to. But it IS smoothing out my inner edges, or perhaps sharpening me (I am large, I contain multitudes). Chisel me into stone, prayer whistle me into song air. I was thinking recently that maybe these big, complicated feelings of mine are a gift to make my life slow down for a while. To make me notice Time. To make me feel its love.
Maybe you are also struggling with Time this quarantine. And maybe that’s a gift for you, too.