Of late, we find ourselves living with a new sense of time. Writer Louise Thomsen Brits meditates on what this might mean...
Disease arrives with stealth, seeping through the cracks in our armour, dismantling life as we know it, heightening senses, tangling tenses, unravelling time.
Eighteen months ago, a constellation of tumours was discovered in my left breast, flourishing in the pulsing dark beside my heart. Shrouded and tenacious. After a swift, unsparing mastectomy, I withdrew to shelter at home
Holding each other in the mouse-grey dawn, we felt the shape of my lopsided body, of loss and fear and of the hastily rearranged framework of our lives. Sleepless. Haunted by the knowledge that something unforeseen and threatening was moving through our life. Slippery spectre. Silent shapeshifter. Herald of truths.
But beside us, a radiance lay enfolded in the grainy dark: the burnished kernel of a potent, sometimes painful intimacy and a release from the tyranny of time with its obligations and diary dates.
Now, across the globe, in apartments and suburban gardens, on balconies and armchairs, in beds and allotments, at kitchen tables, at open windows, we are all united in a strange hiatus; suspended in the arrested reality that arrives with disease, a reality that dismantles our daily lives but offers new ways of inhabiting the world.
Ordinarily, part of our shared experience is of time's inescapable flow. We abide by the metronomic ticking of the clock, our days and nights animated by time. We measure our feats and frailties against the anatomy of time, hasten towards deadlines, punch the clock, delineate our lives and our children's days in diaries and timetables. Rarely taking our time, convinced that time flies and waits for no one
We're used to time pressure but not to the uneasy force of this elastic synapse currently stretched between the lives we once led and our fragile future. The markers that we usually employ to assure ourselves of the predictable passage of time - the start of the working day, the beginning and end of school terms, a regular commute, have gone. Our habitual leaning towards the next occasion before the moment that we inhabit has fully come to fruition and our drive to fill the unforgiving minute have not equipped us to meet fear and disruption with equanimity or to celebrate the silver stillness that has settled on the world.
We find ourselves in a 'sudden strangeness'. The richness and potential of this 'exotic moment' is perfectly captured in Pablo Neruda's poem Keeping Quiet. The poem begins with a count to twelve - a span of time, twelve hours in a day or months in a year where people across nations might unite together in the language of silence:
'Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.
For once on the face of the earth,
let's not speak in any language;
let's stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.'
During the first weeks of quarantine I recalled how hard it was to accept the restrictions that illness and surgery imposed on my life; loss of privacy, agency, freedom and physical strength. I've been reminded too of how easily we feel diminished when we cannot be productive. As self-isolation continues, we are uncoupled from the sense of never having enough time and afforded the latitude to dismantle our attachment to productivity.
In western culture, time and money are firm links in the chains that shackle us. We often speak about spending and saving time. The predominant notion of linear time is associated with the idea of progress, progress that we have pursued at all costs. Liberation lies in acceptance of our current makeshift circumstance, in the act of wilful surrender to the moment, a yielding to uncertainty, a move from productivity into presence, from doing and having to being.
Neruda concludes his poem,
'If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.
Now I'll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.'
Of all the options presented to us every time the sun rises, for once we can choose to sit still. Look closely. Listen. Our experience of time depends on where we focus our attention, how we attend to the subtleties and mystery of being alive. Our understanding shifts as we attune to the deeper cycles of life; seasonal and diurnal rhythms, shifting light, the waxing and waning of the moon.
Nature is our time keeper. In the northern hemisphere, this is nesting time, a time of unfurling bronze oak leaves, returning swallows, cowparsley, bluebells and chiffchaffs. The urges and surges of spring remind us of everlasting change, of the time continuum that we have broken up into past, present and future.
In the West, time is drawn as a straight line; in the East as a circle.The West's preference for linear, chronological time, contrasts with Eastern and indigenous philosophy where meaning is found in the rhythmic cycles of life and death and the turning seasons.
The dominant metaphor for the flow of time is as a river, linear and unstoppable. In the indigenous view, according to bryologist and author Robin Wall Kimmerer, 'time is understood not as a river but as a lake or maybe an ocean in which all things that ever have been and ever will be and the forces that move them are resident in there. And so, all things are happening and connected to one another in a circular [pattern] and a filigree of interrelationships'.
The 'man who knew infinity', Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, developed his early research in isolation in the early 1900s, intuiting thousands of mathematical formulae. He also spoke of two axes of time; linear or horizontal time and a vertical, spiralling spirit time. Perhaps to live where the two axes meet is where the timeless enters the temporal?
In Hawaii, living in the Aloha spirit is to live in vertical time - to live in awareness and patience, to enjoy freedom, kindness, humility and unity.
In ancient Greece time was described in two words. The first, Kronos, (that gives us our time-related words chronological, chronic, chronicle), is the sequential time of clocks and calendars, of seconds, minutes, hours, years. Kronos time is about measureable quantity. Kairos, by contrast, is about lived quality, the ripeness and fullness of the moment, an experience of now. Kairos time refers to the right occasion, the perfect season or opportune moment for something to happen. There is never the right time for the kind of dread that arrives with a pandemic but, as Kairos breaks through Kronos, we realise that we have been gifted a space that none of us asked for. Like the negative space of a painting or a pause between notes in a musical score, this interruption, this space between things, feels necessary, encouraging us to enter the stillness of peaceful accord with others and reach for a deeper communion with nature.
Robin Wall Kimmerer recently suggested that despite great disruption and pain, this could be our 'ceremony time'; 'a sort of a timeless time.. when the physical starts to fall away and what is really important - the internal springs of resilience and humanity - are able to be more visible and more active in the world when the body and the material quiets down.' This is, says Kimmerer 'a moment of possibility, of reimagining, of remembering.'
As the world takes a breath, in the pause before it exhales and gathers momentum again, fates will be changed. Few lives will remain untouched by anxiety, hardship and grief.
Through the climate crisis we are already experiencing the fragility of existence. We now see how our fleeting lives converge with the immense arc of non-human history, mingling intimate and eternal, domestic and deep time.
Understanding deep time in the light of our present predicament is more vital than ever. We are in danger of conjuring ourselves as ghosts that will haunt the future unless we can bring about a necessary paradigm shift by reimagining our relationships with each other and the wider-than-human world. In his book On Water and Time, Icelandic author Andri Snr Magnason outlines how geological time is beginning to accelerate to the speed of human time. To consider the span of our human lives in relation to both past and future, Magnason introduces the idea of intimate time - a visionary telescoping backwards and forwards to the furthest points where our lives are indissolubly in touch with the life of another person whom we love, recall or imagine - a great grandparent, a grandchild, a great grandchild. For as Senegalese ecologist Baba Dioum famously said, 'In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught.'
Only time will tell whether we can learn to be good ancestors, whether this more lived-in and intimate association with the past and with lives to come, with our shared humanity and with the non-human world will give rise to a new way of living.
We can begin by engaging with the dreams and hopes of those crowded into jostling intimacy in our homes during weeks of lockdown. Those of us with children and young adults who have returned to live this 'sudden strangeness' with us are recalibrating in the way we did through the concertinaed, edge-blurred weeks after the arrival of a new-born child when we tried to remember how we lived and loved before.
Many are living alone through this crisis, daylight hours agonisingly stretched like the relentless brightness of Scandinavian summers. The loneliness of isolation and of illness seeps deep. When we succumb to fever, time warps. It slows down when we are fearful. In pain, time is jagged; in uncertainty, frayed.
Waiting for test results and treatment plans, time and fear pooled cool and indifferent in my body. Eddying slowly. Stilling watery limbs. Stalling breath. Disease reveals our cognitive frailties around time. When we face our own mortality, the flow of a future that we blithely took for granted abruptly dries up. We accept that we are ephemeral creatures in a universe driven by perpetual change, our sense of our finitude mediating our experience of time.
Is there anything we know more intimately than the fleetingness of time, the transience of each and every moment? asks philosopher Rebecca Goldstein. Her words are echoed by Thomas Mann's assertion that it is the 'transitoriness - the perishableness of life' that 'imparts value, dignity, interest to life. Transitoriness creates time and time is the essence.'
As German-American philosopher Hannah Arendt suggested, 'It is the insertion of man with his limited life span that transforms the continuously flowing stream of sheer change into time as we know it'. But time as a continuity of successive moments is a cognitive illusion. For author and professor of physics Carlo Rovelli, every living thing is a 'wave of happenings'. A kiss is a happening. So is a stone quietly eroding on a hillside over millennia. Through Rovelli's eyes, we see that there is no such thing as 'here' or 'now.' Reality is a constant, ever-changing interaction. Nothing exists purely as a moment in time: everything stands in relation to everything else. To understand time and space we need to extend metaphysical theory to a view of the world as rooted in relatedness, to see reality as a skein of interactions with the world around us.
After diagnosis and treatment, like a tree caught in a storm, I stood shaken and uncertain, my shirt of leaves dropped to the ground overnight, my new shape revealed. Scalpeled silhouette. Weatherworn but branching still. A softening comes with acceptance and a reaching out in the abundant dark. Beneath the littered surface, roots spread wide, blind, white filaments touching, twining with sister species, sharing resources, communing patiently, waiting in the cool, deep reservoir of life and hope.
In the undefended place where we all currently stand, we are reappraising our sense of the sequential character of time and its essential ongoingness. After the unexpected death of her young adult son poet Denise Riley experienced time as arrested. In her slender, blue hardback Time Lived Without Its Flow, Riley writes about the nature of grief. She describes an 'altered condition of life', 'the curious sense of being pulled right outside of time' into a state of 'bright emptiness', of non-being, unable to move on because, 'there is no medium through which to move anymore.'
Finding ourselves captive to the present tense, we can glean something positive from trauma; an invitation to silence, to inhabit a world of evanescent impressions and receptivity, let go of ambition, of past and future and learn to inhabit the eternal present.
'It is the quiet of the Now', writes Hannah Arendt, ' in the time-pressed, time-tossed existence of man; it is somehow, to change the metaphor, the quiet in the center of a storm which, though totally unlike the storm, still belongs to it. In this gap between past and future, we find our place in time'.
Words and imagery by Louisa Thomsen Brits