What Time Looks Like

I love how Terry Pitts, the writer on the blog Vertigo, writes about time:

The cinematic version of time passing, which often shows a succession of calendar pages disappearing off the screen, blown away by the breeze, was never how I understood time. For me, it’s the constant repetition, the endless mimetic motion of the hand up and down, left to right, the same gesture day after day after day. That feels like time.

In “Pandemic Time,” Terry mentions the art and calendar work of German artist Hanne Darboven. I love this description of the rise and fall of the continuous wavy lines on one of Darboven’s calendars from the early 1970s:

This line is repeated time after time, filling the allotted space. It’s a recognition of the underlying sameness of every cycle of day and night, followed by another day and night.

I’m reminded of a tweet I read several weeks ago, before the Black Lives Matter protests began, from a mother who said the biggest challenge wasn’t the actual juggling of child care and full-time work, but the monotony of it all.

Doing the same day over and over, confined to the much smaller universe of my home.

Two months into our shelter-in-place, just before Mother’s Day, I finally broke down. Taking care of a nearly two-year-old is challenging, but it was the feeling of being stuck on a conveyor belt, all through the week, that really did it. I became numb, and then so heavy, that I snapped. I think of Phil in Groundhog Day and Nadia in Russian Doll. When did they crack the first time?

And then, sometime after, I broke down again.

I felt better afterward, both times.

I then wondered: at what point did Phil and Nadia get creative? When did they realize they could use their very own eternities to enjoy themselves, to learn things, to change course? How did they figure out they could break free from that cycle?

I would have probably broken free of that loop and started to find real productivity and inspiration in monotony. But then June came along, and it shattered the Groundhog Day-ness of it all.

As I follow the news, as I’ve finally given in to Twitter after years of being unplugged from its IV drip, as I read and watch and listen and cry and hope, I’m not sure what time looks like now. I no longer see the repetitive undulating patterns of Darboven’s calendar in my mind. It’s more like jagged lines on a heart monitor: ever-changing and unpredictable.

Published by Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Senior editor at Longreads / Automattic

3 thoughts on “What Time Looks Like

  1. It’s pretty interesting reading what you wrote about time during the beginning of what would become this seemingly endless pandemic period. I tended to think of time more like spiraling into seasons, but now my spirals have become smaller, and tighter and I’ve had to become content with not looking towards the future – which as a spiritual practice is awesome, but when life forces it upon you I think the mind really doesn’t know what to make of it.

  2. I love it…the concept of time has been consuming my mind for weeks now. How it can feel that time has frozen since March 13th yet at the same time be moving in warp speed.

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