My young children are not absorbed by virtual drawing classes or online aquarium tours. Their eyes glaze over shortly after I set them up in front of the screen; they ask for snacks, bicker, or simply wander away. And while I am impressed with the ingenuity of the well-intentioned teachers, children’s book authors, and museum educators developing online activities in these unbalanced weeks, let’s be honest about the purpose of such content, particularly for very young children: it is a way to kill time.
And isn’t that what so many of us are doing now? Killing time so we can get through this, until we get closer to a future that will permit us to return to social and public life and to a world in which the most vulnerable people are not dying in droves?
This “killing time” is multivalent; while some people are simply waiting, running down the clock, many others are dying, losing their lives to this time literally. All of us, though, are inhabiting time in new ways, whether with boredom or dread or both.
Before the quarantine, I naively thought I was in a kind of quarantine. I was on the cusp of turning forty and felt like my life had become too circumscribed, in part due to the domestic routines that small children demand, but also because I had stopped taking real risks. Or rather, I just didn’t know what risks to take. A self-identified homebody, I had never been one for grand adventures; it might even be accurate to say I was risk averse. But as my fortieth birthday loomed at the beginning of 2020, I realized what years of post-structuralist theory and novel-reading should have already taught me, that the self is discontinuous, unknowable, and mysterious. I no longer found enough meaning in the kind of pursuits that had compelled me for decades. I wanted a radically new way of being.
As an academic, I had long found a comfort in the circularity of the school year, the new faces in September, the farewells in late May. At home, having two children in the past six years had provided a dramatic topography of expectation, arrival, and the gratifyingly observable developments of early childhood. But as Fall rolled around this past year, I chafed at going apple-picking; hadn’t we just done that? Time suddenly seemed to be moving impossibly fast, like a laundry machine spinning at a disorienting, almost vicious, pace. Wasn’t last year’s Indian corn still hanging on the door? And do I already have to figure out Halloween costumes for my kids? I felt some guilt at these feelings of course, as one is told that such simple, seasonal pleasures are part of what motherhood is all about, the very pith of the project itself. And yet, I was thirsting for more contact with the world beyond my home, finally perhaps ready for more travel, material experience, risk.
So when the demand for social-distancing began, it felt ironic before it felt truly frightening, like the universe offering a global rejoinder to my own minor midlife crisis. Indeed, I read somewhere that in French “quarantaine” can also refer to the period of being in one’s forties; certainly this enforced isolation in the domestic sphere literalizes the metaphor. The injunctions to “stay home” and “shelter in place” felt at once unnecessary (already doing that!) and personal (this is 40, sucker).
Now everyone is in the long, undifferentiated days — and the anxious, restless nights that I associate with caring for a newborn. One writer notes that during the pandemic, every day is “blursday”; the days of the week are indistinct, arbitrary. For those with the privilege of staying home, the quarantine has thus forced – or reinforced – a reckoning with the existential questions, like what makes life worth living? Are simple pleasures actually pleasures or just consolations for unavailable forms of enjoyment? What qualifies as an experience? What is a day?
In his book Midlife: A Philosophical Guide, Kieran Setiya suggests one way to respond to a midlife crisis is to turn from telic, or goal-oriented projects, to atelic, or open-ended activities. Of telic activities, he explains, “the completion of your project may constitute something of value, but it means that the project can no longer give purpose to your life.” And so, in “pursuing a goal, you are trying to exhaust your interaction with something good, as if you were trying to make friends for the sake of saying goodbye.”
Setiya urges readers to invest instead in atelic activities as an antidote to existential ennui, things like spending time with friends, cooking, activities that are ends unto themselves. And during this pandemic, it seems many people have already gotten this memo: people are baking bread, quilting, knitting, reading “bucket-list books,” in other words a slew of tasks not oriented so much around completion as process. Quarantine itself is atelic, cyclical, repetitive; there is no definite endpoint at present, no achievement to be had. The cancelation of commencements, funerals, weddings, and other milestone events underscores the impossibility of closure during this time.
I have heard people compare this pandemic time to a marathon, but marathons have mile-markers and, of course, designated finish lines that move closer rather than receding as you approach. As this quarantine has no set duration, there is no way to exert oneself strategically, hence the hoarding of resources; we are all doing panicked sprints rather than steady pacing. We don’t know when or how it will end.
When I was a new parent wrestling with bone-deep fatigue, other parents told me I had entered a new temporality in which what I sometimes experienced as tedious would be understandable in retrospect as precious and fleeting: “the days are long; the years are short” was a well-worn playground adage. This used to give me a sense of solidarity and comfort—like they were reporting back from a vista of calm certitude and strength, looking back at me from the summit of a distant mountain. The pandemic recalls this temporality of early parenthood, but in a time of mass death, the inversion of its sentimental premise feels chilling; if we will enough days to pass, enough lives to pass, maybe something like coherence will emerge in retrospect. Only we know there is nothing coherent about a disease no one seems to understand, a state without logical policy, or the ongoing denial of resources to people who need them.
The pandemic exposes even the most naturalized ideas about temporality in new ways. Despite Zoom classrooms and Instagram book clubs, we have much in common with those that lived through the pandemic in 1918: anxiety, ill-preparedness, isolation, fear. More than ever, developmental time itself seems like a dubious and suspect construct.
Personally, I am resistant to the idea of learning any lessons from the pandemic. I have not suddenly developed a fondness for domestic pastimes. Moreover, it feels too much in keeping with the demands of neoliberalism to reap a “personal lesson” from a moment of mass suffering; I feel averse to any further hoarding of resources. I mean, I can’t even let other kids in our neighborhood use the greenspace of our backyard. I don’t want to extract anything from this crisis while people are dying of the virus or experiencing dire mental health consequences from the isolation or losing their employment from the economic fall-out.
And yet, I have begrudgingly relinquished my beloved day-planner, pulled out of long-term writing commitments, and stopped looking to the horizon of Sunday night as the end of “quality time” with my children. Under duress, I am inhabiting time in new ways, and in this sense, pandemic temporality reveals the extent to which capitalism has always structured my subjectivity, my relationship with my work, my sources of meaning. The illusion that I can divide time into sections, or organize the future, even the sense that I need time alone, all of this now seems precious, fanciful, outdated.
So even as I chafe at the cloying calls to find the “bright side” of a killing time, I now see that time is not mine anymore, and maybe it never was. My family, like so many others, is permanently together in this homogeneous time, trying to make the days distinct in whatever ways we can. The birds seem especially loud this spring; they wake us up before dawn and we start the day.
Sari Edelstein is Associate Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Boston; her latest book is Adulthood and Other Fictions: American Literature and the Unmaking of Age (Oxford 2019).