Shelter in Place, Pt. XII: Time Has Stopped

This is arguably the most unimportant impact of COVID-19 and yet it’s one that seems undeniable and has been on my mind a lot lately: Since the pandemic first shut down my life in mid-March it feels as if time has stopped. It hasn’t, of course, as evidenced by the fact that it’s now mid-July and that my hair is a disturbing number of inches longer. And yet it doesn’t really feel as if any time has passed at all, even though the pre-pandemic time of my life could have existed in a parallel universe for all the relation that it seems to have to my current day to day. There is a reason for this.

The pandemic has affected many lives, mine included, in two distinct ways that appear contradictory but are in fact complimentary and which have conspired together to completely destroy all pre-existing timelines. The first impact is that, for many fortunate people like myself, working from home has become the norm these last four months. When you work where you live and live where you work, the once sharp delineation between the two most significant sections of your life fades completely away so that every moment of every day, whether personal or professional, begins to blend together into one indistinguishable block. First you lose track of the hours, then the days and then the weeks. Soon it’s July and you still have a tub of ice-melting salt sitting by your back door.

The second impact is the elimination of all normalized social activity. If you’re responsible and healthy enough to do so, you’re wearing a mask in public. You haven’t been within six feet of anyone outside of your household in months. The last time you were in a crowd of any kind was half a year ago. Nothing is like it used to be. That is a dramatic change but part of what’s great about humanity is our ability to adapt to dramatic change with shocking ease (when sufficiently motivated).

The combination of these two things, that life has changed dramatically and that, as a result of that change, every day now feels the same, has essentially led to us all living in an alternate timeline from all previous history. I know that it’s summer because my calendar tells me so and it’s hot when I step outside. But hasn’t it always been this way? Was it cold once? Not yesterday or the day before that and, well, all the days seem the same so they probably were. What even are seasons?

Part of what’s great about living in a place with distinct seasons—a rare shoutout to the Midwest!—is that the passage of time usually feels very real. Spring allergies lead to summer BBQs which lead to football and pumpkin-everything which then lead to holiday parties and shoveling pounds of snow off the godforsaken driveway. As the year progresses I enjoy listening to summer albums or reading winter books, seeing old friends on the one day a year that we get together for the Boxing Day party we’ve been having for a decade and a half.

But none of that is happening this year. Because it can’t. Because we can’t gather and because time only technically exists anymore. And sure, of all the things COVID-19 has taken from us, our sense of time may be the least important, but it was taken. An old proverb says that you can’t step in the same river twice but now we’re being carried by the current and I think we’ve lost our rudder.

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