Contaminated time

Following my recent article with co-authors Lilia Mantai and Vanessa Fredericks, Deferred time in the neoliberal university: experiences of doctoral candidates and early career academics, I have been noticing discussions of time everywhere (Baader-Meinhof phenomenon at work). Our article appeared in a special issue of Teaching in Higher Education on the timescapes of teaching. Here is what the editors, Penny Jane Burke and Catherine Manathunga had to say:

This special issue was conceived of and developed before the advent of COVID-19.  Yet, in writing our editorial in the middle of this significant rupture in time, we noted how COVID-19 has brought to the fore existing inequities in how time is experienced everyday by people living on the margins …

I am slowly making my way through the articles, reading some with the Idea of the University reading group (what a pleasure it is to read and think together):

In our article, Lilia, Vanessa and I positioned ourselves as researchers by referring to our contaminated time:

We come to this study as early to mid-career academics whose everyday experience of time, like our participants, is interruptible and contaminated by multi-layered tasks and conflicting demands.

Our argument is that emerging academics experience anxiety-inducing deferred time, waiting for academic careers and working conditions that are yet to come.

I have noticed this idea of contaminated and deferred time recurring in writings about the experience of COVID-19.

In a BBC article on the perception of time:

During lockdown, those isolated from friends, family and work have had long days to fill … This blurring of identical days leads us to create fewer new memories, which is crucial to our sense of time perception … [We are] forced into waiting for the future to come towards us.

Similarly, Scientific American describes the numbing sameness of days, noticing the effects of time distortion. Heidi Pitlor’s Days Without Name captures the mundane (“My son had helped organise the spice drawer”), and Trent Dalton’s Tales from the Bunker shares the anxiety:

Can’t sleep … Gonna be a long year for us overthinkers. I’ll take a thought in the early hours of the morning and turn it upside down and inside out until it has existed so long in my head and in my bones that it’s grown strength. Mutated. Negative thinking’s like a virus. Host thoughts find host thoughts. Each thought mutates and multiplies exponentially and inexplicably…

I’m looking forward to Dalton’s new book (Boy Swallows Universe was one of last year’s favourites). Many authors are writing through their experience of COVID-19. Clare Wright, author of The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (another book that made my yearly favourites list, in 2014), writes:

It’s like a living Vesuvius moment: we were all frozen in whatever material and psychological state we happened to be in on the first of July 2020. That stasis gives rise (at least in me) to feelings of both gratitude and longing. Gratitude for all I have. Longing for all I want and will never have. There is no After. Just a great yawning existential Now.

Jesmyn Ward lost her husband and her favourite place in the world, tucked under his arm. She kept writing:

My commitment surprised me. Even in a pandemic, even in grief, I found myself commanded to amplify the voices of the dead that sing to me, from their boat to my boat, on the sea of time. On most days, I wrote one sentence. On some days, I wrote 1,000 words. Many days, it and I seemed useless. All of it, misguided endeavor.

On grief and time, Denise Riley’s Time Lived, Without its Flow, written after the sudden death of her adult son, is a powerful work of fragmented non-fiction: “I’ll not be writing about death, but about an altered condition of life … living in suddenly arrested time.”

In The Pandemic is a Portal, Arundhati Roy reveals of the impact of COVID-19 in her “poor-rich country” India. It is a powerful piece for the comparison of America and India, the backdrop of Muslim/Hindi relations, caste system, government denial, violence and limited preparation for lockdown. “A nation of 1.38bn people … locked down with zero preparation and with four hours’ notice.” The deep inequalities that Roy highlights are devastating. It is upsetting to read this several months after it was written, knowing that India now has the fastest growing number of cases worldwide. In April, Roy wrote:

Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists … Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

And, thinking of portals, here is last night’s distraction, upscaled video footage of England in 1901. Described as a “time travel experience”, it is uncanny and mesmerising. Check out Denis Shiryaev’s YouTube channel for footage of New York, Tokyo, Germany, France and more in the early 1900s.

I read some of these pieces for my creative writing studies, looking at non-fiction this semester, and completed my own writing exercise on the senses:

Our emotions were tumultuous. We were overwhelmed, playful, resentful, loving, annoyed and guilty—all before getting dressed. Two adults working and two children schooling from home was a challenge, but we’ve survived worse. My daughter previously missed eight months of school due to illness, so this constrained intimacy was familiar.

Six months in, our emotional response has flattened. There is a sameness to each day, and we crave novelty. We want the anticipation of a holiday, the shock of new sensations. Noticing an ordinary day reminds me that against the scale of collective trauma elsewhere, our banality is fortunate.

I spend the work day on my laptop, jumping between Zoom meetings. My eyes are feeling the strain. While walking the dog, I try to stretch my sight to the tops of trees, into the blue sky.

A woman is selling home-made biscuits door to door. She has lost her job and has children to support. The biscuits taste of cinnamon and desperation.

My seven-year-old sings and chatters constantly. He talks to his Lego. It is charming and annoying.

The children need more hugs. So does the dog. During a Zoom meeting she pushes her too-large body onto my lap. My fingers curl around her spoodle-soft fur.

At the end of the day, I climb into clean sheets. All the goodness and comfort of laundry powder, a hint of eucalyptus and lemon, and the wind. It smells like home, renewed.

For those seeking the distractions of fiction, these are my favourite time distortion books: Conni Willis’s Doomsday Book, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred, Jo Walton’s My Real Children, Tabitha Bird’s A Lifetime of Impossible Days, and Kate Mascarenhas’s The Psychology of Time Travel. Read all those? Try Annalee Newitz’s The Future of Another Timeline, Elan Mastai’s All Our Wrong Todays, Mark Lawrence’s One Word Kill, Margarita Montimore’s The Rearranged Life of Oona Lockhart, Thea Lim’s An Ocean of Minutes or Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter. Next on my to-be-read list comes from here.

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