Ever since this slow-motion apocalypse started, many of us have commented about how time seems out of whack. Folks will talk about not remembering what day it is, for instance. One friend observed that it simultaneously felt as if time were flying by (“How can it be December already?”) while at the same time dragging (“Every week seems to be thirty or more days long!”). Recently I found myself contemplating one simply, personal paradox about this. Every morning there comes a point where I roll over, squint at the alarm clock, and decided whether I have time to doze back off. Part of that process involves one part of my brain asking itself: “What day is it?” And then getting an answer, which has almost always been correct. “Oh, it’s Wednesday? We have to call in to the 8:30 meeting, the 9:00, and the 9:30, then if that doesn’t run over, an hour to get undivided attention work done before the 11… so I better get up and get all my meds done now.”
I’ve had a variant of that conversation with myself on about 128 work days since going into quarantine, and virtually every time I correctly knew what day it was when I was barely awake. Yet, at later moments in each of those days, I would feel a confusion about what day it was. Which seems like a contradiction. But human minds are messy things. Our consciousness is processed in or through our brains, but those brains are not neatly and precisely designed microchips, with an organic melange of neurons and neurochemicals intimately entwined with our endocrine system and all the other messy imprecise organs and organelles evolved for various purposes that may not always be apparent.
When I said that my waking up process involves one part of my brain asking itself, I wasn’t merely speaking metaphorically. There really are multiple systems involves in making up this notion we have of our mind, and they don’t all function the same way. There is clearly a logical, verbal part of my mind that can respond to that question of what day it is by checking memory and finding out that yesterday was Wednesday, therefore today much by Thursday. But other parts of the system use different criteria and inputs to perceive and understand the world. It’s those systems that become confused with our personal routines are disrupted.
I’ve started quarantine on February 17, before our state had it’s first stay at home orders because I woke up with a persistent cough. I didn’t think it would be a big deal once the actual orders came out, because I had worked from one two-days each week for a few years at that point (and any time I got sick but was well enough to work, I’d work from home for longer stretches). My husband still works outside the home, getting up each morning at a godawful hour to commute in, yet he also has these moments of confusion about the day… because the routines around work have also changed.
I don’t feel free to just pop off to the store anytime I want an ingredient that we don’t have for a particular recipe. I should limit the number of times I go out and get exposed to other people, right? And if I am going out, I have to make sure I have my mask, have washed my hands, and have a plan on what I’m picking up so that I minimize the time I’m inside any buildings other than home. While there I have to pay attention to how close I’m standing or walking past someone. And that doesn’t even get into keeping a wary eye out for the fuckwits who refused to wear a mask or have it pulled down so their nose is hanging out, et cetera.
So familiar stores are no longer the same kinds of place they were, because how I behave there, how others behave, and so forth has changed.
It’s strange little things that sometimes get to me. For instance, in the before times, I tended to handle one of my weekly chores (putting away the recently washed laundry) while listening to a particular conference call (with my mic muted) on work-from-home Tuesdays. Sometime during quarantine I just stopped doing it. I stopped having the automatic thought—after logging into the meeting, greeting the other early joiners, and then muting myself when enough people were there to start the business part—that now it is time to go deal with the laundry.
I don’t know when it happened. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because every work day is a work-from-home day, therefore Tuesday doesn’t feel like Tuesday any more?
The way the pandemic is going, we’ve got a lot more of this to get through. And even when we do, the new normal isn’t going to be like the before times. We can’t predict what that new normal will be, exactly, but I know that some things are just not going back to the way we used to do them.
That is one of the reasons that, while I’m happy to see 2020 end, I don’t feel much like celebrating the arrival of 2021. I’m not going to be cheering, “We did it! We made it through that hellish year!” Which gets to the second reason I’m not feeling the celebration: not all of us made it. At least 333,000 Americans didn’t survive 2020—and a whole lot of them ought to have, and could have, if certain someone’s hadn’t made the politically calculated decision to abandon plans for testing and contact tracing and so forth.