On Restarting: Time on the Clock, Time of the Mind and Micro-Rituals

Covid-19 Memorial, Brooklyn, NY.

So this is how the world is beginning again: not with a bang, but with a series of whimpers.

Like everyone, I’ve been trying to imagine what will constitute whatever the “new normal” will be, and trying to figure out when it’s going to get here. What I realized I’ve been wanting, and what will never come, is some Morgan Freeman-esque President of the United States to come on to a national televised address, one that we will all watch at once: not just those of us at home, but blue collar workers interrupting their daily grind, bar patrons who’ve been watching sports, passers by on the street in front of electronics stores — everyone will, for just one moment, turn to receive the news that it is finally over. The kind of thing that comes at the end of disaster films like Independence Day, the universal signal for finality.

But of course, these things do not happen. Our plucky heroes can’t just blow up the Covid-19 mothership in one fell swoop and call it a day. The disease is not going to retreat to a bunker and live out paranoid fantasies of grandeur before putting a bullet in its head, nor will it sign a humiliating document of surrender before going home. President Biden’s televised address on March 11 pinning a “return to normal” at July 4 was the closest thing we’ll get to that the real world, and as I’ve thought about it since, the slight reassurance I felt was outweighed by an acute sense of its inadequacy.

As Ben Rhodes put it on Twitter, “Watching Biden and his team marshal the resources of the federal government to ramp up supply, issue guidelines, and stamp out the pandemic really underscores just how catastrophic the federal response was until January 20th. Just tragic, historic, and unnecessary incompetence.” Large, public, communal milestones are not going to work in no small part because we simply didn’t all start this journey together. I know people who had a sense in January of 2020 that things were going to get awful, and I know people who were still trying to go about their ordinary lives into early April. Without any kind of national guidance or framing, we were left, each of us, to find our ways through the nightmare of the past year. Not just in terms of personal health and safety, but in terms of how each of us was supposed to make sense of the death and destitution everywhere around us.

Never have so many millions of people all embarked on separate, private journeys all at the same time as we have in the past year. Because our journeys didn’t start the same way, it’s no surprise that there’s not going to be the one big moment where they all end together, when all at once we know it’s over. Instead, there’s going to be a creep back to a semi-recognizable reality that will be simultaneously too fast and also too slow. Restrictions against indoor seating and gatherings are being lifted at a pace that seems terrifying and ill-advised, with people not-yet-vaccinated rushing to congregate (to be fair, many of them never really stopped congregating). At the same time, it seems, shell-shock and depression are going to keep a lot of us from gathering for a long time yet, even in situations where it’s undeniably safe.

In her 1928 novel Orlando, Virginia Woolf talks about the “time of the mind” and the “time on the clock”:

Time, unfortunately, though it makes animals and vegetables bloom and fade with amazing punctuality, has no such simple effect upon the mind of man. The mind of man, moreover, works with equal strangeness upon the body of time. An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length; on the other hand, an hour may be accurately represented on the timepiece of the mind by one second. This extraordinary discrepancy between time on the clock and time in the mind is less known than it should be and deserves fuller investigation.

The Greeks understood this dichotomy as well: ancient Greek has two terms for time, chronos, which was chronological time, and Kairos, which meant the “right” or “opportune” time, the perfect moment. Juxtaposed to chronology, Kairos is time as its lived and experienced emotionally — Woolf’s time of the mind.

Most of our lives, these two times are, roughly speaking, in sync, and when they’re not, it’s usually for brief periods of time: the seconds after your brakes lock when you realize that you’re going to hit the car in front of you, a first magical date that seems to last forever, and so on. Such moments span maybe days, or weeks, at the most. If they last longer than that, it’s often because of trauma: one of the hallmarks of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is the inability to distinguish past from present, an inability to make sense of chronological time moving forward after a terrible event. Absent this, though, chronos and Kairos usually move roughly in sync with one another.

At least they used to. The past year has, of course, been one of a perpetual and sustained disconnect between the time of the mind and the time on the clock. Even as the whole world ground to a halt, those of us fortunate to still have jobs were still expected to clock in, still expected to mark the passage of time.

What so many of us have experienced this past year in various forms stems from the relentless insistence on chronological time during an extended period of…something else. A kind of lived experience free from the usual chronology. It is a sense that’s strange and dislocating enough on its own; the fact that so many of us had to pretend that time was functioning normally only compounded the estrangement, exhaustion, and depression. You can see this in two recent and excellent pieces: Olga Khazan’s article on work “burn out” and Lauren Collee’s piece on SAD lamps. Both in different ways touch on how our exhaustion and depression is being driven by an inability to live in a moment that is unlike any we’ve ever had to live in for this long.

There are a lot of things contributing to the hell of this past year, from enforced isolation and lack of touch to the grief and despair of loss loved ones — the list goes on and on. I’m only thinking of this dislocation of time because it seems to be one thing that’s left out of the conversation about the “new normal.” Because eventually, one way or another, we’ll be able to see relatives again and go to baseball games once more. But this won’t be enough; we also have to figure out how to rejoin time’s relentless stream in the least traumatic way possible.

Traditionally, this is what rituals are for. Weddings, funerals, baptisms, bar and bat mitzvahs, and so forth all structure that liminal time of transition around a specific ceremony. They mark what comes before and after as chronos, and what happens during as Kairos. They allow us to negotiate these transitions and to give shape to the corresponding shifts in emotions or status that they signify.

That yearning for some kind of authority figure to step up and announce that things are over, I realize, is nothing other than this: a desire for that ritual to signify that the nebulous time of the mind from the past year has ended, and that we can once again start to rejoin chronology without the same cognitive dissonance and emotional stress. But we’re not going to get that, not on a global level, not on a national level, not even on a state or local level.

I’m imagining instead a series of micro-rituals, carried out among various small groups of friends. I don’t know yet what these might look like, but I know that each one will be tailored to our specific group and what we mean to each other. Something more than simply meeting up again for a meal. Something that will feel deliberate and — if not entirely solemn — at least freighted with emotion. A series of rituals that will take place probably over the course of months. There are friends across the country that I still won’t see for awhile, and in a sense this pandemic won’t be over for me until I can be with them again. Again and again, I will mark this moment with small tiny gestures.

And with each one of these gestures, the world for me will take a small step towards its next phase. It won’t be like it used to be, but it’ll do.

Failed histories, histories of failure. Author of four books: The Unidentified, Ghostland, Afterlives of the Saints, and Cranioklepty.

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