“What then is time? If no one asks me, I know. If I wish to explain it to one who asks, I know not.” — St. Augustine
Friend Jenn is an ER doctor. At the beginning of March, when it was clear the coronavirus would ravage the country and the richest nation in the world couldn’t supply enough N95 masks for its hospital workers, she and the other docs slid their masks into brown paper bags at the end of their shifts and wrote the dates on those bags. The masks could sit for five days — the estimated time for virus to die off — before cleaning and re-using them, if necessary.
“The other day I was marking my paper bag and I remembered writing March 3,” she said. “Now suddenly I’m writing November dates.”
Was this the longest year, or the shortest year? First the toilet paper ran out at Costco. Then I rushed off a New York subway two stops early because I was too scared to cough while Chinese — back then, only Wuhan was locked down and the anti-Asian racism raged. Then yellow caution tape went up around the playgrounds and masks went up on our faces. I picked up Eva from school, and it still hasn’t reopened. Friends started gardens, and sourdough. In June, I started wearing a Christmas sweatshirt that said, “Merry Merry Merry” to try and cheer myself up. QR codes came back, for menus at restaurants only open in what used to be their parking lots. We attended drive-by birthday parades. And Zoom weddings. The three-year-old showed me how to mute and un-mute her Zooms. We got to know the parks and the running trails and everything that could happen outside. I smized as much as I could.
I’m still wearing that Christmas sweatshirt, only, it’s actually Christmastime now.
Time’s elasticity has never mystified me more. The Groundhog Day-ness of our routines, the complete lack of travel, the death of serendipity, surprise and strangers … did it stretch time or compress it?
Neurologists say novelty enhances memory, and while 2020 was devoid of the “novelty” we used to plan for — vacations, milestones, the gatherings where you’d meet novel new people, we got surprises we didn’t want: a public health crisis, economic crisis and social crisis. A presidential election, while resolved, has permanently damaged our already fraught American democracy. Being hyper-alert and anxious all the time would, reasonably, stretch time in the way trauma does. And relationally, I feel as if I’ve known my COVID19 trench friends and “foxhole crushes” for 80 percent of my adult life, despite really only deepening our friendships over the grueling months of the plague.
We wanted the election to hurry up and come so we could be put out of our uncertainty. We wanted this year to hurry up and end. And suddenly it’s almost over and I’m sitting here thinking, WTF happened to this entire year? What have I done with myself, if anything?
Psychologists study the “trip home effect,” an illusion in which we feel like the drive back from a destination is shorter, even when it’s the same distance. The common explanation was that familiarity undergirded that feeling — you recognize the landmarks on the way back, and you’re devoid of the original uncertainty of that drive. A more recent study points at expectation as the reason why the drive home seems shorter: “Initial optimism made the trip out feel longer than expected … pessimism starting back makes the trip home feel shorter.”
Or, it’s about distraction: You’re more focused on a target when you’re going somewhere for the first time, but when you’re coming home, you’re more easily distracted, making the trip seem shorter.
In pondering the elasticity of time this year, and how the trip home effect might relate, I stumbled on perhaps the bigger, more philosophical question: Is life in a pandemic trying to get to a destination, or trying to get home?