Everything at Once: How the pandemic plays havoc with our sense of time

2020 may be over, but the pandemic continues...and it's creating an altered sense of time. We're nostalgic for the "before," contend with a shifting present, and desperately want the future to be here — often simultaneously. IDEAS explores the experience of converging chronologies.

“It's almost like the future has been suspended,” says poet Kaie Kellough

Time is ingrained in our daily lives but pandemic time is hard to measure. It's hazy, overwhelming, all-encompassing and everything at once. (zef art/Shutterstock)

*This episode was originally published on January 20, 2021.

"We're all in this together" has been a unifying phrase of this global crisis. Yet individuals and groups experience time quite differently during the pandemic. We are united in feeling disoriented.

Without a definitive end date to the situation, "time tends to dilate. It inflates, it contracts, and it confuses our daily routines and practices," observes mathematician Joseph Mazur, author of The Clock Mirage.

A complex present moment

In her book, In the Meantime, Sarah Sharma examines differential relationships of time and how our time is entangled with one another. (Alison Dias)
One of those confused routines is our jobs. Some find themselves exhausted by extra shifts, while many scrape to find work. The normative work day has disappeared for some, or grown overwhelming for others.

It's all part of what theorist Sarah Sharma sees as society's "temporal order," particularly noticeable in the COVID-19 era.

Her book, In the Meantime, examines the politics of how people "recalibrate" their time to that of others, based on factors including race, class, and gender.

"We've always all been in this together," says Sharma, but "never in an equitable way."

The resurfacing past

In her work, the clinical psychologist Hala Alyan has seen clients contending quite anxiously with a converging sense of time.

"Whatever was unfinished, whatever was raw in a person, was what came up in the pandemic. People had relapses of eating disorders. People drank again. People called their exes."

Alyan is also a novelist and poet, most recently of The Arsonist's City. Her poem Spoiler, was written at the start of the pandemic. It expresses both the inevitably, and beauty, of loss and mortality.

Clinical psychologist and writer Hala Alyan says the pandemic has forced many people to reflect inward and confront the 'shadowy, cobwebby basement that exists inside' all of us. (Elena Mudd)

An unknowable future

Fellow poet and novelist Kaie Kellough explores the converging nature of time and identity in his collection, Magnetic Equator. 

But as to this moment of converging time, he does not know what will come next.

"It's the first time in my life that I've experienced such a cultural moment...How do we construct our sense of the future?" 

As Kellough notes, "We're going to have to reshape it at some point and think about who has access to (that future), and who doesn't, and why."

'In the pandemic, it's almost like the future has been suspended and we've collectively agreed that we're going to wait and see how things turn out before we decide ... how we're going to approach the future,' says Montreal poet and fiction writer, Kaie Kellough. (Kevin Calixte)

Guests in this episode: 

Hala Alyan is a novelist, poet, and clinical psychologist in Brooklyn. Her poem Spoiler, was published in the New Yorker. Her new novel is The Arsonist's City (HMH/Raincoast, 2021).

Kaie Kellough is a poet, novelist, and sound performer in Montreal. His collection, Magnetic Equator (Penguin Random House, 2019), won a 2020 Griffin Prize for Poetry.

Joseph Mazur is professor emeritus of mathematics at Marlboro College in Vermont, and author of 
The Clock Mirage: Our Myth of Measured Time (Yale University Press, 2020).

Sarah Sharma is an associate professor of media theory in the Institute of Communication, Culture, and Technology at the University of Toronto, as well as Director of the McLuhan Centre for Culture and Technology. She's the author of 
In the Meantime: Temporality and Cultural Politics (Duke University Press, 2014).

* This episode was produced by Lisa Godfrey.

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