In the introduction to his translation of Beowulf, Heaney writes of the “problematical hiatus” that sometimes occurs between “one’s sense of readiness to take on the subject and the actual inscription of the first lines”, when one sets about to write. It is essential, he writes, to find “some sense that your own little verse-craft can dock safe and sound at the big quay of the language.”
For several weeks, fragments of today’s newsletter have floated in your head, never quite ready to dock safely on the page. It’s been a while since we plummeted into the pandemic and you’ve been thinking recurringly about what time means to us now. Often it feels like an unceasing voyage through the tenses, as you travel from one app to another on your phone, oscillating to and from relics of the past (think of Google Photos and Instagram Memories) and obligations of the present (think of cruelly flooded inboxes) and faint imaginings of the future.
When you were little, you would always exit cinema halls with the brightest sense of wonder and disbelief – how could three hours have flown by so quickly? Each time you would step into a book (an Enid Blyton adventure, a Nancy Drew mystery) after school and step out of it in the evening, you could hardly believe that the sun was setting already. It always felt as if you’d been frozen in time and yet, you’d travelled miles and miles and to places far, far away! These photographs of people reading (Magnum Photos) remind you of time’s tricks, and astound you.
In these sometimes empty days you’ve been thinking of time as it is displayed on the smug face of the wall clock vis-à-vis time as it works inside your head. As if there were two rings (and four hands) to the clock, the inner ring showing your personal time - as it unfolds in the reveries you spin while, say, kneading dough or washing rice or folding the laundry - set against the universal outer ring.
You’re thinking, also, of the act of making art and how generously it allows you to situate yourself inside a feeling and to feel it for far longer than living would otherwise permit. This calls to mind Diana Weymar’s public art project, the “Tiny Pricks Project” that “counterbalances the impermanence of Twitter and other social media, and Trump’s statements by using textiles that embody warmth, craft, permanence, civility, and a shared history.” Hundreds of Trump’s statements from his Twitter account and speeches have been beautifully embroidered and, in a conversation with The Jealous Curator, Weymar says,
DW: “[The project is] a way of highlighting what he’s saying and to say, ‘He said this, and I feel this way about it, and I’m going to remember that he said it.’ (…)”
TJC: “It’s a time capsule – you’re capturing this moment.”
You think, also, of GIFs and animations as capsules of time, and have fallen in love with these delightful Greek mythology-based GIF illustrations by Jonathan Muroya (representative, perfectly, of our lives in quarantine), this compilation of Nata Metlukh’s GIFs, and the animations by Nancy Liang.
At three am, you suddenly wake up (the cause remains a mystery), and after a few minutes of failing to fall back asleep, you rub your eyes and hastily begin scribbling in your diary. Nothing particularly coherent – you write: “Most bizarre dreams – can’t fall asleep – dreams that feel like premonitions – a girl who writes exactly the kinds of books I want to write – constant Hansel-and-Gretel-ing of HOW MUCH I DO NOT KNOW AND HOW MUCH I NEED TO READ RIGHT THIS VERY INSTANT.”
With the anxiety of losing any amount of time to so-called “guilty pleasures” (fuelled viciously by things like Annie Dillard’s quote “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”) having rudely invaded even your sleep, you pick up your e-reader and begin scrolling, wondering what to embark upon the day with. Instinctively, the way sometimes things just happen, you stop at Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness: The End of a Diary and begin reading it. In an hour you have swallowed the book whole, highlighted lines on every other page, and are stunningly bathed in Manguso’s meditations on time and memory and motherhood and on the act of keeping a diary.
She writes of her anguish upon failing to record in her diary so much of the “empty time between memorable moments”, and how experiencing her days in themselves wasn’t enough – in order to truly pay attention, and to somehow complete the experience, maintaining a record of it was vital. “Today was very full, but the problem isn’t today. It’s tomorrow. I’d be able to recover from today if it weren’t for tomorrow. There should be extra days, buffer days, between the real days,” she writes. You, who harbor similar feelings (if a little less intense and nowhere close to Rev Robert Shields, who chronicled in his diary every five minutes of his life, and slept for only two hours at a time so he could record his dreams, as Manguso mentions in this conversation with David Naimon), haven’t felt this seen in the longest time!
Manguso writes about declining a ride with a friend, from one city to another, because she needed the four hours that she would (and did) otherwise spend on the bus back in order to fully record her memory of the trip, and writes about how all of this changed with the arrival of her baby.
“I used to exist against the continuity of time. Then I became the baby’s continuity, a background of ongoing time for him to live against. I was the warmth and milk that was always there for him, the agent of comfort that was always there for him.
My body, my life became the landscape of my son’s life. I am no longer merely a thing living in the world; I am a world.”
Much like realism, which betrays its very purpose each time it is practised, the “essential problem of ongoingness is that one must contemplate time as that very time, that very subject of one’s contemplation, disappears,” when one writes in the diary. Manguso also briefly wonders if observing and describing her subject in great detail, instead of summarizing (as she had begun doing after her son’s birth), would be “selfish, wasteful, nonmaternal”, but concludes that when she is with her son, she feels “the bracing speed of the one-way journey that guides human experience.”
“Before I was a mother, I thought I was asking, How, then, can I survive forgetting so much?
Then I came to understand that the forgotten moments are the price of continued participation in life, a force indifferent to time.”
You feel yourself visibly relax upon finishing the book. So much is clearer. Suddenly you see yourself trying to live more attentively. The grasp of anxiety loosens slightly – anxiety which, as Manguso writes, is perhaps only “an inability to accept life as ongoing.”
Finally, you remember this excerpt that you chanced upon on one of your last doomscrolling expeditions on Tumblr:
“In the middle of a war you think of nothing but how it will end. And put off living. When large numbers of people do that, it creates a vacuum within us which the war flows in to fill. What I regret more than anything is that, in the beginning, I too gave in to the feeling that for now I was living only provisionally; that true reality still lay ahead of me: I let life pass me by.”
— Christa Wolf, Cassandra: A Novel and Four Essays