At a time when young boys all over suburban America were being diagnosed with ADHD, I was busy having existential crises. I was eight years old: I’d be playing with Legos or coloring books or something, and I would have to stop to contemplate the ceiling. My consciousness rose up, and I imagined I was a fairy that lived upside-down among the hills and valleys of the popcorn ceiling. From that vantage the cosmos was so bulky, crammed as it was with furniture and moving bodies.
Looking down at the child on the ground, it occurred to me that this was it. The body I was looking at, cross-legged and dopey and disregarding the objects around it, was the only vehicle through which I could navigate the entirety of my life. Life seemed to me a massive freeway, like the ones my parents would drive down from one Dallas suburb to another when they shipped me off to Chinese school. This freeway was full of objects—mostly heavy machinery that could kill you, as well as innumerable exits and signage and billboard ads—all designed to distract you from the object, the road itself.
As a child, my place was in the backseat. Someone else with more self-awareness was driving, directing my little body where to go and what to do. That was such a relief because God forbid we miss an exit or smash into a truck. Even then, I knew that I would have to take command of this vehicle eventually: this self-contained, squishy body.
And because the vehicle was just me, there was no way for me to open the door and get out if I made a wrong turn onto a turnpike and couldn’t scrounge up the change for the tolls, or—not paying attention as I was often wont to do—sent the car careening off a bridge. Instead, belted into this consciousness machine, I could only speed ahead because the crush of time pushed on, faster and faster.
According to the psychological literature, sufferers of ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, have a distorted perception of time, variously called “time illiteracy” or “time blindness.” This symptom just one of several nonspecific symptoms of this disorder, the hallmark of which is often noted as a “non-presence of mind,” a kind of unplanned tuning-out of the world that shows up as a frustrating inability to just fucking pay attention, you’re about to run a red light!!!
I remember exactly where I was when I learned how time works. It was just after Christmas 2019; the next year was still unspoken for, a bright sprout of a new decade. I was sitting at the head of the first carriage of the automated DLR train and speeding through Canary Wharf toward London City Airport, where a plane would fly me home to Seattle.
Ahead of me, where the driver would normally sit, was a proud window, a vista made possible by technology. I could see that the fluorescence of the city was beginning to overtake the last of the natural light, and with the landscape darkening, the window dissolved into a mirror. I was learning about time because I was still reading Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons in Physics, a slim seventy-page volume a friend had lent me well before Thanksgiving. By December 28th while hurtling through time and space in the glass-fronted train of the future, I was slogging through Extremely Abbreviated Physics for the Uninitiated at an average pace of one page per day.
It was taking me so long because I had lost the plot by the end of lesson one, the introduction to Newtonian mechanics. Every chapter thereafter ideas tumbled one after another like rowdy children down a slip-n-slide, and I—more confounded with each sentence—wondered what proportion of Mr. Ramirez’s eleventh grade physics class I must have spent unconscious. I remembered nothing: not the theory of relativity, not entropy, not light waves nor light particles. Finally, as the sun set and the train reached its terminus, I had made it to the chapter on probability, time, and heat.
In his sixth lesson Rovelli explains how time as a linear constant does not exist. For example, time moves more slowly for objects in motion than sedentary ones—an infuriating irony to consider the next time you are stuck in a traffic jam. You are literally aging faster than those bastards who are passing you. And the human experience of time that flows inexorably forward from the past and into the future is also not real. We only perceive it this way due to our flawed, limited eyes squinting at a blurred vision of physical reality. In fact, the present, the past, and the future exist all at once, wobbling in a fervent dance of electrons and particles of light. We simply do not register what we do not notice.
What a relief it was to learn that linear time is not real. That one-way existential nightmare of my childhood was only an illusion. As I read on about “indexical” time, the image of time as a fluctuating grid consoled me. It was more like a haphazardly planned urban block than a high-speed freeway. You can stop anywhere you like on its side streets to marvel at the discounted flowers or step into a coffeeshop. On the sidewalks that allow for two-way traffic, some lope along while others scurry past. And with so many pedestrians, if it looks like you’re about to collide into someone, you’ll both do that soft-bodied shuffle to awkwardly let each other through.
While reading this book, I was in a relationship with an engineer, who had studied physics at university and he held a stubborn disdain for the wobbly truths of humanities majors. We would go out for drinks and end up debating the nature of facts and human experience. I had studied history and held a conviction that chronologies were mostly invented and record-keeping was spotty and skewed. “We can never know what truly happened,” I would say, “because our memories are bad, our archives are biased, and everyone is dead.” We can only interpret historical experiences and give weight and consideration to them. He would respond that if we lost sight of the moral distinction between provable facts and unprovable experience, then civilized society would fall. Donald Trump was president, news was fake, and idiots on Twitter were still shouting about “their truths.” During our two and a half years together, we had this tiresome argument twice a month.
After I finished reading Rovelli’s chapter on time, I told him about my feeling of relief. I pointed out that time must be the perfect scientific example that lived experience, even without facts, had merit. That “Truth” was not just facts but also meaning. He said that I had willfully misunderstood the point of the book. “Surely,” he said, “you are not that dumb.” He maintained that the book was about the earnest search for surprising answers. We quarreled; I cried. I felt he had willfully misunderstood me.
Nevertheless, the relationship tottered on for another four months before its unhappy end at the beginning of the coronavirus lockdowns. He was adaptable to my other rigidities, good at logistics, and had a talent of accurately gauging the time of day without consulting a clock—a comfort to me.
Besides, what did I know about lived experience? I, who found it difficult to gather the requisite phone/wallet/keys just to leave the house.
For all its unprovability, Rovelli concedes that time—as a tripartite construct of past, present, and future—is the most pragmatic way for us to understand our reality. “Time emerges from a world without time…There is a time to be born and a time to die,” Rovelli would later write in his book dedicated to the subject, just as a cat can emerge from the primordial stuff of the universe. At this oddball example, my mind shoots backward, misdirected. I remember something from high school physics. I remember that Mr. Ramirez had three cats, one of which was orange, and that his acceleration problems tended to involve that poor cat reaching terminal velocity in varying configurations.
The idea that the mind—and by extension human experience—exists simultaneously in the present, past, and future is nothing new. Once I started thinking about time, I found its spotty nonlinearity in realms well outside of physics. And once the pandemic was in full swing, think-pieces about time were published left and right. A team of Canadian psychologists wrote an essay last October called “Pandemic, Quarantine, and Psychological Time” about the year’s “time-related feeling of strangeness.” In order to calibrate our time sense, we compare present moments with past ones, and the paper suggests that the feeling of being unmoored in time may be due to all of us experiencing a pandemic quarantine for the first time. There is no cognitive backlog to compare it to, and no future to plan for.
On a coronavirus lockdown walk in July, I salvaged a copy of Heidegger from a box full of discarded household items and found time’s overlapping abstractions in the roundabout language of Being and Time. The future blends with the present and past in Heidegger’s thesis on the human state of being. We come into the world as a “being” by projecting versions of ourselves into the future.
This tangle of time is not just part of human existence as “being” or “thinking,” but also how we conceive of human life as “doing,” as social actors. The sociologists Mustafa Emirbayer and Ann Mische have posited that even human agency—with all of its idealistic valences like selfhood, freedom, creativity, purpose, and choice—is not an inalienable right, sitting deep within our souls like an undiscovered superpower. Rather, it can only be conceived of as existing across time.
“[Human agency is]…informed by the past (in its habitual aspect), but also oriented toward the future (as a capacity to imagine alternative possibilities) and toward the present (as a capacity to contextualize past habits and future projects within the contingencies of the moment).”
Thinking, being, doing—what else is there? The most fundamental aspects of human life are lashed to the crucifix of the past, present, and future. What consolation can I take from my shoddy metaphor of time as an idyllic four-way intersection?
The dawn poured in jaundiced one Friday morning in September. After days of haze, wildfire smoke blew in from California and Oregon, where the skies had looked Biblical—vermillion, ash raining. Looking back now, that morning was what all of 2020 felt like: You wake up and wonder which flavor of apocalypse will greet you. A pestilence, a hailstorm of fire, the light smothered out. Forget viral ventilation; I went around checking all my windows for cracks.
With the air laden with smoke, the view from my windows lost all dimension. Where the mountains had once stretched out past the highway, past the construction cranes, past the sound, now there was nothing. No shadows, no silhouettes. The world simply stopped existing beyond fifteen feet from the edge of my living room. A lockdown within a lockdown; a box within a box.
The aspect of time in Rovelli’s book that I never truly understood had to do with time’s relationship to heat, that our experience that time flows in a single direction has to do with the probability that hot things will eventually become cold:
“Heat, as we know, always moves from hot things to cold. A cold teaspoon placed in a cup of hot tea also becomes hot. If we don’t dress accordingly on a freezing cold day, we quickly lose body heat and become cold. Why does heat go from hot things to cold things and not vice versa?
It is a crucial question because it relates to the nature of time. In every case in which heat exchange does not occur, or when the heat exchanged is negligible, we see that the future behaves exactly like the past.”
Now I understood, emotionally at least, if not intellectually. Every day it became more and more unbearably hot, and whether or not the smoke would stay became a game of cruel probabilities. The rain promised to give the city its ritual cleansing was scheduled for Tuesday, then rescheduled for Wednesday, then Thursday. Thursday afternoon the rain arrived half-heartedly and died without having made a dent in the smog. The smoke siege, as the Washington Department of Ecology later called it, lasted a total of twelve days.
Twelve days in which the sky was the color of a dirty white sock at dawn and remained the same color at dusk: the future exactly like the past. Time gained a strange subjectivity; it was no longer a “when” but a “what.” Like a drunk roommate who had lost their keys, it would come knocking at my windows at sunset when particulates blotted out so much of the sun that I could stare right at its face as it dipped across my western windows. I reasoned with Time at the dining table, which had become my work desk; I slammed into it at the door frames, bargaining over bedtimes and dinner times. While the immovable smoke gave the impression of time’s boundaries solidifying, I felt the boundaries of my own being growing fuzzy and frenetic.
That out of body experience I had as a child re-emerged with great regularity during this period. Sure, I was in an urban time grid now, but stuck inside a cell, the sway and swings of Time loosened the screws of my housings. Despite Time’s overbearing company, I felt sure that it was wasting away, and I was wasting away too.
“We think we know ourselves in time,” writes the French phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space, his paean to domesticity and the house, “when all we know is a sequence of fixations in the spaces of the being’s stability.” One’s own space—one’s home—is supposed to ground us psychologically, so our “being” doesn’t “melt away.” The house protects the dreamer, and without it “man would be a dispersed being.” For Bachelard, the nooks and crannies of the home make up the “countless alveoli” of space, all of which contain “compressed time,” time suspended in its flight from past to present to future.
That is all well and good for my friend Gaston if, inside his house where an eternal present reigned, he felt his being steadied and made whole. In his own lifetime and in his own country, Bachelard was a prolific intellectual presence, with thirty-six monographs and countless essays to his name. He reputedly read six books a day in the compressed time of his Hausmannian Parisian suite, so self-stable in its nooks and crannies that he can ask the important questions such as, “How can one help confer greater cosmicity upon the city space that is exterior to one’s room?” and answer them with luxurious metaphors like, “the big city is a clamorous sea…There now, your skiff is holding its own, you are safe in your stone boat.”
In the smoggy alveoli of my rooms, I was neither dreaming, nor finding great metaphorical answers, nor being stabilized in the stillness of time. The only still thing in my apartment was the air. No matter how ardently my air filter ran, its quality indicator light remained red. I became paranoid that my apartment, sealed shut like a pork pie, was starting to smell like one too. I kept exiting and reentering my apartment via the balcony to see if I could sniff it objectively, darting between the corrupted miasma outside and the corrupted miasma inside.
The physical space became more and more unstable too. I had an oversized dining table that had once been ideal for dinner parties, but alone and my messes imperializing, I kept tripping over it, knocking into its corners, which were already fraying from the last move. My clothes would catch on them and tear. Increasingly uncareful, I blemished the fragile tabletop with hot plates and cold cups and then tried to rescue it by rubbing jarred mayonnaise onto its sores.
Feeling suffocated and hassled by my own generous furniture, I sold the big table on a day with hazardously brutal air quality. Up until the buyer showed up, I was still frantically looking for the wrench with which I needed to unscrew the legs, so the table could fit out the door. Time still shot forward; it was the space that was compressing. I jogged up a hill to my friend’s to borrow a wrench and then ran back, late and masked and heaving. Claustrophobic in the grim outdoors.
With the living room emptied of its rectangular giant, I recommissioned the first table I bought when I moved to Seattle. It was a round little thing, which I had sanded and stained myself. Regarding it with a renewed fondness, I started to grasp what Bachelard meant by “the poetics of space.” The humble piece, once situated, sighed lavishly among the reclaimed negative space. It was probably the only thing breathing freely in Seattle.
Against the dark wood of the floors, its goldenrod stain glowed like the sun was no longer able to do. I put a hopeful vase of flowers at its center. But pragmatically, the setup did not work. The table did not have enough room for dishes and décor, for laptops and elbows. Four chairs around the perimeter meant that every time I scooted, the legs of everyone involved would knock up against each other: my furniture and I in a depressing tango for real estate.
Those who are “time blind” have trouble estimating time and task duration: e.g., how long you sit dampening your bed after a shower, how long it takes to walk to the half mile to the restaurant, what ten minutes feel like, what three hours feel like.
The physician and child development expert Gabor Maté has described time blindness as a kind of developmental immaturity: “It’s as if one’s time sense never developed past a stage other people leave behind in early childhood,” and the result of this lack of time sense is that “one is either hopelessly short of time, dashing about like a deaf bat, or else acts as if blessed with the gift of eternity.” Either way, theorizes Maté, this shortfall in the mind’s circuitry leads to a distressing sensation that time is slipping away, like water from a leaky bucket. Yet if asked to estimate how long a task will take, people with ADHD chronically underestimate. In other words, stuck developmentally in the past and overwhelmed in the present, the time blind forget to remember the future.
Rather than providing me the wherewithal to gut six books a day, the smoke lockdown left me unable to consume anything beyond four-minute clips of Friends on YouTube, unable to commit to an entire 20 minute episode while simultaneously sitting stock-still as my computer rode the autoplay algorithm for hours. I started Sleepless in Seattle while pretending to work but couldn’t finish it. All its scenes of glorious Seattle rain left me itchy. I switched to Groundhog Day and watched the whole thing parked at my crowded dining table.
I was not the only one struck by how unnerving the film felt in 2020. A friend suggested that Russian Doll, Palm Springs, and Groundhog Day comprised the three moods of pandemic time: Our world turned deadly and inescapable, we day-drink and then wake up furious that we still have to put on a smile, get in front of a camera, and do our jobs.
“YOU’RE HYPOCRITES!” Phil Connors yells to the happy townfolk of Punxsutawney patiently awaiting their furry soothsayer. Meanwhile as I sat in my third virtual work meeting of the day contritely gathering “project learnings” for “the future,” I wished I had that courage and wanton nihilism to shout exactly that into the Zoom camera. Why anyone was talking about the future at all was beyond me, when the next Plague of Egypt was lurking around the corner.
Around that same time, Ross Sutherland of the fiction podcast Imaginary Advice made a two-part series about Groundhog Day, giving his bleak reinterpretation of the life of Phil the weatherman. Rather than a story of personal triumph and redemption, Sutherland described the story as one set in a “Lovecraftean hellscape.” Its comedic conceit and sliding doors editing distracts the viewer from the “cosmic horror” of Phil’s predicament: time not experienced as flow, but only experienced as duration.
The film is just ninety minutes long, but depending on the analysis, Phil was stuck reliving the same day in Punxsutawney for ten years, forty years, or even 10,000 years. Ten thousand years condemned to a life where the future does not exist, and the ending is a great affirmation of the redemptive goodness of even an asshole like Phil Connors. Phil discovers nihilism first and then hobbies—an inversion of our own pandemic moods of optimistic bread-baking and then fatalism. From there, Phil woos a woman, Phil takes piano lessons, Phil clocks in and out of a small town’s daily affairs, and finally, Phil becomes a better man.
Is there really a redemptive quotient if we rip the future from our calculations? 2020 was the perfect year to run this experiment. And instead of redeeming myself, all I was doing was trying to figure out how time worked, how to stop myself from melting away.
In the second part of their Groundhog Day episode, Imaginary Advice commissioned writers to expand the story to reflect its 10,000 year lifespan. By the end of their version, there is no romantic subplot with a cute coworker; in fact, no human relations whatsoever. Instead, there is only “the entity once known as Phil,” aloft among the branches of a tree, like some kind of unhungry, Nirvanic spider. Completely unmoored from time, Phil was not a better man. He was barely even a human.
What is important, then, about how we endure the passage of time in the present is what we fill it with. That’s the supposed lesson of the Groundhog Day, isn’t it? Once Phil has established a routine where fills his eternal present with meaningful tasks and humane errands, he is freed of his temporal imprisonment. This is the anxious doctrine upon which I have fastened my whole life. If I could just fill my days with more purpose, then perhaps Time would not feel like it was either fleeing from or colliding into me. I would not need to grasp at so many bad urban planning metaphors to stabilize me in its dance. So regular was this anxiety that I would repeatedly fantasize about quitting my office job to follow more worthy, generative pursuits: write something I was proud of, learn to play the piano, make cream puffs, or just sit and follow one thought as it gave way to another. With one friend in particular, this resulted in roundabout conversations that were somehow full of arithmetic.
“If you sleep for eight hours, you will still need to fill the rest of the sixteen hours,” he said. An obvious calculation, to be sure, but it felt ontologically meaningless to me. And then he would rattle off estimations for how long his various hobbies and chores would take: a bike ride, one hour; a shower, fifteen minutes; picking up a pastry at the bakery, less than a half hour; his online extension class, three hours; catching up on the news, thirty minutes… At the end of his laundry list of worthy pursuits, he still had more than six hours to go.
I didn’t know what to say. Days did not feel like sixteen hours ready for the taking. Hours were not a resource to be readily parceled; instead whole days flopped open in the morning and, just as suddenly, sealed shut.
In vernacular Mandarin Chinese, there is no distinction between the future verb construction “will do” and the modal expression of ability “can do.” The difference between innate ability and future reality is contextual, for example by tacking on a “tomorrow” or “next week” somewhere in the sentence. In contrast, English is full of helping verbs to modulate action, ability, and intent. You add on more and more verbs so by the end phrases express precisely that you are accomplishing nothing at all: can be done, will have done, have to have done, have to have been doing.
In English, one might say, “I can write an essay, but I will not.” Ability and motivation divorced and contrasted. In Mandarin, it becomes “I can write an essay, but I cannot.” A future state dead on arrival.
The cosmic horror of my own predicament was that even as the world slowed to a stop, played and replayed on an endless time loop, I could not seem to fill it with anything at all. There is a time to be born and a time to die. My days were numbered, but I was dealing with it like 10,000-year-old Phil Connors, gazing inattentively at a life I had no hope of making a dent in. It was bewildering to look at a life so stock-still and stable and measuring it, find it untenable.
I wanted to be a writer, but all I could do was ruminate over other people’s ideas for weeks. I wanted to have a nice home, but all I did was shuffle my furniture around. I thought I was independent, but I was scared to drive a car. I was scared of freeways. I was scared of breaking up with men I knew were not right for me. I could not follow the path from intent to action unless it had a deadline.
I wanted to be a good person and live a good life, and all I was doing was complaining about time. For the first time, I had no more metaphors. I looked at my smoggy rooms and my smoggy life and felt true despair.
Two weeks after the smoke lifted, I made an appointment with a professional. Two weeks later, but perhaps twenty years too late. Procrastination at its finest.
“I feel like a spectator in my own life,” I told the psychiatrist over Zoom, “like my life is train that is speeding forward, and I am not on it.” If this was not the time to unburden my soul, then I didn’t know when I could do it again. The doctor suddenly perked up like a dog to record this existential moan: “I love it when I hear a patient describe a symptom in a way I’ve never heard before!”
Psychiatrists are not therapists.
It didn’t make me feel much better that doctor himself seemed to have poorly-managed ADHD. He spoke so fast and in such a constant stream, the words pouring out of his mouth seemed to trip over his flailing hands. Finding it hard to keep up, I spent most of the first visit frowning and fidgeting—the latter, it turned out, was being recorded as a highly specific symptom. Then he walked me through my questionnaire results: “I only need five indicators to diagnose. You have eleven.” He showed me all ten fingers.
I went into the psychiatrist’s office to take a more quantifiable exam two days later, to gauge the specificities of my ADHD. They put a headband on you, which has a digital tracker so the computer can monitor your movements. The screen flashes squares and circles in blue or red, and you click a clicker when you see an image of the same shape and color as the previous image. After what must have been only two or three minutes, I had heartburn from the sheer force of will required to stay engaged in a test designed to bore you to oblivion. My legs began to shake. To calm myself, I muttered the image descriptions under my breath: blue circle, red square, blue circle, red circle. By the end, I was taking deep breaths to quell the insanity bursting in my forehead. I couldn’t believe that a twenty-minute video game could break me the way that it had. When the lab technician asked me how it was, I told him I would rather re-sit a four-hour standardized test than relive that nightmare. If I did not trust the psychiatrist’s diagnosis before, I did now.
At the next visit, my flighty psychiatrist gave me my test results: 99% more hyperactive than the control group, 83% more inattentive. And then he waved me away with some abridged reading about all the ways the ADHD brain is an exhausted motherboard and a slapdash drawing of a teacup that was supposed to show how psychiatric drugs are dosed to ensure optimal dopamine levels.
Dopamine is the hormone responsible for reward-motivated behavior, and low levels of dopamine in the brain is thought to be a major factor in ADHD’s deficits in executive function. Most ADHD medications like Ritalin and Adderall are dopamine reuptake inhibitors, which means that they prevent certain proteins, called dopamine transporters, from scooping up the dopamine from the brain synapses and spitting it out on the wrong side of the cell membrane before you finish what you started. This way, the dopamine can pool in the brain cells at normal levels so you can get on with your life rather than being besieged by pointless strings of internal monologue, lilliputian impulses, and motivations so milquetoast they sputter out as soon as they’re born. At the height of each dosage when my brain was cool and smooth like vanilla yogurt, I imagined all this dopamine collecting and puddling at the globulous end of every synapse, while the dopamine transporters perched on the wall of the teacup, with their little pails waiting, waiting, waiting.
The first time I took Ritalin, it felt like my brain had given up. It just sat there while I stood in my kitchen, looking at the dirty dishes, surveying the bits of litter my cat had trailed into the hall. I had never felt so calm. With the world inside of me finally still, my real, physical life had an effervescence. All the stuff around me floated up as a bubble of opportunity. Something to improve; something to finish. Life, it turned out, was a sum of small things after all.
I went on a decluttering rampage, the kind that Marie Kondo herself would have been proud of. In a single weekend, I opened every drawer and went on a taxonomic frenzy: categorizing everything that could be categorized into piles, then arranged them into boxes, and again into drawers, and then labelled every box and then every drawer with the label-maker—once a purely aspirational purchase, now a weapon of mass deconstruction. During this process, I was faced with my complete inability to throw things away: old mail, receipts, potentially dead but possibly alive Schroedinger’s batteries. As I sat on my bedroom floor collecting and lining up endless antihistamine packets into neat rows, I was overwhelmed by a strange, new belief in the achievability of tasks: the comforting, teleological march from disorder to order. From productivity, finally Progress.
Our formulation of time creates the perception that the past is gone and irretrievable, the future inaccessible but malleable, and the present here and available. It occurred to me that during all of those hours I had spent trying to untangle time, I had been doing it with the wrong people. Phenomenologists and physicists and storytellers, they can spin a beautiful metaphor, metaphors I was always trying to measure mine up against. As the dopamine settled my brain, I realized that time was a problem of chemistry.
My present and my future—all of those tender waking hours—was finally available, spreading out in front of me. I was at last the protagonist of my own life. And what a protagonist! Not those complex protagonists of postmodernity, who sit around agonizing or waiting for Godot. No, that was the old pre-Ritalin me, running about the stage in a distracted monologue before smashing headfirst into the fourth wall. And then realizing, with a migraine, that the wall was my own life.
The new me was a simple, bland hero. Inner turmoil? Never heard of it. A hero like in the old westerns when the camera pans out upon the Man on the Frontier, a single silhouette on the horizon, contrapposto, shovel in hand, surveying a land that had always been there. Never mind that landscape was already inhabited by nations, families, and friends, by legends, monsters and sprites. The wars and alliances, plagues and plows that have already sliced this horizon apart are all the detritus of civilizations without a manifest destiny, and I… I!! I, with my feet upright in these heavy boots of perfect agency, I stand here on this rocky promontory of the present, forehead alight in the afterglow of my own existence, and say: Ah, so this virgin soil has always been mine!
An essay called “Fuck the Bread” was published in the Paris Review during the early pandemic spring when lockdowns and mortality still felt raw, and people were busy depleting grocery stores of their bread flour. In it, Sabrina Orah Mark strays from her worries about professional achievement to consider how fairy tales are just containers to hold tasks, and once the tasks are over, there is no room for you anymore. “What happens,” she asks, “when your skills are no longer needed for the sake of the fairy tale? A great gust comes and carries you away.”
What was the lesson in pandemic time, smoke sieges, and dopamine therapies? The flow of time is just a fairy tale we tell ourselves so we can have a reason to finish things. That even with all the disorderliness of our physical cosmos, there is only so much room, and there is only so much time. Essays too have to end, even in this season of perpetual present.
By the time I write this paragraph, I will have been working on this essay for over a year. The sentences about reading about physics through Canary Wharf I typed out in February 2020, thinking it was going to be part of a treatise on my enduring love of trains. The paragraphs about the smoke lockdown were all once in present tense, because I wrote them sitting at my little dining table, staring at the smoke wall. At that time, I considered working them into a criticism about nineties naiveté. Every time I returned to these paragraphs, I imagined them as a constructed whole, but every time I kept finding myself in the middle of something instead. I cut and paste, revise transitions, worry about tense agreement. I have culled entire paragraphs now, ideas borne away with the flow of time.
Mark sends her children out into the woods with their own checklist of tasks. When they return with bits of moss and leaves, she muses over how much we depend on “useless, arbitrary tasks to prove ourselves” to show that we “succeeded.”
This essay was my useless, arbitrary task. It did not deliver oxygen to the breathless; it did not succor the dying nor wash away the bad air. It saved no one, not even me. Nevertheless, I have finished it, with time, in time. And since those first drug trials in November, I have been overwhelmed by the sense of perpetuity. I write this last sentence, and find myself wanting to fiddle with tenses again:
Succeeded, can succeed, succeeding, will succeed.
Julie Yue is a writer based in Seattle, Washington. She has edited at and written for publications like The Seattle Review of Books and Humanities Magazine, and most recently had poetry published in High Shelf Press. In a previous life, she was a historian with degrees in European and Chinese history from Brown University and the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Find her on twitter or instagram @julieyue.
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.