The time giver

The one thing about 2020 I know I won't regret

  • The time giver

  • A year-end act: donate to food banks

  • Stay in the foxhole for 2021

The time giver

Looking back on this year, I can’t find where it began, but I know it ends this evening. Out of sheer good fortune, our family was able to confine itself during 2020 within the four outer walls of a temperature-controlled, comfortable, roomy home with high-speed Internet, work-from-home jobs, and virtual schooling. We have spent our collective decades together as a family unit pretty seamlessly, choosing to hang out with each other more often than not well before the pandemic began. So in all of those senses, we had it as good as it could be had in 2020.

Within these walls, we tried to mark the passage of time—many birthdays, a wedding anniversary, major holidays, a graduation, a matriculation. Yet we lost track of the days, the weeks, and the months, to the point that December may as well have lasted 10 seconds or 10 years. I do not know.

In biology, there is a concept know as the “zeitgeber,” or “time giver.” Animals pick up cues from light-dark cycles and the environment that set their own daily clocks: time to wake, time to eat, time to hunt, time to mate, time to move on. Humans tend to have a pretty tight range of internal time givers, leading us to a narrow average range around 24 hours for a daily clock. This clock can be discombobulated by artificial light, upheaval, stress, and social disruptions, leaving the brain disordered, foggy, mood-burdened, and arrhythmically disarranged.

Without realizing it, we set the rhythm of our lives, as nearly as possible, around routines that work within this typical 24-hour time frame. These routines themselves integrate as part of our zeitgeber: food at 7 p.m., followed by an hour or two of Netflix binging, followed by evening preparation for the morning rush, followed by brushing teeth, washing faces, and tucking into bed. In the morning, we have the coffee, the hurried breakfast, the frantic search for socks, matching or not, and out the door to our regularly scheduled day. Most of us do not know it, but these rituals and routines, even when they feel stressful and pressurized, mark our time and give us our time. They are our zeitgebers. And we know that time has passed because after these daily separations, we regroup again in the evening to start the routine again.

But when the pandemic descended last spring, those of us who could stay in and honored and respected the health of those who could not began a different kind of routine, one of no routine at all. None of us left. We didn’t have the morning rush or have to hurry through breakfast. No one walked out the door, vanishing into some other personal world for the day and returning to regroup for our collective evening experience.

Instead, we wandered from room to room within these four walls. We crossed paths all day, every day, indoors, for months and months and months. Work time bled into whatever time, which ate into some other kind of time because none of the times had an identity. Waking times were whenever, depending on individual needs, rather than a collective whirl and rush of preparation to get everyone out the door. Breakfast was whenever, sneaked in between zoom classes or work meetings. Daytime clothes became irrelevant, and we all shuffled around in nightwear, all day, every day. Lunch could be any time during the daylight hours, or it could just be breakfast. Or dinner. There was no “end of the school day” or “end of the workday” with a group reunion to mark the “evening time” and “ family time.”

Did we even age this year? We all seem to be exactly the same on the outside, but with longer hair. Yet I feel older, sadder, angrier, and, to paraphrase a hobbit, like butter spread too thinly on toast. As the time gifted to us in some monkey’s paw bargain I didn’t make stretched and stretched to seemingly impossible lengths, I felt the weight of its meaning even as I felt it slip away.

Throughout these long months of not-day-not-night-what-is-time-anyway existence, an infinite loop played in my head. It went like this:

We are so lucky to be together and when I look back on this time (if I live to look back on this time) I will realize probably the immense good fortune and blessing it was for us to be able to be with each other and our sons in such a peaceful way and thank gods we can all work from home and afford Internet and food and I just can’t bring myself even to appreciate that fully enough because people are suffering by the millions and dying by the thousands every day in part because this good fortune was made inaccessible to them and in part because humans are cruel and selfish and what the fuck did that man or some puppet of his do now and if I enjoy this gift of time I will be selfish too but if I do not somehow fix my mind on some of the intense beauty of life right before my eyes during all of this and root it in memory while I can, will I not have wrenching regret should at the end of all of this time given to me with some of these people I love most I spent it being chewed alive by anxiety and spitting in helpless anger at the injustices of this world?

It is a long loop. It has been a long year.

The irony of 2020 for me was that it was such a zeit geber. I had all of this time with my family, including my sons, all nearing or past the age of leaving the safety of these four walls for the perils of an independent life. If given the chance to share something with the people we love, time is at the top of that list, isn’t it? So many of us this year lost that greatest gift thanks to human cruelty and incompetence and reckless disregard for human lives. Some of us lost it with no chance of getting it back. How can I fully enjoy a gift showered on me in an abundance beyond my wildest dreams even as others were brutally deprived of their fair share at the most crucial moments of their lives?

Despite the greatness of this gift of time, I lost all sense of the passage of this time given me. As hard as I tried, I could not mark it with the usual rituals to be felt, smelled, touched, seen, heard, and embedded in episodic memory so that I would know something changed. So I would know that time had passed. The irony of that bends my mind. Perhaps the gift of hindsight, should I be so graced, will straighten things out a little. To paraphrase a wizard, I will eventually need to decide what I did with the time given to me.

Looking back on this year, I do not know where it began. I do not know, from day to day, what happened to the time, where it went, what it was doing while we sat collected within these four walls. All I know is that 2020 ends this evening, and seeing it go is one passage of time I will not regret. Here is hoping that 2021 eventually gives us our zeitgebers back.


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Please donate to your local food bank

As this hell year draws to a close, please consider donating to your local food bank.

And then consider donating to your local food bank again as 2021 begins.

Stay in the foxhole for 2021

As we look ahead to 2021, Maryn McKenna’s got some sobering news and sets expectations for those of us hoping for a better year. Urging us to “stay safe in the foxhole,” she writes at Wired:

If all of this seems to be adding up to a 2021 that looks like 2020: Yes, that’s what the experts predict. Despite the commitment of everyone who participated in social distancing, much of the world is now worse off than in the spring, when lockdowns and mask-wearing first seemed crucial things to do. And vaccines are arriving so heterogeneously that, for some number of months, people who have gotten the shots will be living or working alongside people who are still at risk. A nurse might be protected when her kids have not been; a senior citizen might get the vaccine but be living in a household with fortysomethings who are considered low priority. Until enough people have been vaccinated to establish herd immunity, the safest thing to do is to behave as though everyone is vulnerable.

So please, if you are able, stay within your four-walled foxhole, keep your distance, and wear a mask. And if your opportunity comes up for getting the vaccine, please do so.

Here’s hoping for a better year than the last. Take care, and thanks for reading.


Share Divergent, by EJ Willingham