Between April 15 and early October we get ruby-throated hummingbirds around here, and I’m a little obsessed. I set up the feeder right outside the screen door, so on a lucky day I can look up from breakfast and see them perch, maybe sit, maybe drink for 30 seconds before they startle off. Deranged with glucose they zoom around the yard, fighting and chasing in tiny-brain fear that they won’t get their absolute fill.
In the past, I’ve sometimes identified with these hummingbirds. I run at a bit of a high rev, and I’m usually hungry to do more, to talk more, to learn more! But this past summer I felt more than ever how slow and ponderous I must really look to a hummingbird. I was living on sloth time, staring around the yard maybe processing? … maybe thinking of nothing? Out of the fog I realized I might be trying to cope with three different feelings of temporal displacement; I don’t have the energy to sketch them more than briefly.
1. Personal grief. My beloved Mom passed away suddenly one year ago, before “all this,” and she’d saved every scrap of paper from our busy childhoods. I couldn’t go back to Long Island this spring, and so my siblings had to empty out the house, mailing me giant boxes full of crumbling Trapper Keepers. Binders full of fantasy houses I drew on graph paper, albums full of stamps I loved in detail—they leaped vividly into my awareness though I hadn’t given them a moment’s thought for 40 years. Oh my gosh, I really was obsessed with the furniture section of the 1979 Sears catalog! The structure of trauma, in psychoanalysis, is organized by Nachträglichkeit: by the inversion of time in which suddenly you remember a new past. Maybe it works like that for good, but forgotten memories too.
When the boxes started coming, the Democratic Convention was playing on TV, and it increased my feeling that a sudden gulf had opened up between the past and present—and that the past looked completely different from this traumatized perspective. The candidate’s personal losses merged with the losses of other Americans in a public grief that felt oddly like a respite from a present moment structured around denial. Usually these conventions are based around some slick kind of hope, but instead the personal testimonies that were shared through glitchy zoom connections induced the illusion of intimacy. But this intimacy was based on loss—of loved ones, and of a whole shared way of life that was now beyond recall. There’s a kind of exaltation when you think a whole community is falling into the same temporal abyss where you yourself are plunging.
2. The stupid pandemic. When you’re spending most waking minutes waiting for the next case update, the next tick upward on the graph—and then instantly forgetting those numbers to wait for the next ones—the weeks tend to dissolve away. Every day felt the same, but was reduced to the urgency of now. I tried to read—and got through a little of my vast summer list—but the lure of the new numbers increased my addiction to social media, where everyone was stuck in the same pattern.
Part of the dread peril of this present moment is our complete uncertainty about the future. On the one hand we’re cut off from the past, and our memory runs back constantly to those moments in early March when we sort of knew we were about to lose “normal,” but didn’t really know. It’s terrifying to see TV shows filmed before covid, with all those happy unmasked celebrations. I watched a Rick Steves episode from 2018 in which he visits a wine bar in Lisbon and has a glass of port with his charcuterie plate, and nearly had a panic attack. (Then instantly I felt a self-pitying sorrow that I’d felt that panic.) What does the future hold: more terror? Even death (oh surely not, not ever!)? A better plan? Worse numbers? Doing nothing is all you can do—is virtuous, in fact—but when the government does nothing, you’re in trouble. The result is a helpless feeling about the damage that time (and malevolent political forces) can inflict.
3. History is unmaking itself. Since the Trump election the nation has been going through a massive reckoning and re-evaluation. Systems that looked functional reveal themselves to be oppressive—and yet fragile, easily appropriated by a pack of well-connected criminals. Heaving up like a broken iceberg, the past looks strangely horrible. Race, especially, turns out to be the constitutive blind spot—and so art and historiography cluster around the opening, creating “The 1619 Project” and Get Out.
The reaction against Trumpism has been strong—it represents, in fact, the vast majority of the country— but we haven’t all voted yet, and the outcome is bizarrely obscure. How can so many people, in a democracy, be so helpless? During the long years when George W. Bush was president, and shrill hysterical blind warfare blared from every TV, I had a slightly embarrassing reaction to a video of John Mayer’s “Waiting on the World to Change.” It’s a sad little song about young people stuck in a holding pattern, and when I saw the video in a food court I stopped and listened, and—even though John Mayer is embarrassing!—I felt sad. In 2008 the crises came to a head, and we switched Presidents. But we failed to come to terms with what we’d done, and things eventually got worse.
Joyful memories, foundational losses, pandemic quarantine, historical revision—all this leads to stopping, contemplating, and reorienting. If we ever move forward, and bind our wounds, and build …
But when you’re in stasis, it feels like stasis will last forever.