Time has been playing strange tricks since the pandemic turned our world upside down. Stretching, bending, and collapsing into themselves, temporal dimensions have unraveled in a majestic dance. Perhaps this is the closest some of us will ever come to the physical awareness that linear time is a construct, that it can divide and multiply into countless pathways, that it can stop, and start whenever it wishes to. The reality that follows is incoherent. Are we travelers whizzing through hours and days too fast to soak up the surroundings? Or have we slowed down to the extent that the world appears to be immutable?
As time loses its trajectory and dissipates into the unknown, my temporal awareness migrates from the crevices of the abstract mind – where it once proudly held the title of the ruler of my daily routines, and translates into a hollow, intuitive presence. The force or perhaps the forcelessness of the passing minutes since the virus has horned its way into our lives, stir some of my childhood memories from their deep slumber. Or, shall I say that as time becomes unfettered, it opens itself up for transtemporal adventures? For the past few months, the odd intersections of temporal realities have returned me to the body of my teenage self. They say that trauma compounds trauma, but this feels different. It is not exactly painful. Maybe bitter-sweet? Melancholic?
When the system collapsed in 1991, time stopped. To be fair, I was five then, so I have no first-hand recollection of that standstill, but memories get passed down. Through stories told and retold over and over again – by family, neighbors, teachers, relatives, – I inherited the thrill of the national liberation movement, the wine-colored flags drenched in tears of joy, slogans promising a brighter future for the new, independent Georgia. A few years down the road, my memories weld with the collective repository. I witness how glimpses of a better future metamorphose into years of power outages. I vividly see my wax-stained notebooks after doing homework under the candle light. I smell the sweetish scent of the red kerosene heater in our living room. I feel the warmth of those evening hours when the whole family would huddle together around the kitchen table, sharing stories over a pot of bean stew. And of course, I remember the endless traffic of plates of food exchanged between neighbors as jobs and money became scarce.
These sensory minutia would have escaped me if not for the pandemic. The pliability that time acquired amidst the worldwide standstill has given me the gift of going back to the past and re-assembling its contents.
It is when I have nowhere to be, nothing particular to do that my memories acquire a soothing clarity. I’m sitting by the window in my grandma’s Khrushchyovka apartment in the suburbs of Tbilisi. The dining table is draped with one of those cheap florid plastic covers one could find in every household in those days. My elbows are on the table, my head resting between them, my gaze alternating between the knife scars and candle burns on the frayed table cover to the open window. The Soviet lace curtain gently ripples over the chipped wooden frame. It smells like spring and sunshine.
Time stands still in that leisurely manner you only experience as a child. It simply does not move. There is no past and no future. Just the present.
Now and then, I am perched on the windowsill of my childhood room. It is around mid-May, school will be out in just a week. I should be preparing for my final exams, but instead, I am transfixed by the life unraveling below my grey, mass-housing apartment block. From the seventeenth floor, I feel omniscient. Disjointed movements in the chaotically scattered, mismatched private homes below our tower block rupture the midday lull. A stocky woman splashes washwater in her backyard. The whiplash of water on cement reaches me seconds later. Neighborhood boys are playing cards on a makeshift table under a lone shriveled tree. Their giggles echo against the concrete walls of the towering building. A lone chicken pecks through a neatly arranged pile of trash.
When I started having these experiences, my first instinct was to think of trauma as the magnet that draws these past and present episodes together. But now I realize that it is rather the slowness of time that accompanies major social disruptions that pulls these two temporal instances together. It is the tediousness of the now, the idle brilliance of the mundane, that makes the time travel possible. This has been a gratifying realization. In the 1990s, just like in the 2020s, the future was impossible to predict, it simply disappeared, plunging us into the neverending present. For those of us who are lucky enough to have a roof over our heads and food on our tables these past months, the disintegration of our daily lives into a themeless repetition might be a good reminder of what it means to have a home in the present.