Champaign, Illinois, doesn’t get much snow. It gets cold here, and icy. Leaving the apartment most winter mornings, with Toph zigzagging at the end of her leash, her nails scrabbling the slick-smooth pavement, I have to watch my step.
It is cold this morning too, and icy. Dawn is breaking. Out past the southern corner of the sports-medicine clinic that sprawls across the street from my apartment, the first dull smears of sunlight have started to accrete. It’s 6:30, or thereabouts, and most things—most buildings, cars, trees, and very rarely people—are still draped in lightening shades of purple and blue. Toph snuffles along a bush. Nearby I stand with her leash turned once around my fist, trying and trying and trying through the thick fingers of my glove to peel a poop bag from a public dispenser.
I think it’s something about the insipidness of this moment that does it. Something about my standing there, useless, in the cold, about my plucking inanely at a plastic dog-doo bag and experiencing each fresh failure like a hammer blow to my soul, like incontrovertible proof of some obscure but deeply personal cosmic conspiracy against me. Or maybe it’s just the specific, frigid clarity that comes with an early January morning. In any case, as I struggle there with the bag, and as Toph continues her earnest inspection of what I assume must be another dog’s urine, it strikes me: I have been here before. In fact, I have been exactly here before—with Toph, with the bag, with the cold, with the early morning gloom—many times.
I was here yesterday, for instance. And I was here the day before that. And I was here the day before that, too, and also the day before that, and the day before that, and the day before that.
And just when it begins to seem that the frosty, existential void opening beneath my feet couldn’t possibly yawn any wider, it does. Having, in a final act of defeat, shaken off my glove so that I can actually grip the bag, I realize, with a certainty that’s almost suffocating, that I already know how this day will go. It will go the same as every day before it has gone, these past ten months. The sequence of events that yesterday carried me from morning to afternoon, from afternoon to evening, and from evening to bed, will carry me again—and will deposit me once more, by this time tomorrow, back here.
Back here, in front of this same friggin’ poop-bag dispenser.
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, as William Shakespeare might complain.
Or, in a happy marriage of Star Wars and Friedrich Nietzsche: the abyss strikes back.
Either way, jamming the bag into my pocket, I crank the volume of the podcast I’m listening to and slip-slide awkwardly away, Toph in tow, trying to redirect my thoughts.
Moments like this one, moments where I’m brought up short by the disconcerting sameness of each day, have been happening more often lately. Partly, of course, this frequency has to do with the fact that my wife and I are nearing a full year of sheltering in place here in the Midwest. Indeed, it’s not without reason that “pandemic time” has become a meme. Under the pandemic, the experience of time has turned … weird. This past year alone, we’ve seen time fragment, dilate, contract, shatter, implode, walk your dog, pour you coffee, bring your children back from Zoom school, and coach you through all five chords of “Wonderwall.” It’s done everything, in fact—everything, that is, except the one thing we moderns expect it to do, which is conform to the seemingly objective tick-tick-tick of the analog clock.
So that’s part of it, I guess. Part of why I feel compelled to dignify an otherwise unremarkable visit to the place I go to pick up my dog’s shit.
But that’s not all. Rushing that chilly morning to escape the weight of tomorrow and its petty, creeping pace, I was reacting less, I think, to the weirdness of time than to its palpable brokenness. Time as arrow, time as line. Yet somehow time, right now, has managed to feel like neither of those things—has managed not even to feel cyclical, only stalled. Interrupted.
Which says something, I suppose, coming as it does from a white, 28-year-old man to whom everything in the US has been promised. A white man who is, at the time of this writing, warm in his apartment, stably employed at a Big Ten university, and, if not wealthy, then at least economically at ease.
Probably a Lenten scholar would have something wise to say here about living in the midst of stalled or broken times. Were I more theologically astute, I would probably cite one such scholar. But I’m not, and I can’t. So instead I’ll end by pointing to a talk I recently heard by an English professor named Elizabeth Outka. In her talk on the 1918 flu pandemic, Outka claimed that one of the uses of art is to help us learn to sit with uncertainty. I like that argument. And while some in the US, I think, already know what sitting with uncertainty looks like, there are plenty of us, yours truly included, who need a crash course or two. A crash course in endurance, yes. But also one, I think, in learning how to imagine, on the ice-slick ground of the present, whatever it is that will come—that must come—next.
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.