There’s a phrase the kids use these days that I like a lot, and that phrase is “for a minute.”
The Urban Dictionary, that irreverent testimony to the liveliness of language, defines it thus: “A vague reference of time, which could be a few days or a few weeks. The majority of the users either don’t actually know that a minute is a measurement of time or have dumbed down their own brains to the point of not caring that they sound like morons.”
I’m sure they know that a minute is a measurement of time, and I admire the deftness with which they capture the absurdity of its passing. A minute is a devalued thing, like a penny; but I believe it deserves better, it deserves to be held in higher regard. How contrary a minute is! How long when you’re waiting for work to end, how quickly-passing when you’re late. How agonizingly long the last minute of extra time feels when your team is up 1-0 and down to ten men, but how cruelly short when the situation is reversed. Time has always passed strangely, of course, but something about these quarantine days–staying in one place, seeing fewer people, not marking all the usual holidays in the usual ways–brings it all into stark focus.
It’s become a new old joke that during quarantine we can’t keep track of the day, the week, the month, even the season of the year. Though the big spaces go slowly, the small moments seem to crawl. We don’t have all the old users-up-of the day. The drive from here to there, the commute to work, time spent chatting with a neighbor, time spent wandering around a store. But weirdly I’m more protective of my time than ever. People, I do NOTHING on weekend days. I’m too discouraged and distracted to write, though I do think about it. What I do every weekend day is I watch Spanish football, walk the dog, and bake. THAT’S IT! and yet the few times we’ve driven anywhere in the last 9 months I thought, I don’t have time for that! I know I’m not using it wisely, but I find I value the time more.
I’ve written about this before, but it seems so apt at the moment, and it’s so beautiful it’s worth repeating. It’s from Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. He’s talking about a man condemned to die, waiting to be killed. “He said that nothing was more oppressive for him at that moment than the constant thought: ‘What if I were not to die! What if life were given back to me–what infinity! And it would all be mine! Then I’d turn each minute into a whole age, I’d lose nothing, I’d reckon up every minute separately, I’d let nothing be wasted!’” And what happened to the condemned man after his punishment was changed at the last minute, and he was granted “infinite life.” Did he live reckoning up every minute? “Oh, no, he told me himself–I asked him about it–he didn’t live that way at all and lost many, many minutes.”
I don’t think it’s overly dramatic to say that we’ve been surrounded by death the last 9 months, wherever we live in the world. I think it’s important to remember that fact, because in America, at least, we have the sorry skill of glossing it over, making it less important, dwelling on shiny trivial things. We are living through a pandemic. We are living through a pandemic. It’s such a strange contradiction that quarantine makes time pass slowly but the reason for it makes every minute more precious than ever.
So I’d like to reckon every minute up separately, in the new sense of the word, in which a minute could be weeks or days or years. And I’d like to value the time, value every minute, even if we’re just sitting in a darkening room at twilight, with a blue snow-light out the window, and we’re typing away at some nonsense, while our teenage son plays beautiful wandering video games talking to friends on the same voyage, though they’re each in their own houses, and the other teenage but adult son is buzzing on his new haircut and wandering around our actual town with a friend from college, and Clio is grumbling in her sleep, and we’re watching French football narrated in Arabic on an illegal stream, and the house smells like roasting garlic and newly baked bagels, and David is in the kitchen helping with the cooking. It’s not much, but it’s everything. And I will reckon up every minute of it.
This is our new way of making lasagna. It doesn’t use lasagne noodles, so in fact, I suppose it’s not lasagna, but we call it after the idea of the dish rather than the noodle used. We use thick papardelle noodles, or even a mixture of papardelle and Fettuccini, and we just tangle them in a thin layer. It makes everything lighter and more interesting. Nothing is carefully arranged, everything is a bit of a lovely mess. This was our take on a Margherita pizza. We actually made the sauce in the summer with tomatoes from our garden and from the farm we belong to, and we put it up in bottles. This would be probably best to eat in summer, but in winter it’s like a beautiful memory of summer.
Here’s Mama, Won’t You Keep Them Castles in the Air and Burning by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. One of my favorite songs of all time, and it contains the line, “Time does not cut deep but cuts most absurdly.”