We Have to Be Time Travelers Now
A mental framework for making it through a difficult time
I like “shopping” for books in my own home by walking over to my bookshelf and pretending I’m in a used bookstore where every book costs zero dollars. It helps that I have terrible book memory, which means that every book feels new to me. (“Which one was Moby Dick again? The whale or the guy?”)
The other night, I went shopping with a purpose: I was looking specifically for books about writing. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the power of “writing through” the time we’re in, and I’ve been writing a lot more. I grabbed Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, On Writing by Stephen King, The Art of Fiction by John Gardner, Poking a Dead Frog by Mike Sacks (a highly entertaining book on comedy writing), and Henry Miller on Writing by Henry Miller — a book I’d forgotten I owned, much less read — and sat down to browse through them all.
The page I happened to open the Miller book to was an odd, rambling letter dated January 16, 1938, to the publisher Michael Fraenkel, but it contains a set of lines that immediately felt profound and urgent:
“Every day, I live in three times — the past, the present, and the future. The past is the springboard, the present the melting pot, and the future the delectation. I participate in all three simultaneously.”
(I had to look up “delectation.” It means “pleasure and delight.” Nice word.)
I know I’ve read those lines before because I know I’ve read the book before, cover to cover. But those words — and the entire book, really — had no impact the first time I read them, at least not an impact I remember. This time, though, they struck me. It was the first time in a year of pandemic living that I read something that made me feel like I might actually be in control of my life.
This is what that short passage crystallized for me: We always live in three times, but we really live in three times right now.
We live in the past, because we were never allowed to leave it. We were abruptly torn from it that week in March 2020. But some of that life remains, suspended — all the unfinished business, plans, and projects abruptly abandoned.