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.

We live in the present, of course. But the present we are living in right now is a long present. The present is never just a moment — it ends only as soon as something truly new begins. In a way, the current present has lasted since that week last March. It will end at some point, but we don’t know what will end it. It will end when life changes enough to make it end.

We live in the future, perhaps now more than ever. We transport ourselves to it when we talk about it. We say “after this” and we go there. Strangely, it looks a lot like the past.

What if the secret to maintaining balance and groundedness right now — to making it through the rest of the pandemic with patience and a sense of perspective — is to be acutely aware that we are simultaneously living in all three times?

Fortuitously, I think the very thing I’m doing now, and the very thing you’re doing, can help us grasp and understand the power of that. When we write or when we read (and maybe especially reread), we momentarily gain control over our lives. Each of those acts creates a bridge that stretches across time, inviting people and ideas of the past and the present and the future to intermingle, to share experiences and context, to provide a kind of comfort. That bridge is power because community is power. Other lives provide crucial perspective. (When you reread, one of those lives is you and the person you were when you first encountered the book.)

Thinking of ourselves as living in three times at once could allow us to feel connected and strong in the chaotic present, instead of weak and isolated. We aren’t prisoners to the current state of the world. We can, as Miller put it, “participate” in more than the time we are living in now. We can transcend it. There’s power in that, and, even more importantly, it gives us power, too.

Author, Works Well With Others: Crucial Skills in Business No One Ever Teaches You // writing about creativity, work, and human behavior, in a useful way

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