The Never Ending Present

What do you get for someone celebrating their second birthday in a lockdown?

Maybe in the midst of a never ending present we have found within ourselves an invincible future that will, one day, be allowed to spring from its cage anew.

My friend Renée celebrated her birthday just before the ides of March came rolling in. It was her second birthday in a pandemic, her second birthday under the shadow of a lockdown. Renée is one of the people that I have kept in near-constant contact with over the past year, as friendships and interactions were whittled down to those to whom nothing had to be explained because everything was understood. She is a pastry chef by trade and an excellent one at that: when the world was busy tending to their sourdough starters last March and April, she was advising people on how to keep that magic starter alive. When the majority of the world abandoned their baked goods at the first chance to step back into the sunlight and pretend that we had passed through the worst of it, Renée kept going. 

What do you get for someone celebrating their second birthday in a lockdown? By tradition, we celebrate a second anniversary with cotton; if I were feeling a bit more inclined toward irony I might send her a commemorative facemask. But I don’t know how much capacity any of us have left to celebrate the joys of irony. 

Because that is the thing, isn’t it? We’ve got nothing left. Italy is once again retreating into itself, with half the country designated a ‘red zone’ from 15 March 2021 and the other half lucky enough to be declared ‘orange’ for the coming weeks. We may be trafficking in colors but there are no more rainbows hanging from closed windows and precious balconies. We’re not singing at 6 pm anymore, and we’re not uniting behind leaders that promise us that though we remain distant today, we will embrace even more closely tomorrow. We’ve been waiting a year for tomorrow to come yet like the doomsday clock, we’re stuck at two minutes before midnight. Just as the excitement of a surprise party that fizzles when the wrong person steps through the door, we’re deflated and cannot seem to muster our enthusiasm. Should tomorrow finally arrive, we won’t yell “surprise!” in deep-throated unison. We may hardly even notice. The dramatic tension has been deflated and replaced with apathy, boredom, and fatigue. The thrill, as they say, is gone.

Only the ancient and steadfast island of Sardinia remains in the ‘white zone’, the only region in the country to have attained such a distinction and likely due in no small part to the water borders that surround it on all sides. Our friends Francesco and Antionetta are from Sardinia, from deep in the interior of that rugged, unforgiving terrain. They said that while people can move more freely and avail themselves of far off services like gyms and dinner reservations, they are still compelled to observe the protocols that have become implicit to all of our daily lives. But psychologically, they said,  it feels different. 

There is something to that, I think. There is no place in particular that I want to go, and certainly nowhere that I need to be. And I am perfectly able and mostly content to continue cooking at home, although I wonder what design flaw it is that makes us humans have to eat multiple times a day. I wasn’t a member of a gym before and I doubt that I would become one now, so I can hardly miss something that was never there. I have stayed safe, and my loved ones have been spared any debilitating sickness. That is something, to be sure. 

All things considered, I am fine. Apart from the fact that I have no future. 

sigmund freud sofa
ROBERT HUFFSTUTTER, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Among the many things that he swiped from the Greeks, Sigmund Freud borrowed the idea of Eros and Thanatos in order to explore the forces that drive us as human beings during our brief time on Earth. In his defense, many others subsequently have stolen it from him and we have all diluted or manipulated it to meet our needs. As a case in point, let me simplify his complicated musing: Freud characterized the two opposing poles of the ‘life instinct’ (Eros) and the ‘death instinct’ (Thanatos) as the current that underlies our deepest desires, our individual and collective push through life. 

Eros, in keeping with the famous God of Love from which it took its name, is the drive towards pleasure, beauty, gratification, and happiness. It is our need to create, to bring beauty to life and to spread it with others so that they too should experience its benefits. Eros is our sensuality in the most expansive sense of the word: our joy in touching and being touched, our appreciation for sights and smells and tastes. It is the butterflies in our stomach when we finally tell someone how we feel about them, the exhilaration of seeing that someone you’re waiting for at the airport cross through the arrivals terminal. Eros is in the little moments, the joyous moments, the good moments. 

Thanatos, so named for the god of the Underworld, is the deeper, darker instincts that we all have but rarely admit to, and they compel us just as strongly as their pleasurable counterparts. Thanatos is the other thrill, the one we get when we do something a little (or a lot) taboo. It is the primal yell we release at someone who cuts us off in traffic or the way our fingers crush the steering wheel as we speed down the highway knowing that while it’s dangerous, it is a rush that we simply cannot resist. Thanatos is that moment when we throw caution to the wind and give in to our not-much-better angels, and it is this flirting with disaster and possible destruction that reminds us how good it feels to be alive. 

This dualism, this battle between Eros and Thanatos, is what keeps us all moving towards some unknown place in a not so distant future. It is why we can feel both excited and nervous at the prospect of a new project, career move, or relationship. We fear the unknown and embrace it simultaneously because though we prepare ourselves for disaster we also gird ourselves for success. It gives us a reason to keep going, even when we’re not aware of it; though we may not know what the future holds, we live in the hope that the best is yet to come. 

But what of a time period where the future, our future, is put on hold? What happens when we can’t daydream, when we can’t work towards something because we’re suspended in an endless holding pattern that sees us spinning in circles? When we stop moving forward, how can we be expected to maintain our momentum? We can’t speak about the future or start to imagine it again when a never-ending present looms over us, damning us to inertia and making projections feel morbid and macabre. Our instincts, both saintly and sinister, are dulled by futility. We wait, glassy-eyed, for the wheels to start turning knowing well that we no longer have the strength to continue tilting at them. We wait. We wait. 

coronavirus restrictions
A bilingual sign in Italian and English urging people to avoid gatherings to comply with physical distancing anti-COVID19 rules. Photo: Gabriella Clare Marino.

It has been one year since then-Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told us all that Italy was “a community of individuals” and for myriad reasons, we believed him. Most of us hadn’t heard much about him before that and didn’t know what side of the always-blurred line of Italian political affiliations he fell on. Perhaps that was why he was so effective in those early days; he was unknown like the Virus yet unlike the Virus he was calm, almost soothing. He was Eros to the Thanatos that bore down on us in frightening news reports and mounting victim tallies. So we rallied, behind him and all of the everyday heroes that emerged from what had previously been the muted backdrop of everyday life. Doctors, nurses and neighbors held their heads high and looked into the abyss, daring it to look back at them. We were surrounded by uncertainty yet coddled by courage. We were proud of ourselves and each other, distant but united. It couldn’t last. 

The first cracks in the armor came with the first rays of summer, and we started to want to make choices. We bucked against the idea that this thing could have the audacity to impinge upon our summer holidays and refused to let it dictate the rhythm of our everyday lives. After all, hadn’t we all done our parts? Hadn’t we sung and painted and baked the Virus away? We had all been so good, so thoughtful, so careful. How much more could we have done? Our denial of the very plain truth, that we were not done yet gave way to anger when the force of the Virus was once again thrust upon us, more ghoulish and malignant than before. Our unity fractured and we blamed each other for the complacence that we had all shown. Why did you go to that crowded place, the same place where I saw you because I was also there? Why did you bring your family to visit that vulnerable loved one? Why did you embrace them? Why did I? The second wave was inevitable, brought on by a deadly combination of biology and our best intentions. And there were no rainbows in windows, no songs on balconies. Resilience gave way to resentment, and no one was immune. 

Amidst these attempts at pendulation, the year wore. Despite appearances to the contrary, clocks continued to tick. Thanatos reigned supreme through impatience and suspicion: there was a vaccine but it was surely unreliable or worse, and it wasn’t getting here fast enough anyway. The government was simultaneously doing too little and too much; our friends and family became divided into stark camps of those with whom we agreed and those whose voices we could hardly bear hearing. The country needed its pound of flesh and it came from the very man who had been a beacon in the early days of this unrelenting storm. We watched helplessly as puerile political machinations took the place of a coordinated campaign to give us our lives back, incredulous and immobile. We spent Christmas under a byzantine set of color coded restrictions that were so confusing, most of us gave up even trying to decipher them. It wore us down. Atrophy set in. 

We are now governed by the man behind the curtain to whom we should pay no attention, and the protocols that dictate our daily lives are no longer episodes of a heartwarming yet ultimately rudderless TV series called Il Decreto. Instead, we hope the information that our Facebook groups and WhatsApp chats have is accurate enough. Some of us line up for vaccines and yet we still have no sense of whether they will give us back the time we’ve lost. Others, most of us, wait until our names are called or our age groups are announced so that we too may reclaim a bit of the space that has been denied us for a year. Our aspirations have shrunk along with our universe: where we once dreamt of a time where we could travel the world once again, we now long for a time where we can go to the next town over in a group of four or six. The bubble hasn’t burst, friends; it’s simply collapsed in on itself. 

The Ancient Greeks also had a word for this too. Chaos. But it wasn’t ‘chaos’ as we’ve come to understand it, the utter and total confusion that follows a breakdown of order. For the Greeks, chaos was The Void. Emptiness. Nothing. 

never ending present
Brokenness, CC BY 2.0, via Flickr.

What is that stage of grieving after the anger subsides, when we have no more tears left to cry and our throats are too hoarse and raspy to scream, and when we know in any event that none of it would do any good? Freud called depression “rage directed inward” but what do we have when even rage ceases to arouse us, when the only thing left is fatigue? Thanatos might not be the cuddliest bedfellow but it feels potent: the death drive may frighten or disgust us, but it reminds us that we’re alive and that we’ve got something to live for. That is, after all, their job. Eros and Thanatos move us, compel us, drag us past the finish line and onto the next race. They keep us marching towards the future. When the gears grind to a halt and we are locked inside of a neverending present that promises neither resolution nor release, the sweet prospect of hope turns bitter in our mouths. When it all seems and indeed is so far outside of our control, ‘the future’ falls victim to fatalism and color decays into gray. 

Its what we’re missing, isn’t it? Unpredictable splashes of color; discordant yet harmonious clatter. We’re missing that burst of spontaneity that comes from stamping our tickets to enter the circus of humanity and not knowing what oddities will come before us. Spontaneity. The moment when you do not know what is coming and that’s just the way you like it, when you don’t know what you’ll have for dinner but you’ll figure it out along the way. Everything is so planned these days, the minutiae are dictated to us all by the borders we cannot cross and the gatherings we cannot have. And logically, we all know it’s for the best. But we are not governed by logic alone. Within each of us there still lives a bit of Eros pushed along by a soupcon of Thanatos. 

I want people to count the days until their lovers come home and wait for them in airports with signs and sighs that beckon like siren calls. I want Renée to come over with madeleines that she’s made and I want to make corny jokes about Proust and watch her laugh despite herself. I want to hear laughter and glasses clinking and forks dropping and plates scraping away the remains of untold dinners. I want to take a bath in the multitudes and be anonymous not because only half my face is visible, but because I am far from home and no one gives a damn anyway. I want to walk out of my door and not know when I’ll return and leave my shutters open and have it only occur to me three days later when I’m laying somewhere with sand in my hair. I want my life back. I want life back. 

Sardinia enjoyed a week of white zone freedom before it was colored orange once again, joining half of the country that has yet to graduate to red. I’m sure it felt different, and it was different. Until it wasn’t. But damnit if there wasn’t an anvil hanging over everyone’s heads. And then just as the safety sign gets set back to 0 days since the last incident, the clock stops and starts inching along once again. Zero days. Joining the rest of us, back at nothing. Back from the future. 

samuel beckett bridge
Miguel Mendez from Malahide, Ireland, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Unnamable was the last of a trilogy of works that Samuel Beckett intended to be read together with his Malloy and Malone Dies. The book itself is less a story than a collection of musings and recollections by the narrator about whether or not he exists outside of language, or ultimately whether he exists at all. His anguish at this heightened awareness of the futility of it all crescendoes in an often-quoted phrase:

“You must go on. I can’t go on; I’ll go on.” 

It is surprising that Beckett has not become more emblematic of this period, as he was devilishly fond of stasis and generalized ennui — indeed, it’s probably why he loved France so much. For him, the sun shone because it had no alternative, and it shone on the nothing-new. Life was, in essence, one damn thing after another. He enjoyed the banality of unhappiness and found it comical, drawing inspiration from the insipid pull of the mundane. He wrote about those moments that transcended Eros and Thanatos, the empty moments where everything felt suspended. How different the world (or psychoanalysis at least) would be if it had been him who pontificated on whether a cigar was indeed, just a cigar. 

Back to the Greeks, it is worth pointing out that Chaos for them was not quite what chaos has come to mean for us. Instead, their void was a necessary one that preceded the creation of the Universe, the rather gaping hole that came into being when Earth and Sky separated from one another and had to regroup before taking on the messy business of ordering existence. Call it a cosmic gap year, if you will. And just as the gap year has come to mean that pre-packaged voyage of discovery that students embark upon to test their mettle and find themselves, so too are we in that in-between space, each of us in our own way. 

Some of us may find that we are changing in the midst of the gap and that our once perfectly tailored lives have become frayed. Some of us may like it better that way, and we may have begun thinking that who we were before is not the same as who we are now. Perhaps in the midst of so much loss, both in the large and small of life, we have found something that we don’t want to let go of. Maybe in the midst of a never ending present we have found within ourselves and invincible future that will, one day, be allowed to spring from its cage anew. It may just be this, our small shift towards a different version of what we were, that is in its small way a homage to those people whose lives were lost when the world split into past and present, red and orange, Eros and Thanatos. It’s difficult to know, really, but as Hemingway once said, it would be pretty to think so.

the never ending present

The last great paradox is this: that the never ending present will, indeed, end. We will meet again and it will be by chance, we will one day roll the dice and think nothing of blowing on them for good luck. The existence of the gap implies the necessary existence of the two things it lives between, the past and the future. For now, we mind the gap and the gap occupies our mind. It does end one day and though it won’t be as cut and dry as the movies or the United States tends to want to make it, these will one day be memories. We will emerge with scars that will be visible to varying degrees, and we will be different in imperceptible yet undeniable ways. We will be cracked, and we will be mended. 

We can’t go on; We’ll go on. Non c’è la facciamo più; ce la faremo. 

I thought for some time about what to get Renée for her birthday because I wanted her to know that I was thinking of her despite, or maybe because, of the never ending present. I wanted her to know that she mattered to me and that she counted; that despite all evidence to the contrary these months and years still count. But things stop being things after a while and birthday presents dropped off by a courier or left at a safe distance tend to lose the sense of frivolity and joy that they are intended to impart. Besides, silk face masks are infinitely more comfortable than cotton and, if we’re still here in eleven years, I’ll know just what to get. 

Instead, I thought I’d write her this note.

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