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Time Traveling During Coronavirus

Moving through my childhood is noticeably different the second time around. Outside, summer is in full swing as usual: the Texas heat swells, cicadas emerge from the woods, wildflowers open their golden petals. At the same time, cities shut down, remaining under lockdown, and I am 22 and home again.

For millions of young adults, coronavirus has meant moving out of apartments and college dorms and retreating to hometowns to quarantine indefinitely. There, we’ve resumed lives we thought we’d outgrown. 

This lull in time has proven disorienting. We have strict markers and phases in life. We believe time is linear. One period ends and another begins. Rarely, if ever, do we go back to a previous phase of life under normal circumstances. But now, suddenly, we find ourselves going in reverse.

Before the pandemic, I had grown used to independence. I’d recently graduated college; a fellowship abroad and a world of self-discovery lay ahead. I both braced myself for and looked forward to the uncertainty and potentiality of navigating my twenties.

The past few months have felt like returning to an earlier, perhaps simpler, time: for the first time in years, my nuclear family is back together—my dad, my mom, my older sister. We all share the kitchen, the same restrooms. My sister’s hair clogs shower drains; my mother chastises me for not making my bed. During Christmas breaks our arrangements were temporary, but now, our lives merge into one another, like when my sister and I were kids. 

My bedroom is still pale blue, my shelves filled with Pokemon cards, sci-fi novels, and Bible camp t-shirts. My bed looks the same, too: navy sheets, a twin-sized bed lined with stuffed animals. Everything is familiar, almost nostalgic—the glow-in-the-dark stars, the planets hanging from the ceiling—but they feel like they belong to some former version of myself. If I close my eyes in this room, I could still be thirteen, adulthood a false memory. 

Recently, I’ve realized that I spent twenty-two years growing up in my hometown and never fully noticed it. I spent each year here, took each step, looking towards the future, reaching for independence, fantasizing about leaving this blue town and escaping to the coast. And I realized, only too late, that I had rushed through the present, never thinking about the relationships I had to others, to this place.

The interesting thing about this pandemic is the way it shapes time: not only does time reverse, but it slows. Some have called it a "pandemic time warp," a "quarantine paradox.” These days, time merges into itself, like a slippery dream, a sleepy giant, lethargic and lumbering on; days bleed together. They feel unreal. 

With this abundant time, I see my hometown with more granularity, as if everything has more texture. I used to hate Texas, its identical suburbs and searing heat, and I looked forward to moving to a city. I despised the megachurches, my journals overflowing with angsty entries, whose author was dying to get out of this “hellhole.” Now, I still don’t love all aspects of Flower Mound (its homogeneity and overwhelming conservatism, most notably), but I notice more things, acknowledge the merits of this town—its open skies, the silhouette of my elementary school against the dusk. 

My relationships have gained depth, too, as the pandemic has forced us to slow down. We have family dinners now; I’m not running off to study for midterms. My sister and I took up gardening. Last week, we ordered gravel, pots, and plants. We painted animals on terracotta pots and decorated all the windowsills of our home, filling blank ledges with green succulents and African violets. By the time we were done, the windows were flushed with color and our jeans stained with soil. 

The experience is almost like correcting the past, having the chance to go back and redo. When you live things the second time around, you can tend to relationships, observe them more closely. The Google calendar and phone reminders feel less pressing. I soak in the stillness, feel time pass less urgently. 

This blip in time might help some make peace; for others it may heighten past traumas. For me, it seems a rare chance to re-examine priorities. In a few months, if we’re lucky, we’ll all separate again. My sister and I will leave our parents, my high school friends will excitedly scatter to graduate schools or jobs somewhere else, and in one another’s lives, we’ll fade into the backdrop of text messages and Facebook posts. For now, though, our lives remain intertwined in the distances among shared bathrooms, dinner tables, and childhood bedrooms.

A few weeks ago, I met up with some high school friends to see the NEOWISE comet, which will not pass Earth again for millennia. The four of us brought masks, binoculars, and a compass, and turned off all the lights at a friend’s house. 

I can’t remember the last time I looked at the sky for so long. There’s too much light pollution in cities, and time felt too precious to spend looking up. But in this new world, there was nothing more pressing to do than sit in the backyard and look at stars, just me and my friends, in our painfully average suburb. We discovered constellations and talked about growing up in this town: all its winding roads, the mom-and-pop restaurants, the woods and the creeks. Once again, we were children, lying next to each other on the porch, stargazing. And it felt like a happy summation of everything: a new time, yet a reminder of my old life. Nowhere in our thoughts were viruses, parents, or the longing to be somewhere else. 

For now, it’s an eye-opening view from the bottom: for better or worse, a reminder of the way things once were.