Today is the first day of autumn.
The new season begins at 3:20 p.m. Eastern time, so it’s really the first part-day of autumn.
It is not by design that I’ve gone on a bit recently about the passage of time and our perception thereof. It just seems to have inserted itself into a lot of recent (how do we even define “recent”?) events.
My guess is that an altered sense of time is a pretty common thing right now, because the usual signs that help us keep it all more or less straight have been indistinct this last year and three quarters. It may be even more complicated than that.
Many years ago a peculiar set of circumstances led me to leave — “flee” probably wouldn’t be too strong a word — western Massachusetts for Florida. (It was a family dispute during a school vacation, nothing nefarious.) We took the Greyhound bus. It would not be until later that we learned that we could have flown, for less. The trip was not enjoyable, but like many things not appreciated at the time I’m glad for the experience.
We boarded the bus in the evening and my traveling companion somehow got it into her head that we would arrive in Florida the following afternoon. Ah, but “afternoon” doesn’t necessarily mean the next afternoon. She wept when she realized that our arrival would be late in the afternoon the day after tomorrow.
No movie or novel I’ve ever found has portrayed (or, really, even tried; it’s not the kind of thing an audience seeks) the passage of time as it was endured on that bus. We rode from New England to South Florida, mostly on local streets. Bus stations, then as now, are not typically located in the most picturesque parts of town, unless your idea of picturesque comes from the more lurid portions of the tabloid press.
The first night passed easily enough, as did the next morning. Not long after lunch we were in North Carolina, which is where the mind began to play tricks; in my erroneous estimation it seemed as though we’d arrive in Fort Lauderdale many hours sooner than scheduled. (The desperate mind does not entertain facts. Why moderate optimistic reasoning with the datum that no scheduled passenger bus has ever arrived hours early?)
At some point the passenger manifest had grown to include a fellow who took his mobile lodgings in the seat directly in front of ours. After the lights had been dimmed and most people had gone to sleep, he began a constant stream of long, loud moans. The driver took no notice of him — maybe he was a regular. But the fellow changed the ambiance of the bus, and not for the better. At one point during the night his arm flopped over the back of his seat. My companion was only barely able to stifle a scream. Which probably would too have gone unnoticed.
This went on through the night.
The second morning found us in Jacksonville, a very big city given that its existence doesn’t register in the minds of most people. Our noisy neighbor had quieted down, possibly because he seemed to have died. Police were summoned. One poked the guy with a stick and, mirabile dictu, he awakened. He combed his hair, looked great, and strode off the bus. Jacksonville was his stop. A cop picked up from the fellow’s seat a brown paper bag containing the bottle, which he lifted from the bag to show all of us. A murmur of understanding passed among the passengers. He may have been a fine fellow, but we were uncharitable and not sorry to see him go. He probably wasn’t sorry, either, for the bottle was empty.
Late that afternoon we were, as advertised, in Fort Lauderdale. My mother met us at the station. I believe that she expected to pick up bus passengers, not refugees from some calamity, but by that point we were more the latter than the former. And our perception of time had gotten disordered: 48 hours ago from Massachusetts by bus could just as easily been a month ago by sailing ship from a distant continent.
I have noticed the same phenomenon at the other extreme, when I’ve gotten on an airplane in one place and after some sort of transportational transformation have emerged soon thereafter in an entirely different place, sometimes a distant continent, a place that deep-mind reasoning told me I should not and could not have been.
Last year was a little bit like that and this year has been even more so. Our 2020 was disrupted by an event so unexpected and vast that we were sustained by the idea that it would surely burn itself out, be over soon. It turned out that no, the bus did not arrive early. That could be why in some respects it passed so quickly while in other ways it dragged.
This year has been worse. We keep expecting to see the Fort Lauderdale Greyhound station and we keep not seeing it. Some passengers say the old driver had no idea where the station was located and didn’t want to take us there anyway, while others say the replacement driver doesn’t know how to drive or remember what a bus is. At least it’s been a topic of conversation.
The point, I think, is that the arrival of fall, and next week the beginning of the last quarter of 2021 — which I think of as having just arrived — seems more of a surprise this year than it usually does. It could be that for the second half of 2020 we were all thinking that 2021 would be so much better. And at some level we may have decided not to recognize the arrival of 2021 until the promised improvements show up. At some other level, we’re wondering where we need to apply, to get our 2020 and 2021 back. We were told there would be treats.
We’ve adapted, many of us. We can adapt when there’s no alternative. There’s much money being spent now on what amount to bets over which of our adaptions we’ll retain when they’re no longer required. Cities are terrified that we’ll remember something learned during the great microbial malaise: we don’t really need . . . cities. Retailers are afraid that we’ll never return from our trip up the Amazon.
I wonder if the forced awakening from our more leisurely perception of time will leave us breathless, and not in a good way. Some of the lessons from all this may be less than obvious. Our minds have gotten reordered in straightforward ways and subtle ones.
We’ll find out.
Meanwhile, it’s the first day of Autumn 2021.
Here’s an idea. Why not drop a quick “happy autumn” note to the people you care about, individually, not in a group spam message. It would be a nice thing to do.
And you might learn things from the responses. Including those who could really benefit from some of your time, which thus spent will probably pass quickly.