COVID time is “crip time” for the masses. Crip time is defined by scholars in disability studies as the way people who are chronically ill or have mental or physical disabilities experience time, with crip carrying the defiance and pride of a term such as “queer.” (I include myself in this category, and so use the “we” pronoun in this piece.) Crip time is heterogeneous, though one of its defining categories is that of “lost” time: the future that people who are chronically ill or have a disability would have had if the prognosis were different. But as the scholar of disability studies Ellen Samuels argues, being crip also scrambles time, giving some of us foreshortened lifespans that prematurely age us, while other adult crips are infantilized or treated like children.
Everyday textures of crip temporality vary too. Confined to our rooms or even our beds, we experience the compression of space as so intense that time seems to stop: crip time is often undifferentiated. Crip time can mean waiting long hours for pain to recede, for caregivers to appear, for enough energy to get up or just to roll over: crip time is a state of deferred gratification. It can even entail a fiercely future-committed overplanning, in which we make elaborate plans for travel and accommodation, but also have contingencies in place if we just cannot show up after all: crip time is a time of disappointment.
As the pandemic rages on, many able-bodied and able-minded people have been living in crip time for nine months. They have lost people earlier than they expected to. They have wondered how their own lifespans might be foreshortened. Diurnal time has been scrambled for those who can work remotely, as the boundaries between home and work blur through telecommuting, turning their days into indistinguishable tangles of family interruptions and presence-on-demand via Zoom. Those who are essential workers have worked hugely long shifts or multiple gig jobs that also give the lie to any border between night and day.
Everyone has experienced delayed gratification while waiting for beloved places to open up; for family members to gather around the table; for a walk where there’s still light and warmth; for this pandemic to be over. With the goal of keeping things as normal as possible, many people have engaged in overplanning—staging elaborate virtual cocktail parties, making ingenious trick-or-treat chutes, and entertaining one another by posing as masterworks of art using household objects. More generally, denizens of the COVID era have also entered a state of lost futures in which, as my teenaged daughter once said, “There’s nothing to look forward to anymore.”
And of course, those of us who are at high-risk for COVID because we are chronically ill or disabled or older wonder if we ourselves are disposable, if we will make it through this pandemic at all, and if there could be literally nothing at the end of this tunnel.
But people with disabilities also know something that COVID-timers are just beginning to learn: time isn’t linear. In human consciousness, time is something more like a rotating sphere or a kaleidoscope. Freud has taught us that though our biological lives may move inexorably forward, our minds preserve past moments, sometimes causing us to destructively reenact them, but sometimes productively reworking them to achieve meaning and agency long after they are gone. In a sense, then, we often live and think in several moments of time at once, and we are many selves at once.
Translating this into crip temporality means approaching time flexibly. Some of this is mundane and has to do with work. For example, crips often experience time as one step forward into accomplishment, two steps backward into the undoing of what’s been accomplished, and yet we still get things done. We know that one hour of work alternating with 20 minutes of walking, napping, or stretching, done two times, may produce better-quality output than being chained to a desk for three straight hours. We know that task-based work is often more satisfying than time-based work. We know how to build in wiggle room for deadlines we issue to other people, because our own shift around.
Overall, we have, of necessity, learned to value the quality of our time over the quantity of it, and to work with the rhythms of our energies. And as we contemplate the past, crips know that our healthier selves, if we were born healthy, often ached and hurt, or that we neglected our bodies or minds until something led to our current, irreversible situation, one that demands a form of self-care we were denied.
Understanding lost time in Freudian terms, then, we can grieve or even leverage past moments and selves toward hope for better futures, without refusing or diminishing the time we are in.
Most broadly, crips can experience even historical time as heterogeneous by connecting to other collective moments, such as the Spanish flu pandemic or the early AIDS era. With this connection, we feel solidarity with those who perished and those who survived, adopting and modifying some of their techniques for taking care of one another or making it through—as when we follow AIDS safe sex ethics to advocate for harm reduction and risk calculation in balancing COVID transmission with the human need for sociability. These are the moves that bend time, deploying the seeming losses of the past for a better future—not the future of a surefire cure, but the future of care and collective accountability.
What will the COVID era look like in the future, as a past we might mobilize toward a different tomorrow? I’d like to think that a post-COVID world will be more accommodating of people with illness and disability: that we will all—officially disabled or not—remember this time and build in accommodations for people, for time, for things we cherish. That we will insist that our workplaces and family life provide time for respite and reflection. Out of time “lost” to COVID, we should all remake the world so that we can truly live.