The Long and Forevering Now

Kate Petersen

That can’t have been this year. I’ve heard this lament more times than I can count over the last three years. Maybe you have, too. Sometimes, in audio formats, it’s accompanied by a knowing oh my god

Like a cliché, this exclamation has been wrung of its declared wonder by overuse and has slid firmly into the realm of meme, where it will live, I suppose, until time is kickstarted again. For the crosscutting consensus that time is stuck, or looping, I have seen no one, commoner or prophet, hazard a way back. 

According to internet lore, that’s what computer programmer Danny Hillis hoped to do when, in 1986, he proposed constructing a “clock of the long now,” a massive objective correlative that would trigger us short-sighted humans to consider deep time. The clock would be designed to last 10,000 years on renewable power, cuckoo and toll only once each millennium. Twenty years later, he soft-launched a prototype that now resides in the Science Museum of London. If not for copyright (the Long Now Foundation is a designated 501(c)3) someone surely would have appropriated his poetic project name to describe the moment we’re living through. Or maybe they have. 

Anyway, that’s Hillis’s problem. 

Here’s my problem: I would like to write about this neverending year phenomenon, but have no formal training in time. 

Perhaps I can work by analogy in training I do have. In ecology, a positive feedback loop describes a series of factors that interact, causing an ecosystem to become less predictable, more unstable, chaotic. Feedback loops are one mechanism that has sped global warming to its crisis point, accelerating sea-ice melt and carbon loss in ways our models couldn’t predict even a decade ago. 

Something like this, I think, is what happened to time. Trump’s words changed the dimensions of our screens, which in turn made more room for his words—required them, amplified them—and as he said more, causality bent and haywired so we had both more time-space and less to watch disasters multiply, stack, unspool. 

Or perhaps I can work by counterexample, and tell you about when time still worked. Three years ago, I drove alone through Death Valley on Thanksgiving. I did this to test my aloneness. The man I was seeing was not in love with me, and in order to let myself know this, I first had to ascertain the dimensions of my future solitude. Nothing grand, just minor field tests. This—drive two days and 1000 miles through the desert with no relief driver—was one. But if I could do it, then perhaps I could muscle alone into a verb, not just my modifier. 

That November I was suspended between another before and after, too: the country I hoped I’d been living in and the one I knew now I did. 

It was a limen I wanted to drive through, fast. If this sounds like an exercise in privilege, it was—voluntary passage through a desert, over borders, money to rent a car and motel room. It was also an exercise in being a woman. Which is to say: I was still free to be run off the road, followed to my motel room, not believed. Like all exercises, this one was redundant. 

An exercise in beauty, too. Down the long indent of California’s spine and into the Owens Valley, its chain of endorheic lakes and salt flats, all the thumbprints on a topo map. Roughly tracing the westernmost leg of the cross-country trip John Steinbeck took in Travels with Charley. “Thus I discovered that I did not know my own country,” he’d written in 1962. A line I was carrying like water. 

Eight hours after leaving San Francisco, somewhere beyond Tehachapi Pass, the radio fizzed out. The road cut across a valley and I could see the whole world, all of it that blue just before gone. A red filing bloomed into stop sign. In my rearview the sky was sun through an ear, and then, like that, mauve as a dog’s tongue. Seventy past nothing and the day sealed itself shut, me on the other side. Still 100 miles from Death Valley and I was caught out of time. (The clock stops running when no one knows where you are.) 

There in my self-made pause, I tried to write down what I saw, what I heard on the radio when I could get a signal. The garish uplit chutes and shafts of the mining works as I descended into Searles Valley and heard that the president-elect said he might believe in climate change, after all. The big mission doors of Amargosa Opera House just east of Death Valley, and the sound of strangers outside it, laughing in the wide dark. 

Half a century before, in that same stretch of desert, Steinbeck had been thinking about time, too. His own road notes contain this formula: “‘Relationship Time to Aloneness.’ And I remember about that. Having a companion fixes you in time and that the present, but when the quality of aloneness settles down, past, present and future all flow together. A memory, a present event, and a forecast are all equally present.” 

That long night drive and this passage I took into it were the first twitch I felt of the forevering now. The wash of memory into forecast. Yes, I thought as I barreled toward sea-level in the dark pitch of a former sea, what good is a past to me in these turns? 

Despite that feeling, I arrived safe at my parents’ home in Arizona the next day and re-entered the ticking world. Two months later, the man and I broke up. And three days after that, according to much of America and its cultural growing zone, during a rainy parade I wasn’t watching, someone put his hand on a book and stopped the clock for good. 

That winter I bought Steinbeck’s equation: that aloneness was causing my time-bleed. But the meme of the neverending year suggests I was not alone. That, or we all were. 

And though a breaker of so much, Trump doesn’t get credit for everything. Time had already broke and been remade a century ago. A friend reminded me of this recently when he told me about this podcast he’d just listened to that recounted Albert Einstein’s famous streetcar ride: headed to work at the patent office in Bern, young Einstein passes the clocktower and imagines what would happen if he were to somehow ride away from it faster than the speed of light. The hands on the tower’s clock would still be moving, but from the streetcar they would appear paused. Out of time.

This friend and I were standing outside a building neither of us wanted to go back into yet. The young aspens behind him were clawy and blank and road salt had been spilled on the steps. The nearest clock was one of our phones. 

Then he said: So this moment in which you and I are talking here in the sunshine, according to Einstein, this will always be happening, just somewhere else. Voice trued, eyes wide as a believer’s. I couldn’t look, so I asked the trees behind him, Oh yeah? He was too old to say such things, like I was, neither of us being physicists, and anyway, I have heard this kind of thing before. Emphasis on somewhere else. 

Still, I listened to the episode. It was about people who didn’t believe time worked like time. And deep in the hour came a voice I had not heard but nevertheless knew: Marta Becket, founder of the Amargosa Opera House. A woman I’d learned about only months before her death, during my drive, because I had passed through and heard people laughing in the desert outside her theater. Voices that had meant safe crossing. Now here she was in my kitchen, singing. 

Like that, this man had rewound two years. Dropped me unknowingly into the idyll of my own last moments before the neverending year. A gift I could not readily explain to a believer in parallel universes. 

According to the podcast segment title, Becket was featured because she’d pinned her human ambitions to a spot in a desert that represented deep time. 

But from my research, I knew better. Becket picked Death Valley Junction because she’d been passing through in 1962 and got a flat tire. 

That’s how it works, with people and places. You don’t stay somewhere because of what the somewhere represents; you stay because your car gets a flat and out of nowhere the person at the fill station looks at you and says: Here, in this sunshine, we might last forever. 

I looked at the date on the podcast. Twelve years ago. Or, according to our current idiom, approximately one million years B.T. 

That year, in 2007, the idea for the 10,000-year clock was twenty-one years old. Now it is thirty-three. According to a few flossy stories that wax on the project’s grandeur, including this 2006 one by Michael Chabon, the clock is still under construction with no completion date in sight. “If it’s finished in my lifetime we’re doing it wrong,” project director Alexander Rose said last year.

According to the Long Now Foundation’s webpage, “Civilization is revving itself into a pathologically short attention span. The trend might be coming from the acceleration of technology, the short-horizon perspective of market-driven economics, the next-election perspective of democracies, or the distractions of personal multi-tasking.” If and when the clock is completed it will be entombed in land in west Texas owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, baron of same-day shipping and the end of waiting as we knew it. 

A cop-out, a fellow writer once said to me about historical fiction. A way of not having to make sense of the messy now.

Well, history is no walk in the park—the clocktower at Bern, for instance, was refitted in the fourteenth century to serve as a prison for prostitutes of the clerics—but I took her point, and standing over my phone that night, I found myself transposing her frustration into a new key: rerunning a podcast from a wildly different historical moment without warning was sleight of hand. A time trick whose emotional machinery I could see too clearly. 

And isn’t the neverending year just another sleight? 

Here’s what I think: I think people are secretly glad to live in the Age of the Neverending Year. Because if this year goes on and on, then we don’t have to look at the last ones. 

Two years ago, a girl was mowed down by a car and killed because she was protesting a Nazi march. 

Last year, a girl was murdered and left behind a house in Lame Deer because no one knows. (And another was. And another.) 

This year children are dying in cages and some of us retweet the senators who have visited them. 

Last year scientists added up what they knew and said this is the driest the American West has been in 800 years. Said we have twelve years to keep the seas from becoming bile. To keep whole countries from burning up or going under. In twelve years, the Clock of the Long Now may or may not be done. (In either case, we may have rendered the project moot.) 

This year children are dying because they leave the house to go to school and some of us drive by the church as their coffins are unshouldered. 

This year people are dying in synagogue because a man with a gun walks in and some of us read their names. No, wait—that was last year. 

Actually, all this happened years before. Perhaps we need a new unit of measure. 

Perhaps we need a new unit of measure, said Danny Hillis, and started building a clock he hopes to be buried before. 

My father said over the phone to me that day: no one should die for going to church. In his voice I could hear how years used to work. 

No one should, I agreed. But what if I meant, no one at all? 

Early this year I let a man drive my car to the only open store in town for cigarettes. Gin had lit his need for another smoke. I hated myself as we rolled to each stoplight—for the gin in his system, and for the fact that this was the same man who did not love me three years ago. 

But here he was in my new town, driving us to Circle K. I was in a negative feedback loop, which promotes stability, sameness, null. I wished for another car then, some other soul on the road to confirm my anger, or dilute my self-pity, but we were all alone.

The eggy glow of parking lots chided me as we passed and I pressed my nose to the cold glass until I was on that streetcar at Bern, one of the unmentioned riders: a girl, unaware of the history being made in a nearby brain but thinking, like the patent clerk, of flight. Of how fast you can get away. 

Memory: What isn’t?
Present event: When I reached to adjust the showerhead this morning, my mind said, chin, so that’s how I touched it. Proof, I wondered, of drought or tenderness? But only one would cause me to tell you.
Forecast: I, alone. I alone, I alone.

Oh my god, this neverending year, the podcast pundits laugh to each other as I try to fall asleep. 

But our nomenclature is off. Each year nested in this forevering one is still assigned an ending. And at it, people climb to rooftops unarmed under skies made to sound like gunfire. They count backwards together from ten.
They stand in the streets of Khartoum and Paris and Caracas and say: we will be here till you mow us down.
The writers on the internet say: look what I wrote.
The readers say: look what I read.
The scientists say: look what we’ve done.
The soon-to-be-mourners pick up the phone, listen, say: oh my god.
The girls say nothing, thread a key between their fingers.
I clasp the prayerbook of my phone and scroll through all this.
How should I have trained for this time?

There is another universe, according to one reading of quantum mechanics, where the people stand up and walk out of synagogue into the day. Where they will always be gathering their coats and hats and watching the lip of the door so as not to stumble. 

There is one where I am still fifteen and waiting to be told I am beautiful. My whole body canted towards that word. 

One where I really am. 

And one where every woman is alive and being sung to. (Perhaps it’s you, in some future, singing). 

And one where that man is describing to me the clocktower at Bern. And how it was to climb out of the creek alone in the dark with his pack and field notebook, how sweet his self-made pause. Touching my chin so I look. One where I am tolling with these elsewheres. 

Most of us have the attention span of a lobotomized goldfish these days, a scientist on the radio says, as if this is a given, or even a good metaphor. 

But my attention is long as all these worlds pressed end to end. 

Here, I say to my hands, the rivers on them that go nowhere, try me. Count.

Kate Petersen lives in Flagstaff, Arizona. Her work has appeared in New England Review, Kenyon Review, Zyzzyva, Epoch, Paris Review Daily, LitHub, and elsewhere. A former recipient of a Wallace Stegner fellowship at Stanford and a Pushcart Prize, she currently writes about the science of our changing climate at the Center for Ecosystem Science and Society at Northern Arizona University.