"Exit Glacier"

The slippery task of tracking the passage of time

I’m forgetting things. I should have seen it coming, but it has managed to startle me. 

A month ago, when I interviewed him for a story about how museums will collect ventilators, face masks, hand sanitizer, and other objects that will encapsulate our present moment, Benjamin Filene, the associate director for curatorial affairs at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, suggested that we all ought to be keeping quarantine diaries. Nothing fussy or fancy, necessarily, nor something we’re writing with the intention of someday presenting to a museum. Just a way to keep track of time.

Back then, in mid-April, the days were inching past excruciatingly slowly, and I felt terribly aware of every hour. Normally, I wade into a task until I’m fully submerged in it; I often take pleasure in swimming through the murk of something until I find a patch of clearer water, even if that means writing or editing straight through meals or long after dark. In April, though, my concentration was constantly cracked: To stay focused on a task, I set alarms in 15-minute increments, because sometimes that was all that felt manageable. At the time, it was impossible to picture those experiences growing dim in my memory, even though Filene promised me they would. “It’s easy, when you’re living through something, to forget how much will feel unfamiliar to you a year or two from now,” Filene told me. “Not to mention 10.” He warned me that the feelings, conversations, and impressions, however vivid, would blur or fade. I wasn’t sure I believed him, but they already have.

I haven’t been keeping a journal, but the other night, after a weekly Google Hangout catch-up with a handful of former co-workers who mentioned their own daily logs, I decided to take a splash through the shallow archive of things I have held onto since March. I listened to the audio clips I recorded on my weekly walks, of woodpeckers poking trees, and the drifting clanging of church bells, ice cream trucks, and sirens; I leafed through creased, crossed-out shopping lists; troves of text messages; the photos and screenshots on my phone; a piece of paper on which I had charted my temperature several times a day for two weeks, scanning the horizon for signs of worrisome symptoms. So much had already gone foggy. 

Days are passing slowly and quickly, stretching and collapsing, warping and mocking everything I have ever believed about time.

I had completely forgotten that there was a week, at the beginning, when anxiety pinned me to the chair in my bedroom, and I went nearly all day without eating because I was too nervous to confront the series of grubby, gummy doorknobs and countertops I would have to interact with on the way to the kitchen. (I was terrified of the microbial high-rises I imagined there, even though I had wiped each surface down.) I forgot that, soon after I moved here on March 1, I had been so thrumming with vague, amorphous anxiety that my hair began to fall out, several dozen squiggly strands at a time. I had forgotten some of the sunnier things, too: hand-painted postcards and a warm, wonderful print; game nights across states and time zones, with grids of friends’ strangely lit faces and their distant voices, wavy with cider and beer. 

I have also forgotten the last time things felt normal. I can’t remember the last meal I had in a restaurant, or whether I tidied up the papers on my desk before I left the office, which I haven’t seen in nine weeks. (I do know that my winter coat is still slung over the back of my chair, left behind on a surprisingly warm evening when I didn’t realize I wouldn’t be going back.) I can’t remember the last time I hugged my friends. The weekend before we started isolating, three of us went to the Palisades, in New Jersey, but we didn’t touch. Even then, before we really appreciated how bad things would get, we held ourselves apart with a kind of tender skittishness. We hiked in single file, climbing until our legs quivered and our lungs burned, and hollered when we spotted hawks circling in the distance, between the craggy cliffs and the gray-blue Hudson. We had lunch on different rocks and moss-cushioned logs, calling across the trail to describe the sandwiches we had packed. I forgot about the lunch—salty, satisfying peanut butter with a dollop of apricot jam, a perfectly juicy orange—until I found a photo my friend had texted me of myself on that little island of stone, mid-bite and quietly content.  

Days are passing slowly and quickly, stretching and collapsing, warping and mocking everything I have ever believed about time. I looked out the window on Friday, a humid afternoon creeping toward 80 degrees, and noticed that the tree outside my window was bushy with green, rustling leaves. I had watched bare branches bud and I knew the leaves were coming, but I am still surprised to see them. I moved here in winter; for a moment, it was spring; now, summer is nearly here, and we are still inside. The exercise of trying to keep track of the days and weeks and months passing reminds me of the experience of looking for hints of time that have been etched into the ground itself. 

When I’m wandering the city or out hiking in the Palisades or the trails of the Hudson Valley, I often look for proof of ice sheets that once crawled across the land. The evidence isn’t hard to find. Around 20,000 years ago, during what’s known as the Wisconsin glaciation, the Laurentide ice sheet—an immigrant from eastern Canada— blanketed present-day New York City with ice 1,000 feet thick. (That’s taller than many skyscrapers, and the ice was markedly thicker farther north, where it sculpted lakes and valleys and ate away at mountains.) The ice didn’t keep a journal, either, but it scoured the land, and the ground tells its story. 

At the Palisades, parts of the bedrock are striped with striations, parallel grooves notched into the ground by bits of rock embedded in the ice that once moved across it. Some New York City parks are strewn with boulders known as erratics, from the Latin word errare. These hefty rocks didn’t wander astray, the way the word suggests, though they are far from where they began their lives. The glacier tugged them along and then plunked them down. 

The massive rocks in Central Park were buffed smooth by the ice; one geologist told the New York Times’s William Broad that the heavy, rubble-studded mass functioned like sandpaper. The ice also chiseled wide grooves into the rock. Next time you visit the park, look for those furrows, some of which are bigger than a person’s body. The ice also changed the composition of the ground itself. Down where I live, in South Brooklyn, many parks and cemeteries sit along a band of glacial till—the jumble of clay, silt, gravel, and boulders that glaciers ground up or dragged along.

The ice had a busy, active journey, and this week’s poem, “Exit Glacier,” by Peggy Shumaker, is about how very alive glaciers feel. Glaciers are typically in motion; the masses of ice are constantly moseying forward or receding. (In fact, when it shrinks so much that it stops moving, a glacier is no longer a glacier, but a patch of what is known as “dead ice.”) As water courses through rivulets that wind through the ice, glaciers creak and moan, crack and splash. The anthropologist Cymene Howe once told me about their anatomy, which includes words such as “snout” and “tongue”—almost, she said, “as though they are creatures.” At a time when many of us feel static and stuck in place—literally cooped up or simply uninspired—glaciers are active, ever-changing, wild.  

I haven’t seen a glacier or an ice sheet, and given the rate at which many of them are retreating, it’s possible that I never will. Even so, I can appreciate proof of them, in the things they dropped along their path, or the marks they cut into the ground—like sedimentary sticky notes flagging past chapters of our planet. 

By the time it’s safe to return to the Palisades with my friends, many things will be different. One of those friends will be a mother soon. When her baby arrives this summer, it won’t possibly know how many scattered friends will be cheering it on from a distance, so relieved to have some glimmer of good news, so glad to have new life emerging into this old, uncertain world. I am thrilled to see my friend become a parent, and to watch this child grow. Eventually, I hope to introduce that tiny person to those rocky woods. I hope we’ll crouch down, put our hands against ancient scuffs and scrapes, and talk about everything the landscape has seen. 

Thanks for listening. This week, I’d love to hear about any glaciers you have visited. How did it smell and sound? Even if you haven’t seen a glacier, I bet you’ve encountered the legacy of one, and I’m curious to hear about your favorite evidence of long-gone ice. 

Yours, 

Jess


P.S. A few nice links:

Speaking of the passage of time: I really enjoyed this Time Out New York tutorial about how to find old photos of my apartment building in the 1930s and 40s, compiled by the New York Department of Taxation. Also, here’s a little inspiration as you restock your fridge or bar cart: My friend and colleague Matt Taub wrote about an extremely delightful drinking guide from 16th-century Germany, which raised the alarm about men with dashed dreams of careers as knights instead turning their attention to imbibing with “he-man prowess.” And while we’re raising toasts, Center Stage—the best and cheesiest dance movie of all time—just turned 20, and Vulture has a great oral history of it, which includes tantalizing tidbits about how often Ethan Stiefel ripped his leather pants performing those bravura leaps and slides. (Answer: many, many times.) Also, if you’re tired of quarantining, I hear you. But think of it this way: at least you’re not hunkered down with a ghost

Talk to you next week. Good luck out there. 

[Images: Grinnell Glacier at Montana’s Glacier National Park, David Fulmer/CC by 2.0; The Palisades, Jessica Leigh Hester; Boulders in Central Park, Regan Vercruysse/CC by 2.0; Umpire Rock in Central Park, Jim.henderson/CC.0]