I’m enjoying the discovery that I can be late without the sky falling in. But I’m not sure the change will be permanent
Within life’s never-ending quest for self-improvement, most of us understand there are aspects of ourselves that probably can’t be altered. Introvert or extrovert are tricky categories to switch. Ditto messy or tidy or, in my case, a cyclical combination of the two that entails lurching from one to the other on a reliable one-month swing. The hardest to change, most baked-in characteristic, however – one that depends for its flavour on anxiety, understanding of time, relationship with authority and pure strategic fervour – is whether you are a late or an early person.
You can be a mixture of both, depending on context. In my late 20s I went through a phase of turning up to things on the wrong day, something I look back on as a symptom of a short-lived greater disturbance. Generally, I’m reliable – a roughly on-time person depending on whom I’m meeting. The better the friend, the later I’ll let myself be, but only within a five-minute margin. I’m not habitually late and look down on those who are. (I also look down on the habitually early, although I’m crashingly early for things I’m nervous about, and neurotic when it comes to the airport.) I’ve never slept through an alarm or missed a flight. Throughout my kids’ early childhood these parameters held firm, which entailed much screaming on my part before school. We were never, not once, late.
One consequence of the early pandemic is supposed to have been an improved ability to differentiate between what matters and what doesn’t. This went deep, drilling down into habits and structures that prior to March 2020 seemed non-negotiable, and tended to be expressed as a wakeup call not to sweat the small stuff. Two years in, however, and it feels to me as if that lesson has been flipped. For a while, we spent a lot of time thinking if we went to a bar, we might die. Then we went to a bar and, if we were lucky, we didn’t die. In fact, nothing happened at all. The kids missed months and months of school, unthinkable in before times, and nothing much happened. I don’t mean there won’t be long-term educational or behavioural consequences, or that different age groups and demographics didn’t suffer differently. Only that in the day to day, for a lot of people there was a gap between the predicted horror of this outcome and the sense of a continuation of daily life, the banal slog of it all somehow surviving dire forecasts. Before the pandemic, a single week of missed school was considered very bad indeed. Now I have two kids in second grade who sat out seven months. They seem fine.
Which brings us to lateness. In the New York public school system, if you arrive late, you trigger an automated call to your cell phone that night informing you, robotically, that “your child was late today,” and telling you to send in a note explaining yourself. Prior to the pandemic, we’d never triggered this message. In the last month, I’ve triggered it 17 times. The first day it happened I yelled at my kids all the way to school, forcing an unhappy pace on them and railing about how slow they are in the mornings. But then a strange thing happened: nothing. Nothing happened. The sky didn’t fall in. Nobody died. I started to think about how my kids probably won’t even be in this school system in five years’ time. As long as they aren’t so late as to cause a disruption, what’s the big deal? Very consciously, as if flipping a switch, I decided it didn’t matter.
A whole new world opened up. I encountered, outside the school every day, the Late People. It was like taking up smoking. Every day the same cast of characters, exchanging conspiratorial looks as they ran up the hill. These have never been my people and now suddenly they are, and I don’t understand how it’s possible. There’s an argument that during lockdown something happened to my concept of time; that it became more elastic. I have definitely hit an I-can’t-take-any-more moment, which I’ll have to deal with at some point. Is this Giving Up? Is it, as the popular Katherine May book might have it, “wintering”? At what point does wintering turn into giving up? It’s good to be without anxiety and we all benefit from less shouting, but on the other hand, where does it end? What if I can never drum up adrenaline again?
I suspect it won’t last. This week alone we’ve been on time twice. If I’m minded to worry, the concern isn’t the lateness, it’s the not caring. What else, given this experience, might one learn not to care about? Is this a good or a bad thing? Late isn’t a good look, I still believe that. And yet here it is: a small, formerly tightly wound part of myself that in this new mode is quietly rejoicing.
Emma Brockes is a Guardian columnist