We've never been less able to imagine the future
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We've never been less able to imagine the future

In Kate Atkinson’s hit 2013 novel Life After Life, heroine Ursula Todd keeps dying, and dying again. She dies when she is born; as a child, she falls off a roof, contracts influenza; she is killed in World War II during the German bombing of London. Shuttling back and forth between alternate planes of reality should be confusing for a reader. Atkinson’s is actually a virtuoso performance – a display of the novelist’s power, and of her limitless choices in shaping a protagonist’s life.

The book also reveals that the way we tend to think about time is all wrong. “Time marches on,” we say, usually with a tight smile, or a grimace, implying a linear progression, orderly enough to be relentless. But Life After Life, not to mention lived experience, reveals time is considerably wilier than that. “A construct” is how it’s described by a psychiatrist Ursula is sent to at age 10. “In reality, everything flows, no past or present, only the now.”

If there is a silver lining to the whole “pregnant in a pandemic” thing, it is that my daughter’s very existence reminds me of the passage of time.

If there is a silver lining to the whole “pregnant in a pandemic” thing, it is that my daughter’s very existence reminds me of the passage of time.Credit:iStock/Getty Images

I thought of this the other day when I went into my baby’s nursery to pick her up from a morning nap. There she was, busted out of her swaddle, smiling up at me, and with horror I realised she had grown almost as long as her bassinet.

My first thought was that in the hour between putting her down as a newborn and encountering her as an infant, while I had enjoyed a Nespresso, half a podcast, and some desultory laundry folding, she had grown 15 centimetres. This seemed impossible. So I scrolled back through my phone’s photo roll to discover the day she shot up in size. Clearly I had missed this event while panicking about climate change and what to make for dinner. Of course, there was no single day. Only growth so incremental, it went entirely unnoticed.

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In the broadest of contours, I can imagine what my daughter will look like in the days and weeks to come. She will first roll onto her belly, then clamber to her feet, before toddling across the room and unlocking the most important achievement in the early childhood development handbook, which is learning to ask for ice-cream. She will continue to grow taller, her feet bigger. Her eyes will likely stay blue.

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But there is so much I don’t know, beginning with whether her hair will be curly or straight, and ending in the vast morass of mystery that is what makes a person’s character. In between I have a million silly, specific questions. Will she like Paw Patrol, like her brother, or The Octonauts, like her cousins? Will her father’s American penchant for peanut butter win out, or will she submit to her mother’s proselytising about Vegemite?

What song will she sing in the bath, and who will be her first, best friend at the playground? None of this is far away chronologically, yet it feels distant enough to be happening in another lifetime.

If there is a silver lining to the whole “pregnant in a pandemic” thing, it is that my daughter’s very existence reminds me of the passage of time. The paradox of 2020, especially for those unfortunate enough to be living in lockdown, is that even though tomorrow will most likely look remarkably like today, we’ve never been less able to imagine the future.

Asking when things will “return to normal”, or even employing that hackneyed phrase “the new normal”, is beside the point. This is normal. None of us are the same as before. We all keep growing. It’s only the babies that show it on the outside.

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