The Creative Continuum: How Sheltering-in-Place Shifts Time and Space

There’s a strange amnesia to the recent past. Trying to remember a few months ago feels like holding an unspooling reel of string as the kite suddenly accelerates higher into the sky. And while the days flow by quickly, this month languidly drips on. Now past the second month of sheltering-in-place, and with the anticipation of more to come, adjusting to this new reality means navigating new relationships to time and space, and understanding how they affect different aspects of life. I’m a designer who already works remotely, and I feel grateful that I have the privilege of working from home. In the beginning, I didn’t anticipate a big change from my normal work life. However, I noticed quickly that my creativity took a big hit. During the first 2 weeks at home, I’d go through this daily motion of willing myself to start a creative project, and winding up eating Cheerios instead. Usually emotions drive the desire to create, and I had no shortage of those. But the natural connection between feelings and inspiration felt forced and disjointed. Reconnecting to my creativity has been an ongoing process. I started making progress when I began rethinking the way time and space relate right now, and how time is a space in itself.

On a mind-numbing phone scroll, I happened upon this quotation:

“Time does not give one much leeway: it thrusts us forward from behind, blows us through the narrow tunnel of the present into the future. But space is broad, teeming with possibilities, positions, intersections, passages, detours, U-turns, dead-ends, one-way streets. Too many possibilities, indeed.”

What struck me most, was how this perception of time and space is now flipped under our quarantined conditions. For many of us confined to our homes, time now holds more of the possibilities, while space is restricted. With the rest of this year so uncertain, we remain in this tunnel–the liminal space between present and future.

This quotation is from Susan Sontag’s essay, “Under the Sign of Saturn,” which explores the ideas of philosopher and cultural theorist Walter Benjamin. Wanting more context, I ended up reading the whole essay, which in part, describes Benjamin’s recurrent themes on spatializing the world. According to Sontag, Benjamin’s process for understanding something, “is to understand its topography, to know how to chart it. And to know how to get lost.” He wrote extensively about the experience of wandering through the urban environment, namely 19th Century Paris, as “the art of straying.” The ways in which he understood time and expressed memories were largely through exploring space. For those of us currently limited in movement, Sontag and Benjamin present a compelling idea–the way we move through space is a crucial part of how we process and remember our lives. In considering this, I realized that my default ways to jolt out of creative lulls depend on interacting with space–zoning out on the subway, walking through the city, visiting museums, perusing bookstores.

Now more than ever, if getting lost is the antidote to feeling lost, then how do we find ourselves when we can’t stray?

With more possibilities in time, and fewer opportunities to move through the world, our collective expectations shift. What has emerged is the specific pressure to be more productive and creative. From think pieces on how to launch your own quarantine side hustle, to the influx of home-baked bread on Instagram, the zeitgeist of content advising us on how to spend this time is overwhelming. And while I don’t think we should add any more pressure onto ourselves to be more productive, the shadow of this question looms: how should we be spending this time? Is this a mutation of FOMO, or an echo of the greater question: how should we be spending our life time? 

Image by Padmashree Satyanarayana and Elspeth Michaels

I’m currently sheltering-in-place with my family, in the house I grew up in, a return to small town suburbia. I feel extremely grateful to be with them, especially my 3-year old nephew, who we all take turns watching in between virtual meetings. My daily routine now includes building with tiles and blocks with him in the mornings. I watch him play, guided by his own curiosity, completely engrossed in the joy of the process. He never builds with an end product in mind; the result is always a mystery revealed. In these moments with him, I’m completely focused in the present, forced to think outside of myself. This allows me to get lost in a state of play. In my work and in my own creative projects, I’m so consumed with the idea of the polished result that I sometimes lose out on learning from the process itself. The outcome has to be “worth” the time dedicated, or else it’s a waste. Now, playing purely for process shifts my brain into the joy mode of following my own whims. This kind of creation has no end product. We laugh every time our structures collapse in a messy heap and start building again. I’m reminded that so much of childhood is exploring and cultivating creativity.

Arguably the most creative time in life is also the time during which we have the least experience, perspective, and control. Creativity is boundless, but it also thrives in limitation.

Our morning playtime has become the best ritual for resuscitating my own creative flow. It also affords a time for introspection, another key element. Our childhoods are melding together in the space where I grew up. I watch his growing affection for my old stuffed animals as he renames them and continues their stories. He hides in my forgotten secret spots, laughs at the same jokes from my father, learns how to make rice with my mother.

For Benjamin, knowing how to get lost is a path towards understanding. Grasping my creativity now requires getting lost in time, rather than the usual straying in space. Wandering in time, I’m hyper-present in the shared meta-space of childhood: my nephew’s and my own. Back in my old bedroom, I’m confronted by my younger self. It’s funny how the ripped magazine pages I taped to the wall, the trinkets I collected, and the ideas I penned in old sketchbooks have endured, largely untouched. It all takes me back to the teenager who last inhabited this space. My room, a former me-museum, feels reactivated by the entropy of the present. Here, the recent past feels more distant than half-a-lifetime ago. Space compartmentalizes memories. Returning to a former home is a return to a past version of yourself. Usually, it’s a short visit. You dive back into the skin and rhythms of your past with a romanticized nostalgia, but the detached awareness of your own growth is a safety net. However, a prolonged period of time in a former home can warp your self-perception and inspire feelings of regression. My sister and I joke that we’re kids again, and there’s truth in that.

Am I regressing? Yes, but in a way that presents an opportunity for progress.

Taking process cues from childhood is a return to a simpler state, and yet for me, it offers the best solution for progressing in creative work now. The most mundane things in this house trigger intense bouts of nostalgia and reflection–a strong pull back into the past that helps me cope with the present. In the absence of moving through physical space, I find ideas and inspiration by moving through the meta-spaces of my own life. Being here has made me realize that there's something fascinating and special when the architecture of times and spaces that you built in your life collapse in unexpected ways. It’s rare when the walls we erect for no other reason than making sense of ourselves come down. It’s a kind of healing to redraw your own blueprint. Time is not an end product; time is a space for wandering. Considering time as a meta-space makes life right now feel less like a holding pen for the future, but rather, a field where you watch the perennial flowers planted in your youth break through the surface, and again and again inevitably bloom. 

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