Losing time can be a frightening experience. When you realize what you’ve lost you may break into a cold sweat, or like me, you may have an intense panic attack. When you lose time, you often lose so much more than seconds, minutes, hours, days, even years. You lose your sense of security, you lose your footing, and you may even feel like you’ve lost your mind. Realizing that you’ve lost time can certainly be scary and it can happen at any moment. Coming out of a period of lost time can be confusing and surreal and requires a necessary period of adjustment. In Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler, the notion of losing time is expertly detailed and described every time Dana moves from 1976 to 1819 and the decades that follow. Butler writes with great skill the panic and adjustment involved in losing time.
Three years ago I suffered a major depressive episode, or a nervous breakdown as it’s commonly called. I remained in this episode for two years and to be honest, I’m still fighting to stand on my own two feet again. This episode has proven to be important and pivotal in my life in many ways but since I’ve been acclimating myself to think about literature and the world in terms of time, I’ve learned that this nervous breakdown has been pivotal in my understanding of time, especially losing time. Three days in the hospital felt like a month, a night without sleep felt like years had passed, and the sound of laughter or a smile lasted only seconds. My complicated mental health status caused a loss of time, but more importantly, the medications I was prescribed to help usher me out of the breakdown were also responsible for my lost time. Sometimes, the pills made me drowsy and “stoned” and hours would pass without notice, day would turn into night and I was none the wiser. Other times, the pills would make me sleep for days on end and when finally I awoke, I had lost all notion of time, not knowing what time or day it was, nor how long I had been asleep. Another of the “helpful” medications I was on caused me to blackout on a regular basis. The next day, I would sit, terrified, being told all of what I had said and done the previous day… Like make important phone calls, cook elaborate meals and drive my car. Losing that time, losing that sense of security, often made me cry. I felt so confused and so scared. I would erupt into fitful panic attacks and my whole being was filled with bewilderment. So, when Butler writes of the time Dana loses when she travels across time and space, I am listening closely and I understand the fear and anxiety alive in Dana when she suddenly leaves 1976 for 1819 or the other way around.
On page 135 of Kindred, Dana tries to explain the strange time phenomena she endures each time she is called to him, how time stretches on while she’s with him but only minutes or hours have passed in her own timeline:
“When I came to you at the river, it was June ninth, nineteen seventy-six for me. When I got home it was still the same day. Kevin told me I had only been gone a few seconds.”
“Wait. Let me tell it all to you at once. Then you can have all the time you need to digest it and ask questions. Later, on that same day, I came to you again. You were three or four years older and busy trying to set the house afire. When I went home, Kevin told me only a few minutes had passed. The next morning, June tenth, I came to you because you’d fallen out of a tree… Kevin and I came to you. I was here nearly two months. But when I went home, I found that I had only lost a few minutes or hours of June tenth.”
“You mean after two months, you…”
“I arrived home on the same day I had left,”.
After this bizarre explanation, Rufus, trying to make sense of it all in his limited understanding, replies, “But Dana, you’re saying while I’ve been growing up, somehow, time has been almost standing still for you” (136). Later, on page 196, Dana has just returned home, hungry to find out what day it is so she turns the radio on to a news station: “A moment later, the announcer mentioned the day, confirming what I had thought. I had been away for only a few hours. Kevin had been away for eight days. Nineteen seventy-six had not gone on without us.”
Throughout the novel, Dana, and to some extent, Kevin, experience the mind warping loss of time. When transported to Rufus’s timeline, they must acclimate quickly as that acclimation is the only thing keeping them alive. When they cross back over into their own timeline, they no longer have to act as though they’re fit for another time and it takes them longer to settle back into their home life. After each time-travel experience, the adjustment to slave life becomes easier for Dana, as she has spent more time there, and the adjustment to home becomes more surreal and difficult to manage.
Throughout and defining her time spent in her own timeline, Dana can never relax, can never expect to stay, can never fully heal or become comfortable. She prepares herself and waits for Rufus to call her again to his own time, where time passes in months and years, not hours or days.
We often take for granted the passage of time. It moves regardless of what we do or how we use it. However, when time is lost to us, it’s like a limb has been severed from our bodies. We know that something deeply, profoundly personal has been taken from us. As we would search for answers as to why an arm has been amputated, we search for answers as to why time was stolen from us, and who or what stole that time. Like marbles spilled across the floor, our minds scatter as we try to puzzle our missing time back into our memories. Butler describes this scattering better than anyone I’ve read before, making sure to disclose to her readers the disorientation and anxiety Dana feels each time she crosses timelines. Emily Dickinson once wrote that “Sequence raveled out of sound-“, a line befitting this subject matter quite appropriately, when time does not follow a simple, linear path.