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A pencil illustration of a large red human heart against a backdrop of mountains, with two aeroplanes flying into clouds. Inside the human heart is a square hollow, inside which stands a small human orchestra conductor framed by a glowing bright diamond shape.

Illustration: Stacy Gougoulis

Commercial airlines are fitted with weather measurement tools that feed data back to the World Meteorological Organization. The planes are part of a many-pronged observational system that records land, sea, sky and atmospheric changes. As a plane ploughs through clouds or soars through clear skies, it collects data about wind temperature and speed and pings this back to meteorological bodies. This data informs the accurate prediction of weather patterns. Because planes fly, I can decide with some confidence whether it’s a tights day or a bare legs day.

When the coronavirus crisis ramped up in March 2020, flights were grounded around the world. By April, 80 per cent of flights were cancelled globally. As COVID-19 spread, weather forecasts became less reliable.

Less reliable forecasting is one of many consequences. We saw commercial airline disruptions as airline after airline folded, and the sector spiralled into panic—first about how it would survive the impacts of the pandemic long term (both economic and those that upset freedom of movement), and then whether there will be a long term for most carriers at all. Less visible are the ripples outwards—drastically reducing the amount of data available to meteorologists as planes are grounded. The global shortages in weather data have other knock-on effects. This is about more than planning what I should wear—because the planes aren’t flying, those who live in the paths of hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding, and other seasonal weather events can’t see these disasters coming, and can’t prepare sufficiently.

At a time of year when Melbourne weather normally seems unpredictable, it’s become even more so—officially more so. Our idea of what the future holds, on the most basic level—the weather—is now systemically less solid.


This essay is a time capsule—a document that insists: this happened, this really did happen. Even the pieces we are busy forgetting.


Throughout adulthood I have always seemed to notice the time 11:11, am and pm. Those four soldiers standing side-by-side; the perfect parallels of them. In some font families or scripts, their solipsism: four ‘I’s all in a row. 11:11 became my moment of mindfulness: 11:11, what’s happening right now? I’m writing an email at 11:11. At 11:11 I’m watching my next-door neighbour out the window as she tries to discern her dog’s shit from the mud in her yard. On a tram between home and my psychologist’s office, I notice 11:11 and note that the seat fabric is the prickliest kind of soft. When I arrive at her office, we will sit together and pull apart all my 11:11s: I-I-I-I, digging always to the centre of those selves that birth my depression, my anxiety, my often difficult experience of embodiment. 11:11, where is my body? 11:11, what can I hear? 11:11, where am I going? 11:11 is a number that stands out to me for its perfect symmetry.

‘Euphony’—the patterns and shapes of some numbers, verbalised in my mind, sound particularly agreeable.

During the coronavirus crisis, the numbers have been important. I observe time in terms of cases, counting beats against weekend testing rates and days of unseasonably good weather, where large numbers of people walk in their local parks. I accumulate strings in my mind and can easily recite the numbers from the last week or more. The end of July 2020: 532, 384, 295, 723. After this peak, we start to come back down the mountain, though it’s now a year on and we watch New South Wales scale a mountain of their own—both familiar and different.

At a certain point, all the number watching becomes too much. I stop tuning in for the press conferences; I check the numbers on Twitter in the morning, and then try to log off. This is not the metronome by which I will count out my life, however slow it becomes.


As my city moves indoors once again and our existence shrinks to a radius of 5 kilometres from home, the usual rhythms by which I punctuate my day fade from my soundscape. This is the sixth lockdown in Melbourne, and the disrupted noise is still startling: commuters cease travelling to workplaces; school bells fall quiet and the usual schoolyard screeching disappears, replaced by a tedious silence. Or rather, not silence, but a low hum of dogs, birds, moving trees, screen doors slamming shut. A neighbour’s sneeze. The scope of sound shrinks just like the movements allowed outside of our homes. Instead, to help watch the time pass, I gravitate towards music.

This is not the metronome by which I will count out my life, however slow it becomes.

All music carries a time signature. This is one of the first building blocks most children receive when they learn to read music. Often we teach children using untuned percussion first, where each bar of 4/4 rhythm holds four beats, indicated as strokes sitting firm and solid on the five parallel lines known as the stave. I remember my own music lessons: clapping hands or slapping knees along with the marks on the page, focusing first on rhythm and measure. Before notes are introduced, we learned the beat using our bodies. What a swell I felt, sitting in a circle, the music teacher beaming as we all followed the beats in our music books, everyone in the room marking time as one, hitting and skipping beats as dictated by the musical notation. This new literacy was as exciting as the other one we learned in English classes.

The most common time signature is 4/4—four beats per bar. This regular rhythm creates a steady, driving beat, and sets up a comfortable expectation that is met. 4/4 is a relatively uncomplicated standard: its directionality means that it goes where you think it will, from the first beat to the fourth. 4/4 is symmetrical. 4/4 is comfortable. Heartbeats are easily grouped into fours (two twos: systolic, diastolic; systolic, diastolic). Four seasons in a year. Four is a good, clean, symmetrical number that’s easy to pick up and put down. Watching an orchestra, you can see the conductor’s baton tapping out 4/4 in the air—often as a square or diamond; sometimes as something approximating a figure 4 in the air with a small flourish at the tail bringing the orchestra to the top of the next bar; the delicate wand held loosely between thumb and two fingers.

With this abracadabra, a conductor extracts life from silence. The dynamism of time signatures tell our bodies what to do: in 4/4, we tap our feet (one-two-three-four; one-two-three-four). In 3/4 we waltz, driving forward and around a room (ONE-two-three; ONE-two-three). Making two feet execute three steps is a challenge for many. 2/4 is slower than 4/4, and to this time signature we march (one-foot; two-foot). In 6/8 the tempo picks up, suited best to the rapid foot-lifting of a jig or a polka.


The Beatles’ ‘Here Comes the Sun’ begins in the steady familiarity of 4/4, but the end of each verse slides in and out of multiple time signatures: 3/8, 2/4 and, during the bridge, 5/8 (‘Sun, sun, sun, here it comes’). Tapping the sophisticated rhythm of these passages out on a desk feels like I have too many or too few fingers.

The anticipated fourth beat (or seventh and eighth beat) drops away, and is replaced by embodied discomfort. This is a feeling of held breath—of expectation unfulfilled. The reassurance that the sun is coming pauses for a moment—is it really coming, or am I just hoping? Is my hope enough to raise the sun, all on its own?

In a normal year, I dread spring. I don’t get hayfever, which is most Melburnians’ objection to this terrible season, when masses of tree litter dance on the breeze like confetti. I find the wind difficult—like my dog, whose sensitive nose puts her on edge on windy days, only I feel the wind in my muscles. Spring weather forecasts usually predict sporadic showers, and crisp, bright days. This shoulder season promises to be temperate, but instead it feels unpredictable. A crisp bright day gets blown away; the tension rises from my feet to my shoulders, which I bunch toward my ears. Throughout the day I try to remember to press my sternum forwards; draw my shoulders together and down my back, to breathe into the space this creates in my chest.

In the first movement of his epic poem ‘The Waste Land’, T.S. Eliot says that April is the cruellest month. ‘Breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain’. Eliot conjures the ruin of winter; the cosiness that keeps us sluggish and safe. The southern hemisphere equivalent of April is October—one month into spring. Long enough to have come to expect the unstable shifting, longer days (yes, I can fit more of this rocky existence into each day!)… Eliot tugs at the tension between the past of ‘memory’ and the future of ‘desire’; this first spring month is wound tight—spring has sprung. Only in that first little bit, it hasn’t—it’s loading its tension, ready to release. Each year in spring, I struggle to execute this manoeuvre: to unfurl, extreme and rapid. Anne of Green Gables swooned, ‘I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers’. Octobers in Anne’s world are part of autumn—spring Octobers, for me, are far less convincing.

The anticipated fourth beat (or seventh and eighth beat) drops away, and is replaced by embodied discomfort. This is a feeling of held breath—of expectation unfulfilled.

Each year, my depression and anxiety jostle in winter, and I must use the (minimum) three most isolating months of the year to find a slow, quiet rhythm to which I can breathe. As sheets of rain throw themselves over the city, I cancel more and more plans, lose belief in my own worth, and create a moat from all the rain. It surrounds me and creates of me an island. On it, my mind and body echo the rest period required by all of nature. Winter can be sad and difficult, yes, but I generally find a way to float. The more difficult season, for me, is spring.

After months of quiet, steady self-care, the sun comes out (and the wind with it). Suddenly my calendar fills with social interaction. I cannot name all the flowers I see, but I know them by their textures. The spiky bowl flowers at the front of our apartment block peep out from the tangled winter mess of twigs; up and down my street, fairy floss trees begin to fill out. Hard, heavy figs appear at the ends of branches outside my study window as the leaves gradually unfurl. By the time we get to October, I’m expected to do the same—to change tempo; to be sunny and bright and capable of crossing the moat I’ve built for myself. This is the cruellest month. Most often, it feels nearly impossible. This is the part of the year when I reach a mental health crisis point most often. The sudden expansion nearly breaks me.

All of this is in a normal year. But of course, 2020 was not a normal year.

The first month of spring passed and I stayed indoors, leaving only for groceries, or to walk the dog—sometimes taking her to a park, where there were other people with their dogs, out for their permitted hour of exercise per day. The second month of spring arrived and my city started to ease its long-held restrictions: I went for dinner with friends and spent days recovering from the depletion of socialising after so long. In this extraordinary year, Australians were given access to further government-subsidised mental health services, above and beyond the usual 10 sessions. I went to the GP for a Mental Health Care Plan that would unlock this new level of care, and fought the urge to nap afterwards, exhausted from explaining myself, again. In 2020, October was cruel, and so much more.

Gravity has doubled its efforts for the last 18 months; we have all been held in place, and the springing of spring unwinds in slower motion; in minute, agonising detail. We have endured one October like this, and are rapidly approaching the second.


I can’t read deeply—my eyes wander across the page, skipping to the next thing. My reading pattern starts as it should, at the top left of the page, but I scan forward in something like an X shape: to the bottom right, bottom left, top right, then I realise what I’m doing, take a big breath, and renew my effort at concentration, starting again on the top left. Picking up future detail without context means that instead of reading faster, this mental record-scratch pulls the whole activity up short. Perhaps this is reflective of life right now: I want desperately to be on to the next thing; I want some certainty that it all will be okay. Will we live through it? Will we love one another still on the other side? Reading in this way takes me at least twice as long. By jumping forward, instead of reading faster, I’m pulling holes in the narratives so that all stories (not just my own) become loose and floppy. It’s like a shifting time signature: a skipped heartbeat, a missed step.

Jenny Offill, in a session at the 2020 Edinburgh Book Festival (which I was able to watch online), described the pandemic as a mixture of ‘terror and tedium’. Offill and the session host, Jenny Niven, also talked about disaster psychology, and how our brains react to survival situations. Niven observed that our brains will shut down inessential functions when they’re in ‘survival mode’. Some of the first ‘unnecessary’ functions to go include reading and writing.

I want desperately to be on to the next thing; I want some certainty that it all will be okay.

Instead, I focus on small tasks: trying to get on top of the dishes. Having enough clean underwear at any given time. Eating regularly. While tackling one batch of the never-ending mountain of dishes (three meals a day plus snacks at home uses a surprising amount of kitchenware), I listen to an episode of the Strong Songs podcast, about Radiohead’s ‘Paranoid Android’—a masterful deconstruction of another song that plays with time signatures. Host Kirk Hamilton describes the song’s ‘through-composed’ structure, which ‘eschews the standard form’ of verses, bridges and choruses. Thom Yorke wails, ‘What’s that?’, and it feels like the aural equivalent of trying to run through mud. The layered arrangement that swells and ebbs—the complexity of ‘Paranoid Android’ makes it the work of a musician’s musician. By the time beats begin to fall out—dropping briefly from 4/4 to 7/8 in the main riff—it’s the least destabilising thing in a song that’s bewitchingly disorienting and shambolic throughout.

Halfway through Melbourne’s interminable second lockdown, I accidentally borrow a large-print book from the library, and it helps me start to concentrate again. With fewer sentences on a single page, there’s less to skip ahead to. Less to anticipate, perhaps. At the same time, I experience the passage of time differently. How long does it take to turn a page? Normally, for me—a slow reader, even at the best of times—it takes a long while. In large print, it gets quicker. Time passes as if it were normal again. I increase the font size on my ereader and things become easier, if only while I’m reading.


2020 was a year of skipped beats. The year itself even leaped—an extra day at the end of February means it was a day longer than the years either side. On 29 February 2020, South Korea reported a total of 3,150 confirmed cases of COVID-19. The USA confirmed its first COVID fatality. In Australia we had a total of 25 cases, because we had not yet begun to climb the mountain. Now it is plain that the hurdle is not a mountain, singular, but an entire range of peaks and valleys. The extra beat of 29 February lifted me off my toes for a moment, then placed me back down and the year rattled on. How strange for the year that we all stopped thinking of as time to have a whole extra day. In 2021, time returns, at least insofar as there are the usual 365 squares on our calendar pages—but what we believed to be an exceptional year is repeating.

Repeat: two small dots and hard lines bookending a musical phrase, indicating a section which is to be played through twice before continuing on to the end.

I continue flipping the calendar pages but stop populating its little squares. Time zippers shut into small moments that I hold closely: I journal infrequently and intensely, capable only of reflecting on the day’s numbers, or the tasks I need to complete before the sun sets again. I am no longer able to look at anything from a distance. I feel guilty for not bettering myself, for not embarking on new projects, for not learning skills or at least making a significant dent in my to-be-read pile.

Time, for humans, is experienced through functions and changes in the body. An in-breath, an out-breath, a breath held for a long moment, a breath that might be snatched away.

Is it the commodification of time that’s been driven home during all this? Moving our offices into our homes, we now understand anew what it is that our loved ones really do for a living. Some days I do editorial ‘office’ work, and on others I write essays or read. My job feels silly, and my days, spent in the company of my partner, who works a full-time sales job, seem newly strange. What am I even doing, making words pretty? I think of Pink Floyd’s ‘Money’—the first song in 7/4 to come onto my radar, some time in my teens. Its rhythmic but unsteady count continues most of the way through the song (one-two-three-four; one-two-three—though the song does slip into 4/4 in its second half). The tempo is set in the opening bars using sample sounds: falling coins, the chime of a cash register, the whoosh of a cash draw flying open and shut, ripping paper as if from a receipt roll. The bass comes in with an iconic walking riff that sets the time signature.

In her pandemic essay ‘Something to Do’, Zadie Smith writes of ‘doing time’. How transparent it all becomes when there’s someone else around to watch the creative process; how inessential is the artist’s time (in opposition to the ‘essential worker’, whose work and relationship to time ‘is vital and unrelenting’). During a period that everyone’s trying to fill in more or less meaningful ways, Smith reflects: ‘What a dry, sad, small idea of a life. And how exposed it looks, now that the people I love are in the same room to witness the way I do time.’


Time, for humans, is experienced through functions and changes in the body. An in-breath, an out-breath, a breath held for a long moment, a breath that might be snatched away. One way of slowing time for a racing brain (and body) is through a regulation technique called ‘box breathing’, named for its four equally-measured parts, like the sides of a square, each to a count of four. Start with a slow inhale through the nose for a count of four. Hold the air in your lungs (two-three-four). Slowly exhale (two-three-four). Pause with emptied lungs (two-three-four).

In the New Yorker, staff writer Katy Waldman reflects on the nature of diary-keeping and its purpose during the pandemic. Our self-catalogues might serve as ‘affective workouts’, or serial accounts of our subjectivity. Perhaps they’re notes toward atonement or rebirth, she suggests. Perhaps, like Virginia Woolf’s technique for capturing memory, the best we can hope for is to seize our ‘moments of being’; celebrating and sitting with the mundanity of now and how it all ties to every other ‘then’.

In Peter Gabriel’s song ‘Solsbury Hill’, the 7/4 time signature is carried throughout, so that the feeling is less of losing something than of an unsteady canter toward the unknown. Gabriel sings about time: ‘Climbing up on Solsbury Hill/ I could see the city light/ Wind was blowing, time stood still/ Eagle flew out of the night.’ He uses the onomatopoeic ‘Boom, boom, boom’ of his heart to describe the now-ness of an existential crisis he experienced before leaving Genesis, the band that made him famous. Boom, boom, boom: now, now, now. The breaking away from old things. We skip to the next.

The thing about counting—the days on calendar pages, the rhythm of a song, the sunny or rainy days in a row, the lives made small or discontinued by this pandemic—is that it marks time. Counting moves forward; provides space or distance. There’s no counting outside of time.

These years are the skipped beat that my brain refuses to count. When calculating how long it’s been since something has happened, the counting goes: 2018, 2019, today. All the tiny precious instants of survival have been drowned in the swell of the years that weren’t.

Perhaps all I can truly count are heartbeats, moment to moment. In—BOOM, BOOM, BOOM. Out—BOOM, BOOM, BOOM.