The imperceptible passing of seasons in graduate school
The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen all at once. -Albert Einstein
Time passes strangely in graduate school. Many days I enter a flow state where I’m completely absorbed in my task.
First I am setting up an experiment or a stack of papers to read. Light, streaming in from the window, fills the room. The window in the laboratory faces the fourth floor of a parking garage and, in the bright afternoon sun, the concrete looks dry and speckled. I’m generally aware of time passing.
Floating on the inertia of concentration, in the distance and almost disconnected from my body I start to pick up denser feelings like fatigue and hunger.
Then I am struck by a swinging arc of headlights and realize that the sky is dark. The light is cool, aquatic like the lamp of a submarine probing the ocean floor. The motion of the light creates an illusion that the floor is rotating.
First the beam stretches out before me, tensile and hazy, and then it is shining directly into my eyes. For a brittle second, a flying car is crashing through the laboratory window. Then the vehicle turns down a ramp to the next level of the garage leaving me in the dark, shaken back into time.
Seasons pass by imperceptibly. Some of my experiments last a week and, if I’m having trouble with a technique, months go by before I collect any data.
In the winter, the greyness of the days blur together. Sometime in the middle of February of last year, I had dinner by myself at a sports bar. I was feeling a little off and struggled to finish my hamburger, the fat and grease swirling in my stomach.
Walking back to lab, my legs became large levers I could barely control and, at the crosswalk, I lurched stiffly down a few inches of curb. The research buildings rose up on both sides of me forming a corridor of steel and glass; at the far end, the setting sun was leaving a cool smear of light over the brick sidewalk. I felt like I was floating away or maybe my mind was expanding to see everything at once.
I looked at the people coming toward me, the fading light outlining their dark bodies. I noticed the tiny asymmetries of their gaits—some naturally leaned left or right, others had a bag or headphones that twisted their torso.
A couple, wearing T-shirts, ran past, ducking under a tree with tiny buds. Someone had planted flowers by the front door of the Whitehead Institute. Some kind of plant with a thick, brilliant green stalk and white petals.
And then I realized what this feeling of being sick was, why I had been out of my mind all day. It was spring.
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