on vibes, the apocalypse, and non linear time
Click here to read this essay on Substack.
There's this moment I'm faced with about once a week––during Zoom calls for work, or on the phone with my grandmother––when someone asks me the question, "so what have you been up to?" Perhaps irrationally, this prompt always sends me into a bit of a panic. So I’ll talk about work and books and TV, and try hard to say something that will make me sound normal. “I’ve been reading,” I say. “I’ve been knitting and baking and playing guitar.” None of these things are lies. I baked banana bread this morning. But if I really felt safe, and didn’t think I’d be judged, I would just say the truth: what I’ve been “up to” is vibing.
Vibes are difficult to write about because the concept intentionally defies definition. Merriam Webster’s best attempt is “a distinctive feeling or quality capable of being sensed.” I agree, but I would add: not everyone can sense it. As a precocious kid and mal-adjusted teenager, I didn’t experience much of “good vibes” until my early twenties. Because of this, I think I always associated vibing with community––watching The Vampire Diaries with my housemates, white claw in hand, while my friend Sarah taught me to sew, for example, is a moment I would easily categorize as “good vibes.” This last year, when the vibes have been ambiguous on a good day and despairing on the worst, I have been forced to readjust my definition. At the most basic level, I think, vibing requires acknowledging an energy, one that cannot be measured or poured, but is powerful enough to render you breathless, or swallow you whole. It means not doing anything, and yet not doing nothing; refusing a schedule, ignoring your watch, but still filling days with intention, somehow. For me vibing means journaling and playing Lucid on repeat, but I know this is different for everyone. The other day, while watching the pilot episode of Crashing with a friend, she paused her laptop on a still of Phoebe Waller-Bridge, sitting on a cramped bus, playing guitar while staring out the window, and proclaimed, definitively, “it’s a vibe.” And it was. What connects Lucid and Phoebe and my journal is not time, place, or style but a collective rejection of all of these things. These moments are not corporeal, they are a nod to the senses. A texture; a color. The black of ink; the kiss of rain. These things define the vibe while simultaneously freeing it from the burdens of definition, taking us urgently out of the body and transporting us to someplace softer, almost liminal. After careful research and consideration, it seems vibes are moments when the world stands still. Which leads me to my next obvious yet crucial resolution: that vibes exist where time does not.
I was nineteen years old when I learned that time isn’t real. I had always resented the passing of time––it’s loud, steady pulse, the way the second hand’s tick caused my heart beat to quicken––so when my Afrofuturism professor told me it was all a lie, I believed her almost immediately. Afrofuturism is typically defined as a Black cultural aesthetic that explores the intersections of the African diaspora and technology––or, in other words, a form of Black science fiction. After some study, however, I think this definition is too limiting. In her scholarship, Black writer and performer Neema Githere writes about what she calls “Afropresentism,” which she defines as a “teaching genre” that “channels your ancestry through every technology at your disposal - meditation, conversation, love, the Web - and turns absolutely everything into a portal that takes you precisely where you need to be, in this moment, towards the next.” Githere’s definition gets at the heart of how Blackness and other non-Wesern identities have historically and contemporarily complicated the boundaries of linear time. In my college course, I read the works of Eve Ewing, Octavia Butler, and other Black women who similarly used their fiction and poetry to challenge Western notions of time and place. These scholars argued that time was made up, that there are multiple dimensions, and we have been caught in the trap of thinking only ours matters. To the average, science-minded person, these arguments may seem a little far-fetched. They become less far fetched, however, upon learning that in her 1998 novel, “The Parable of the Talents,” which was set in 2032, Butler wrote of a violent autocrat with a mob-like following who ran for president under the slogan “make America great again.” Did Butler predict the future, or was she merely reporting her Afropresent? The scholarship of Ewing, Butler, and Githere confirm that time is not an arrow but a shimmering pool; we submerge and take laps around the boundaries of aliveness. We have lived these days before, it seems, and we will live them all again.
Time may seem steady and unquestionable but it is actually new and still fairly murky. The earliest recorded mechanical clock was made in England in 1283. Before this, ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans used sundials, water clocks and other tools to keep track of time. And before this, Native people used nature––watching the sunrise, the sunset, the moon and the stars––to find a natural order and rhythm in their days. Even today, people across the world measure time in different ways: in Ethiopia, where my mother was born, the calendar has 12 months that are each 30 days, and then a thirteenth month that only has five. Their calendar is also seven years behind the American one––in Addis, it is only 2013. When I visit my relatives, I suppose I travel to a different country and a different decade. This mistranslation of time has long made me wonder: in how many other languages can we translate our lifetimes? “Humans are not meant to keep exact time,” the Native poet Sandra Ball once said. “We are meant to live within the confines of seasons, light and dark, and our own body’s rhythms, which are not the same from day to day or from year to year.”
That linear time is a method of colonial control is perhaps the greatest lesson to be learned in the fight to undo the horrors of capitalism. Before imperialists descended on the United States, there were no clocks. No second hands tick tick ticking our lives away. These are constructions that whiteness created to ensure our lives were ruled by the arbitrary. You will go to school from age four to eighteen. You will be in class until 3 PM. You will work until you are 65. You will earn $15 an hour. To labor under capitalism is to enter negotiations between the arbitrary constructions of money and time. It is to be asked: How much is 60 minutes of survival worth to you? And to answer, For how long must I labor to earn the right to survive?
I spent a lot of the last year vibing, and because we live in a capitalist hell, I am constantly made to feel guilty for it. When the world went virtual last March, there was an immediate anti-productivity wave across liberal and left-leaning social media. During the first weeks of lockdown, when we were told we’d be home for a few weeks at most, people began posting their stay-at-home goals online––some folks kept reiterating that Shakespeare wrote “King Lear” while in quarantine, and therefore we should use this time to produce something meaningful, too. In response, many pushed back against this mindset, insisting that we are in “unprecedented times,” that productivity doesn’t matter, and instead we should spend our time pursuing hobbies: the ever-ready antidote to capitalist whims. En masse people started knitting, and making sourdough from scratch. It was cute, but only for a minute. While baking is an unquestionably sweeter activity than any sort of grind, many quickly found this did nothing to curb burn out or exhaustion. Capitalism not only defines how we spend our time, but our relationship to the things we fill our time with. Are you knitting a scarf to learn a new skill, to indulge in a pleasure, to take breaks from labor? Or because it will look good on your Instagram feed? Under capitalism, anything can be work; even, and sometimes especially, a hobby. Writer and artist Jenny Odell addresses this in her 2019 book, “How To Do Nothing,” which I’ve found myself returning to often in recent months. “In a situation where every waking moment has become the time in which we make our living,” Odell notes, “and when we submit even our leisure for numerical evaluation via likes on Facebook and Instagram, constantly checking on its performance like one checks a stock, time becomes an economic resource that we can no longer justify spending on ‘nothing’.”
This notion of time as an “economic resource” is exactly what vibing aims to break away from. It is not a coincidence that the last year has brought both the collapse of capitalism and an upending of time. This year of stillness and retreat has made it plain that time is not an empty thing we have to fill but a living thing that we must shape. Time changes. Because the world changes, and we change with it. To vibe is to shape time into pleasure, to mold it into something that feels soft and tastes sweet. It is to take a pause that bleeds into another. “Until finally,” writes Githere, “the space between the dream and the memory collapses into being your reality—now.”
I have often tried and failed to articulate how the last year has made me exist outside time. Then the other day someone finally gave me the words. “Sometimes,” writes Eloghosa Osunde, “I come up for air in the middle of a month I can’t recall and there’s an expanse on either side: time like an endless body of water, wave after wave after wave. The more stillness is required of us––the more my schedule bends like hot rubber, the more silence fills the space between my ears––the less and more sure I am about where the shore of myself is.”
I want to swim in that endless body of water, to ride the wave for as long as I can. For as long as I can remember, all of my anxieties have revolved around time: that I will not have enough time to do things, or that something is happening at the wrong time, has kept me awake at night on more than one occasion. That old adage to “take your time,” which I am certain is meant to comfort, has long left me bitter and confused. After all this take and take and take, what have I collected? What is it, exactly, that I am holding in my arms? I am not sure that time is a thing we can take or waste or save or give away. I have been so young for so long now I’m afraid it has grown tiresome. I was once scared that time might leave me behind but today I welcome it’s escape. I don’t want to take my time anymore. I want to set it free.
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