Qua-re tim-es? Kwah-ray Tee-mays? Why are you afraid?
The two Latin words were scratched onto the Blackboard by my First-Year teacher, Mr. Griffin. He wrote them as a kind of launching-pad into an anecdote about a college friend of his who, not having been learned in the Classics, had read the question in English and wrote his entire Philosophy essay on quare times.
The room swelled with the proud laughter of my classmates who were able to translate the intended meaning of the question our teacher’s friend had misunderstood. Not wanting to stand out from my peers, I joined in the giggling.
The question had unsettled me, however. Qua-re times? Why are you afraid? It was based on the presupposition that one is afraid and, at twelve years old, I was not prepared to acknowledge this – I had just spent most of my childhood listening to grown-ups telling me not to ever be frightened.
And separating the question from its Latin roots had presented a whole new and equally disconcerting question about “times” becoming “quare” thus introducing the revolutionary idea that time was not the rigid framework upon which I had come to rely. To those who needed the nano-seconds in between tick-tocks to reminisce about what once was, it could be merciless. My father, for instance, the day my sister and I bought our first disc-mans, held up a black, ribbed, frisbee, much to our dismay, and said: ‘This is what they used to play music when I was your age.’ Time would not wait for his nostalgia.
iPods had now been introduced. I hadn’t bought one. I was familiar with my disc-man and unwilling to acquaint myself with a newer, smaller, more-easily-lost machine. Was I deviating from time’s metre; about to be thrown off its carousel into some quare quantum loop?
Qua-re tim-es and quare times. The two ideas were now coupled in my mind forever. How was I to handle this? Well, I did what every twelve-year-old does when presented with a challenging life-question—I ignored it! What other option did I have? Confessing to being afraid would have been an admission of weakness, a self-appointment as target for hungry bullies. Telling people I was concerned that I might not be able to synchronise my life with the big hand that circled the clock every hour would have undoubtedly won me the title of Absolute Nutcase. So, as Mr. Griffin erased the words from the chalkboard, I swept them to the corners of my mind.
The seedlings of abstract thought began to germinate, however. They sprouted back to the surface again at thirteen when my English teacher introduced us to the cold, hard surface of Sylvia Plath’s Mirror. The demon looking-glass was whispering at me with the same taunting question, bouncing it back at me from every reflective surface: Quare times, Sorcha? Why are you afraid . . .afraid . . .afraid . . ?
Mirrors were now things I avoided. They saw through the façade I was projecting and spat out the unmisted truth: I was nothing more than a terrified little girl, suffocating within the confines of the cookie-cutter the world had made for adolescent women. Was I Plath’s “terrible fish” swimming in “quare time” to the metronome that had sent my peers plunging toward adulthood?
Having no available medium through which my thoughts could be deionised, I swallowed them. This squashing-down technique worked quite well for a while but, at fifteen, Post-Modernist poetry became a catalyst for the multiplication of my invasive intimations. Elizabeth Bishop had now entered my realm with her mock-Socratic tone.
Why the extraneous plant?
Why the taboret?
Why, oh why, the doily?
Plank by plank, her words were dismantling the scaffolding I had erected around my fear, reducing it to an oil-soaked, black translucency. Bishop was dangling a match in front of me. Quare times, Sorcha? Why are you afraid? Somebody loves us all, right? RIGHT?
Don’t drop that match, Elizabeth. Please, I beg of you.
Her birdlike almanac was floating above me, flapping its pages in a vicious frenzy.
One second out of sync, it whispered to me, One second and you’re trapped in quare times forever . . .quare times . . .forever . . .forever . . .forever . . .
So, I strapped myself down and chained myself to the twenty-four-hour rhythm of the working world. For the next twelve years, I distracted myself with busyness to drown out the two terrifying questions that had etched themselves deep into the fibrils of my heart until the Coronavirus invaded the world.
Now stripped of the reliable routine of work, traffic, hastily-prepared dinners and rushed exercise regimes, I have been catapulted into the slice-out-of-time I needed to face both of my fears. The quare times I have entered have taught me to tune into the deeper and longer-rooted rhythms that run the earth – the morning birds that herald the sunrise; the ebb and flow of changing tides; inhales; exhales; the white of day; the black of night. Yes, I can align my body’s circadian rhythms with nature’s constant metre. I think that’s what they have been longing for all along.
As for figuring out why I’m afraid – the virus has solved that too. I have been afraid because I haven’t been certain; about anything — nature; nurture; life; death; God; Satan. But in this period of uncertainty, there has been so much hope, so much creativity. Certainty allows no room for creativity. Dismantling the certain arrogance of all of our old frameworks has ignited the spirit that dwells within us all and yearns to return to the epicentre of creativity, to the heart of where it all began.
And, like my greatest fears, the Coronavirus has a Latin root, in the word corona which means crown or garland. In our suffering and our scrambling to survive these quare times, we are celebrating our unity in the kingdom of Creation. So, be afraid! Be creative!
[References: the poem Mirror by Sylvia Plath and Filling Station and Sestina by Elizabeth Bishop.]
Sorcha Trant completed an MA in Creative Writing in the University of Limerick in 2019. She operates under many guises. Depending on which way the wind is blowing, you may meet her as a dentist, harpist or writer.
I can picture your Mr, Griffin, Sorcha. He taught you well. A fine essay.
A man severe he was, and stern to view,
I knew him well, and every truant knew;
Well had the boding tremblers learn’d to trace
The days disasters in his morning face;
Full well they laugh’d with counterfeited glee,
At all his jokes, for many a joke had he:
Full well the busy whisper, circling round,
Convey’d the dismal tidings when he frown’d:
I’ve just seen this wonderful comment. Indeed, Mr. Griffin taught me well. He also mentioned that he knew you and that you are a fine poet, which you’ve just proven here. I think the coronavirus has transformed that “counterfeited glee” into a relieved sigh as fear has relinquished its grip on me!
Great essay! Clever, original and insightful. I really loved it.