Latency Period: Definitions

Editor Daniel Elder, Editor's Choice, September 20th, 2016

"...a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness..."

daniel elder NAILED column

Our monthly column “Latency Period” is made up of reflections on the gaps in our lives–whether between life and death, between perception and reality, or between one human being and another–and trying to bridge those gaps with words. Written by Daniel Elder, for NAILED.

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Things make sense to me more when I talk myself right through them.

Follow me a moment.

I was looking for a title. Titles are doorways to the hallways we want to walk. I was searching for a name, a masthead under which could coalesce ideas that were, at their best, nebulous, and at their worst, half-baked. A scar to live above these words, something permanent alongside an otherwise fluctuating skin that would monthly be molted and born again.

“I think I’m going to call it Fissures,” I told my pal John, who promptly Googled the word and suggested I do the same before committing to it. (Thank you, John.)

Okay, then. Fissures wouldn’t fit, but it touched on something that I knew I wanted. An idea of gaps, portals, entropy. This was the middle of June and a human being had just rained hatred down on a nightclub in Orlando, massacring body after body that had spent the night in the worship of dance. It wasn’t just that. Across the country, coast to coast, America’s daily horror was unfolding, louder and louder it seemed, and yes, too, there were America’s moments of tenderness, but things began to feel particularly raw. Chewed through.

The compost bin outside my house had maggots crawling along the lid; the sight seemed too familiar. Death was everywhere.

The text came from John a few days later. He was in Reykjavik, and Radiohead had just finished their main stage set at the Secret Solstice festival.

“Latency Period. That’s what you should call your column.”

The words were unfamiliar to him; he had no idea where they’d come from. They’d struck Eureka-like from the Icelandic sky, which never darkened in the week that he was there. Words from the sky, words from light. A good omen, then; dreams of the sky had pulled me across the country, had opened my heart, and I’ve come to accept that for all my secular rationality, for all my rootedness, I worship the firmament.

Still, I was unsure.

I read the various descriptions. I flirted with the definitions. I let it all marinate.

For Freud, the latency period was a stage of psychosexual development marked by calm. An eye in the psychosexual storm, when energies previously strewn about in conflict can be spent developing the self. I thought about the piece I’d published in Nailed, soon after uprooting my life and moving it three thousand miles from New York City to Portland, Oregon. Shoulder Blades was indeed like a bridge between the Oedipal and the personal. I killed my father and embraced myself.

Merriam-Webster calls latency period the incubation period of a disease. I’ve been preoccupied with trauma lately. I’ve been wondering what we carry inside of us, and how we can find it before it kills us. Two years ago my mother almost died because a six-inch long, four-inch wide, two-inch deep tumor was crushing the one and only lung she has. They had to break her chest apart to save her life. You can say it was the cigarettes, but I’m not sure. I lie awake at night thinking about that tumor, its veiny flesh, and wondering what it was in her own life and what it was passed down through Soviet blood and war and time through our family line that concretized within her chest to nearly kill her decades later. I think about what my father inherited to harden his heart and build so many walls around it.

I wonder what is festering in me.

The National Cancer Institute defines a latency period as the time that passes between being exposed to something that can cause disease (such as radiation or a virus) and exhibiting symptoms.

That time, I think, is life.

If I had to define latency period myself, and I suppose I do, then I see it as a woman with thread in her fingers.

In Greek mythology, all our lives were in the hands of the three Moirae, the sister fates, the weavers. What can we say about Clotho but that she birthed us, spinning out our lives? And Atropos, she waits for us all, holding the blade that will tear through our fabric and bring us to an end. It’s Lachesis that concerns us, here. The middle sister, the allotter of life, the one who measures out our threads.

“The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”

Vladimir Nabokov opens his memoir with those words. We think of our lives as being very real, concrete things, but they are liminal zones between the only true absolutes upon which we can rely. If this all sounds dreadful, worry not. There’s hope in the space between things.

See, when I dream about the Moirae–and I have since I was a child with my nose buried in books about mythology–I’ve always pictured Lachesis, despite the harsh edges of her name, to be the most joyful of the three sisters.

Picture her with me: a portal between two voids. The threads are fed to her fingers and, where her sisters feel only our births and our deaths pass through their grasp, Lachesis feels everything. Every ridge, every bump, every fiber of every thread in every skein, the joys, the the agony, the laughter binding all of it together. These sisters play at a serious business, but Lachesis, well, picture her. How the edges of her mouth must play at a smile. How she must learn to live in that liminal zone and relish every iota of what it means to be alive, to weather the storm in all its grace and all its fury. She doesn’t know our birth, she doesn’t know our death, but she sees us for who we ultimately are.

She touches us like a blind woman tracing her fingers over the face of her lover.

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Stay tuned next month for the next installment of Latency Period.

Header images courtesy of Matthieu Bourel. To view his artist feature on NAILED, go here.




Daniel Elder

Daniel Elder is a New York City native who now calls Portland home. He is the author of a self-published collection of essays and is currently revising a novella. He lives in an attic with his cat, Terence.