Last night I couldn’t sleep. I lay in bed thinking about my father, who died almost 5 years ago, but it often feels he’s been gone for half my life. That led me down the path of time-thinking, with these stops along the way:

  • The ideas of chronos and kairos, the first meaning clock time, tick tock, and the second meaning a quality of right timing, of being entirely in the (un-timed) moment.
  • How time and emotion are intertwined, because time affects our sense of memory, nostalgia, anticipation, anxiety, and other calculations of grief, fear, wonder, happiness, hope, regret.
  • And e.e. cummings’ astute concoction, in a sonnet: “colossal hoax of clocks and calendars.”

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“Clocks slay time… time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life.” ― William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury

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me, 1994 or 1995
me, 1994 or 1995

I thought about myself 5 years ago (we had just moved to NH, so it’s easy to find some chronological touchstones). I thought about who I was or thought I was, and how long-gone that person seems to me now. And so too with the person I was 10 or 30 or 50 years ago. In fact, sometimes I look at photos of myself from a month or a year ago, or read what I wrote then, and while I recognise that I have seen her before or read her words before, still the face, posture, body, words, syntax don’t seem attached to “me” anymore. She has receded into the mists of time, as they say. She seems a bit of a stranger for whom I feel an unaccountable sympathy and affection.

In the same way that my father feels long gone — though he existed on earth for about 90% of my life so far and thus is relatively, chronologically, only shortly gone — I also feel long gone. I don’t miss myself in the same way as I miss my dad’s presence. I don’t feel a sense of loss for the long-gone me at all. Instead, I feel a sense of wonder and curiosity about who lived in my body before today. She is mysterious to me, and I yearn to know her even as I forget just how she existed, what motivated her, how her spirit felt.

This is not entirely true. Sometimes I re-read a poem I wrote when I was 15 and I know just what I was saying, how I felt, how it feels to be that girl. She doesn’t seem so far gone. But for the most part, there is an absence of that sort of resonance when I glance back, and even when I look closely.

**********

“A lot like yesterday, a lot like never.” Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

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meantimeThe way I’ve arranged my life — the way it’s been able to be arranged by good fortune, luck, the support of others, my own intention and actions or inactions — means I have few labels for me or others to hang our hats on, to keep a solid identity intact. I don’t have kids, a paid or volunteer job, a pet (at the moment). I don’t have a schedule. I don’t have goals or a plan. I’m pretty free-floating, which suits me for now, but then I wonder, maybe if I had those things (kids, job, direction), I would be another person — I’m sure I would be another person — and would I feel so long-gone then? Is this fleeting sense of self part-and-parcel of the way I live, or is it, in itself, a defining and pervasive characteristic of me, part of my enduring identity through time?

Is this how most everyone feels? I don’t think it is, as I have heard many coherent narratives when people talk about their lives, but maybe those are made up on the fly, one of many narratives that a person could choose to describe or explain her life as an integral whole.

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“Being with you and not being with you is the only way I have to measure time.” ― Jorge Luis Borges

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with good friends, 2010
with good friends, 2010

Back to time and its cunning. Sometimes, I spend a week socialising, seeing friends, being part of fun groups, and then the next week, when I’m not doing those things, it will feel like months since I have done them. I will think, “I must not have any friends. I’m just sitting in my house, or working in my yard, or hiking alone, and there’s no one with me.” It can feel like so long since I hung out with friends, yet it’s been three days.

Conversely, there are periods when I feel, honestly, seriously, that I haven’t had a moment alone in ages and it’s been a day. Or a few hours.

I’ve heard other people voice a similar sense of this time distortion when it comes to finding a balance between and among good moments. Having fun with family and friends feels good, and so does being alone; why do I sometimes feel a lack of time spent in one situation or the other when both are abundant in my life?

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“Time can be a greedy thing — sometimes it steals the details for itself.”
― Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner

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Similarly, the time vagaries of travelling. Clock and calendar time loses meaning for me when I’m on the train, a bit odd since timetables and hurried connections can be key. But as the scenery goes by, and the sense of place is blurred and no-where, so my sense of time is predominantly of being out-of-time, timeless, both timeless and placeless, existing only here, and “here” is moving at 60 mph, and now, which is moving at some speed of its own, too.

Feb. 2007
Feb. 2007

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The flower that you hold in your hands was born today and already it is as old as you are.  ― Antonio Porchia, Voces (trans. W.S. Merwin)

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Sometimes I think dogs aren’t the only animals who live in dog years. On average, they say that for a dog one of our years feels like seven to a dog. So one day feels like a week. When it comes to thinking about my dad, though he’s been gone almost 5 years, it feels closer to 35 to me. Or let’s say 15. And when I try to estimate how long ago other things occurred, I am usually off by a factor of at least three, remembering recent events (e.g., when I heard a programme from the last week on the radio) as even more recent and longer-ago events as long long gone.

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Why won’t they let a year die without bringing in a new one on the instant, can’t they use birth control on time? I want an interregnum. The stupid years patter on with unrelenting feet, never stopping — rising to little monotonous peaks in our imaginations at festivals like New Year’s and Easter and Christmas — But, goodness, why need they do it? ― John Dos Passos, diary, 31 Dec 1917

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I think most of us have a sense of time expanding and contracting at rates not strictly correlated to the clock or the calendar. Most of us would not say, after 20 minutes of making love, for example, “That sure took forever.” (Or I hope we wouldn’t.) Just as most of us would not say after after 20 minutes of intense dental work, “It went by so fast!” We often try to hang onto what feel like good times, pleasurable moments, fun, happiness, joy, but we never can, and time carries us through the good times with the speed of a bullet train. And we often try to avoid what feel like bad times, painful moments, agony, despair, even boredom, but we never can, and time becomes a donkey ride up a steep slope.

And time spent waiting seems especially susceptible to this expansion and contraction house of mirrors: when we want something to happen, time plods, and when we don’t want it to happen, time zips by, in both cases heedless to our desires.

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sunlightandiceonOtterCreekTAMOtterCreekTrailMiddleburyVT29Nov2013“You must have been warned against letting the golden hours slip by; but some of them are golden only because we let them slip by.”  ― J.M. Barrie in Courage

**********

These are not new thoughts. What strikes me is how hard it is to hold onto any sense of a solid and permanent, if ever-changing, identity as time plays its tricks with our minds.

Which is fine with me. I like the feeling that we are who we are in the moment. We live, whether we want to or not, at the edge of past and future, that busy, vital space where boundaries meet and jut and strive and give way to each other.

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“Love easily confuses us because it is always in flux between illusion and substance, between memory and wish, between contentment and need.”
― Tom Robbins, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues

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(And it’s not only love in flux between memory and wish — past and future — and contentment and need — present and future — but emotional states in general seem to move freely between then, now, when: happiness, sadness, anger, grief, disappointment, envy, pride, relief, surprise …)

(And of course, our experience in the past, and our experience of the past — that is, the way we remember it, which isn’t what actually happened — can’t help but be part of the mix of who we are now, this moment. My experience, e.g., of not feeling that I am the me of yesteryear (or yesterday) is partly an illusion, because somehow those past moments, relationships, and actions led me to exactly where I am now.)

pcbwoodspathwithyellowferns3Oct2012But, back to the edge: At that edge, that vital space in time where the boundaries meet, there is a whole life going on, just in that moment. There is energy, dynamism, disorder, and in each moment, a sort of magical recreation of self, whoever that is. I like being here.

Or as Kurt Vonnegut puts it:

“Here we are, trapped in the amber of the moment. There is no why.”

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4 thoughts on “A lot like yesterday, a lot like never

  1. Beautiful article. I am sitting in hospital after gall latter surgery physically alone on my moms 6th anniversary of her death. My point, I don’t feel alone at all. I was the queen social butterfly, but presently I have gone within to learn. This time I have spent has been an amazing awakening for me. I look forward to each day wondering what I will discover next. MM, hope u are finding peace. Remember the birthday you were given or chose.

  2. Thank you, Cheryl. Means a lot of hear from you, across the distance of more than 40 years. Thinking of you thinking of your mother, as my mom is in her final days or weeks on earth now too. May you heal well and swiftly from your surgery. Namaste.

  3. Wonderful reflection, Molly. Thank you. It takes me many places. I finally figured out how to follow it. :~}

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