Tuesday, September 8, 2009

And it's time, time, time...

Well, my September post-a-day challenge has been going on for a week now. The structure (as you may have figured out if you've been following along) is:

Tuesdays - a ramble, the kind of post I've done all along in this blog
Wednesdays - other people's work, something I find inspirational
Thursdays - thoughts on creativity
Fridays - the observed world
Saturdays - an original piece of my work beyond the usual boundaries of this blog
Sundays - sharing. Links I love
Mondays - tips, pointers, suggestions and links to make the start of the week a little easier

I'd love to know what you think of this so far. All of that being said, let's move onto the ramble.

* * *
There's a song called Time by Tom Waits, one of my favorite musicians, on his album Rain Dogs. Like many of his songs, it's wistful and poetic and obscure and fills my heart with a longing for a broken down life that I probably would never really want. For the chorus Mr. Waits moans, "And it's time time time/ and it's time time time/ And it's time time time that you love /And it's time time time."

He's right, we do love time. As much as we curse it, long for it, waste it and kill it, most of all we love it. Time is what we have and our most precious commodity. I think about time a lot, especially about how time flexes and changes according to our needs.

I'll leave the science of time to physicists and its ethics to philosophers. I'd like to examine wonderfully flexible personal time, with four different examples of thinking about it discussed in order of increasing abstraction.
  1. Time as a measure of distance and ease. When we travel someplace we are rarely asked, "How many miles is it?" as an estimation of the distance. While that may be more factual - I traveled 350 miles - it's far less useful. We are asked, "How far is it?" and reply, "Oh, it's easy, about six hours." What we're really answering is "How long did it take you get there?" I know, this is obvious.

    But this six hours is variable. I don't think 350 miles is too far to travel to visit a friend. It's close enough that I can drive down for a weekend every couple of months. However, if the friend were instead the love-of-my-life then this six hours would be interminable, the time-as-distance becomes far longer and more painful. If the traffic had been bad and it took me ten hours to drive then the same 350 miles would have been a much longer road to travel and I would reconsider flying, which would take four hours, cost more and be less comfortable than riding in my own car. I'd be less likely to see my friend as often; the currency of time wouldn't make it worth it.

    A hundred years ago that same 350 miles would have made a weekend trip all but impossible, while two hundred years ago it would have been a perilous journey of several days; the currency of time would require an extended visit.

    Time, distance and the economy they create are woven together in our vocabulary and thought.

  2. Bodily time. Ask a five year old how old she is and she may very well tell you she's "five-and-a-half." Ask a 95 year old how old she is and it's unlikely she'll mention the half year. The six months of the -and-a-half is a significant portion of the five year old's life. She's likely to have a much-sharper recollection of everything that's happened to her in that last six months than the 95 year old, not necessarily because of age-related memory issues, but because she has so much less, in general, to remember. Her sense of time is immediate, while the older person's sense stretches out over a longer span.

    We retain that sense of time in our bodies, learning how to tell how much time has passed by how we feel. As someone who hasn't worn a watch in many years, I usually have a pretty good sense of time, because my body knows about how long an hour is, or about when 3:30 might be. I also know I am feeling the cumulative passage of time in my life by a greater accumulation of aches and pains. Bodily time.

    We mark time by the changes in our bodies, some clearly marked (the onset of adolescence) and others less so. I saw my mother recently after a gap of several months. After she hugged me she began to stroke my hair; I thought she was trying to tidy it. She was instead startled by how much gray I now have. I hadn't noticed the change because it's been gradual, but to my mother this was a dramatic shift in bodily time, reminding her of the passage of time as we both age.

  3. Before and after. There are instances that define us, a single moment that has such a powerful effect we are never the same. It's as though the brief experience that may last one minute or five or maybe an hour colors everything else. It becomes the dot on our timeline that creates before and after. Think about it.

    In one moment your whole life changes. I know I have those moments.

    - Before I knew had cancer (one sentence). After I was a survivor (one bike ride).
    - Before I told my first story in a performance venue. Afterward, eight minutes later, when I knew this was what I was born to do.
    - Before I found myself stepping between my lover and the assailant, offering calm words to defuse the situation (one second). After, when I realized both how fiercely I love (no one hurts someone I love) and how deeply I believe in alternatives to violence.

    These moments are so brief and so clear. They help us know who we are, but they take so little time, for all that those few minutes have more than their seconds worth of value. What are your before and afters?

  4. Books. This is perhaps the most abstract and most curious instance of personal time on this list. Everytime I read a book, especially fiction, I am reminded that books are physical representations of at least four kinds of time co-existing in one moment, in one physical object.
    - The author and editor devoted considerable time to create the narrative bound in my hand. This time has already happened but is now physically represented by the book;
    - The narrative described within these pages has its own sense of time, whether it's a single night (A Christmas Carol), a lifetime (Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All) generations that see the creation and collapse of a culture (Cloud Atlas) or an epic (The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings);
    - I, as the reader, will spend my own time experiencing this narrative. That amount of time will vary depending on how long I take to read it and whether or not I'm enjoying it ("The time flew by!" or "It took me forever to read.");
    - and lastly, the book itself exists as a physical object moving through time as well as space. Old books have their own stories to tell by their type, their binding, their smell, annotations or objects left by previous readers. Time becomes a physical presence in the book itself.
These example of personal time barely scratch the surface; Alan Lightman explored many variants of time in Einstein's Dreams, so if you're interested in playing around with these ideas more you may want to check it out. I'd be interested in your experiences of personal time, how you measure the seasons or your life or any other places where time becomes particularly intimate.

It is, of course, time that we love. Not time the abstract concept, but what we do with it. The people we share it with and the experiences that create us.

Tomorrow I'll be looking at two artists I find particularly inspirational. I promise, the post will be nowhere near as wordy as this one! In the meantime, thank you for your time.

(c) 2009 Laura S. Packer

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True Stories, Honest Lies by Laura S. Packer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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