Time Passes: On Unfinished Things
I remember endless summer days as a child–days spent in blistering California heat, roaming through the grass, climbing the towering cumquat tree, holding my finger out to crickets, or letting out a long parabolic rope of pee onto the juniper. Why did the summer days–the crickets chirping, the ice clinking in a glass of lemonade seem to distend, until they fill up large recesses of memory?
Like any good essayist, I set out to answer the question of time’s riddle. Like most good questions, it turns out that the answer is multi-faceted and not entirely conclusive. The explanations range from the mathematical to the psychological and neurological. The typical hypothesis is that our young brains are rapidly encoding new experiences, every scent of a rose, every buzz of a fly has the potential to create a new memory. Just this week, my own children were shouting about a bee that had flown into the car, squirming in their seats like wild animals.
“That’s not a bee,” I said. “That’s just a fly. And even if it was a bee, they don’t bother unless you bother them.”
In my experience, the discovery of the bug would have resulted in me rolling down the window and continuing to think about the structure of my day, of logistics on the weekend. To the children, the fly was a novel experience. It wasn’t even a fly. It was a havoc causing bee.
The logarithmic explanation also explains our differing perceptions of time. The explanation runs thusly, when you are two years old, a summer is ⅛ of your lived experience. Thus, a summer, or even a day can feel like a long stretch of time relative to the total sum of your life. For an adult of forty, a summer feels like 0.00625 percent. By this explanation, which feels a bit like breaking down whey a joke is hilarious and taking the piss out of it, and this essay, see line one, is pro piss, it makes sense that our experience of time as a child feels elongated and drastically truncated as we age.
The last explanation comes from a recent study at Duke University. In this study, it was found that brain degradation contributed to a perceptual difference in how the young and old experience time. Because new brains are much more efficient at processing and encoding information, their is a density to time, a rapid-fire sense that everything is happening all at once, which declines as our brains’ ability encode declines as well.
But why discuss time anyway? Isn’t it the job of an essayist to bring time to life, to mention the screened in porch, the loose fence board we all used to sneak under to travel between backyards? I don’t entirely know why I’m fascinated by time. Sometimes I assume that everyone else is as baffled or interested in precisely the same sorts of things I am, but I’ve learned that isn’t true.
What is time exactly? A difficult question, and well beyond the scope of what I intend to write as I possess no special knowledge of relativity or quantum mechanics. My investigation involves the substance of how we spend our time, esconsed at a particular moment in time in the twenty-first century. What is time? It is that which passes by in any given American urban life like mine–retrieving the children from school, passing through reams of traffic, pedestrians high-tailing it through crosswalks and bikes vaguely following the laws of traffic, the row of azaleas and coneflowers that line the mulch on my short walk to the gym. Time is that which is spent. Or perhaps spent is the wrong phrase, as though we had a choice in the matter. Time is sitting on the front porch steps, bony butt aching, while the wind rattles the limbs of a distant oak, and the children are away for the night, spending the evening with their mother. But I am also concerned with the oddities of time, the way that it warps around a black hole, the way that it influences an essayist recording the patter of thoughts or how the impressionists recorded its passage by shifting the way that light moved through the trees.
The final score in the Oklahoma City vs. Memphis Grizzlies game was 87-81. This fact is a mooring point and perhaps why sports bring me pleasure. Sometimes I’ll find myself between sentences in this essay, brain idling, living in the interstices that comprise most of our lives, and I’ll click back to my prior tab, which affirms the final score of the game was 87-81. This is largely due to the compulsive way I pass time, checking and rechecking tabs on the internet, always with the nagging sense that I’ve missed something. I’ve read that the internet is addictive, in part because we are information seeking creatures, and we’ve now been provided an endless repository to mine for uselessness. Implicit in the prior statement, perhaps problematically, is that our lives should have some use beyond checking the internet for basketball scores and cat memes. This implicit assumption is that our time should be spent meaningfully. Should time be spent meaningfully? And if so, why? Is it because we will all one day be gone? I am troubled by the assumption that time should be well spent because the answers have varied across cultures and time. The Spartans seemed to think it was noble, and perhaps desirable to die in war, the Buddhists in Tibet, to live and die peacefully.
Whenever I was told that I was wasting time–playing video games, watching sitcoms–I wondered what time was for. It’s not as though it’s a blunt instrument, not a hammer, nor a wall hanger, nor a puzzle. Its passage is inexorable, strange, and, or so it seems to me, largely contingent on the particularities of personality, identity, and the logic of the culture you belong to.
Our lives are linear, even if we don’t always experience them that way. I often spend minutes in mindless reverie, imagining an e-mail I’ll send to a friend I’ve lost touch with, all the while passing the present moment, willfully not attending to it. Even if I imagine my parallel lives, seemingly breaking the wheel of time by moving sideways or backward through it, or if I indulge in memory, my mother’s fiery red hair, a day spent in childhood dropping water on a teeming mass of ants, contemporaneous time still plods inexorably forward. And all our history in time trails behind us like the contrails of a comet—broken marriages, broken fingers, broken promises, a mid-day cup of tea on the Ponte Vecchio. And perhaps that’s the real answer, time is what we make of it rather than what we dream. And yet most of what I do is dream, imagine, search, as opposed to inhabit.
What is it that I think I’m missing in the current moment? Why do I keep checking the same tabs over and over, restless as the wind? Reader, I’ve done it just now, in the middle of this thought. Given our current understanding of time and the rules of basketball, it is unlikely that the score of the game will ever be anything but 87-81. Given my understanding of time and the rules of life, I will continue spinning through space on a giant rock, checking the internet for answers to the important questions: how the weather is in Illinois today, what the chances are for a mid-term candidate in the House, what’s a good substitute for buttermilk? I can fill my time with so many questions that don’t approach why I’m unhappy. I needn’t ever stop long enough to ask. The present moment provides an endless distraction to the deeper questions, not a novel thought, but a salient one as I am the sort of person who prides himself on asking deeper questions and even I can barely muster up the attention span of half an hour to ponder much of anything. All the while, the fan is humming, and the children are still lodged in sleep, quiet as God. The children who never seem to need more from life than food, water, entertainment. When do human beings develop an existential nature?
I find myself, as I waste away another day on tab after tab, wondering what to do with time. Time, which can be incredibly boring, or stimulating. I can read a book, or stare blankly at a spreadsheet, but time must be passed somehow. Time is oppressive that way, pressing down on the day like gravity on the earth. Perhaps that’s why so many people take pleasure in structure, having time externally defined relieves the pressure of deciding what to do with it. I too live a structured life, two jobs, two children, but I press against the hours, restless as the wind.
Beyond that, the problem of what to do with time is both existential and intertwined with borgeouise privilege. The ability to even ask the question is concomitant with that privilege. One of my favorite party anecdotes to share is how the Pirahã people of the Amazon rainforest, one of the last groups of hunter-gatherers spend their time. On average, they spend about four hours a day working and the rest is spent hanging about and exchanging jokes and stories. Would that be enough to fill the hours? Has my relatively privileged life of higher education lead me to priortize information seeking and academic achievements, which don’t even make me happy? Is it plausible that my life is a wast of time?
I grew up in a religious family and was given to look for signs that portended the end of the world: Y2K, 9/11, a particularly fierce sunset. There is nothing quite like the surge of feeling that accompanies the probable end of the world, merely because the sun is flaring bright orange over a row of deciduous trees. I’d imagine the world coming to an end, Christ walking down, the heavens unfurling. Now I no longer look at the sky and wonder after glory. I wonder if the corresponding image will look good on Instagram.
I was raised in a Christian home and attended a Christian college, which means that one of the texts I’ve spent the most time with is The Bible. The Bible is unique in its treatment of time, cramming billions of years, the formation of planets, gases, light, and the redemption of humanity into a scant twelve hundred pages. I’d have thought it would at least take 2,000. It took Proust nearly 4,500 to cover the first few decades of his life. Thus, what The Bible succeeds at is the violent compression of time, which mirrors that of our own beginning.
Though The Bible’s compression is admirable, it falls egregiously short where Proust, Woolf, Joyce and others soar—in the depiction of human consciousness. The characters in The Bible are flattened by their lack of interiority. Though their duality is well-expressed. Think of David sending Bathsheba’s husband off to war, so he can have her as his own. Of course, perhaps The Bible falls so far short because it isn’t trying to depict consciouness. In fact, The Bible isn’t a historical document either. It’s a hodgepodge of different styles, poetry, fable, metaphorical, practical instruction, hallucinatory apocalypse, and the stoic tract of Ecclesiastes.
But I fear that an essay that goes on too long about The Bible runs the risk of overstaying its welcome. I think that the majority of the times I’ve been drowsy beyond human comprehension has been during overlong sermons. Structurally, the early portions of The Bible rely on parataxis, events are called into life and responded to, be light; there was light. This structure mimics our lives, though admittedly, the scale is a bit different, universe and light switch.
In our lives, events unfold like leaves falling from an autumnal tree, one after another. As I noted above, even if we fight this linear reality with stories, jokes, narrative tricks, time still marches forward. We can write a book that moves backward, but we can’t do anything but hurtle forwards ourselves. Who hasn’t felt that life is sometimes this way? As though the rush of days flows past us without the time for us to ever apply meaning? The human mind can only hold an experience in active memory for three seconds before it is filed away or lost to the great empty recess of forgotten things that comprise most of our lives, like the dark matter that holds together the universe.
Crucially though, the difference between Biblical time and my current understanding of time is that we are not moving towards anything at all, while The Bible sends the reader moving towards Christ. Thus, lives and linear time should be compressed in order to apply the structural integrity, alpha and omega. Meanwhile, as Proust knows, if all we have is the here and now, and we move toward nothing determinate, then why not expand the details, imbue the ordinary life with rich sensory detail, the fiery red sunset, the blooming jacaranda.
Unlike my religious upbringing, I think we just move, not with intent, toward either a Big Crunch, pure compression or toward the Big Rip, a universe too large to sustain anything.
The Bible also mirrors our lives by decentering of human experience. Not that we consider our lives decentered. In fact, as everyone who has access to the internet has already noted, social media amplifies our belief that we are at the center of the universe. Like Jesus, but without the sandals and crucifixion. But The Bible, like the ocean or the sky, reminds us that our lives are insignificant, and if the Renaissance was about the flourishing of human grandeur, the Industrial Revolution and the growth of capitalism has been about the flourishing of technologies, capital, and structures that are beyond human control. Our lives are already shaped, as though by God, by the cultural forces into which we are born. And, in a way, our lives still mirror those of Biblical heroes—petty, short, envious, foolish, adulterous, filled with longing for a child, a home, meaning.
However, what’s still delayed is the promised redemption of my youth, two-thousand years and counting. And the world suffers through digression after digression—a bombing in Nagasaki, The Peloponnesian war, the death of an unnamed child from malaria, a single butterfly flexing the variegated colors on its back in the garden—waiting forever.
As time passes, the weeks in which I’m writing and rewriting this essay, I find myself also working on an essay that I’ve written about trains: wedding trains, trains traveling through Europe, through the walls of limestone caves, the theoretical train that Einstein used to prove special relativity. I think the editing is almost done, but, like the comment from an old writing professor, like the point at the beginning of the universe, more compression is always possible. But I find compression difficult. The Bible, as I’ve detailed above, uses compression as a device to reduce the impact of our lives. And though I agree we are insignificant, like many other thinkers, I think that makes our brevity meaningful. This stance would seem to be contradictory, but I’d submit that much of our lives take place in contradiction, in the space between the spoken word and response.
Rather, like the universe now, I want expansion. I want to read an essay that carries within it—all possibilities, all shades of meaning, all worlds of dinosaurs, of squid wandering on land, of Tony Allen making and missing layups, of me, leaving and unleaving my former wife, of the time I was a four at the ballet and laughed gleefully at the children spilling out from beneath a dancer’s voluminous dress, of waterfalls spilling from mountaintops and dynasties crumbling, The Great Wall being erected and Trajan’s column. Imagine an essay that went on longer than Proust, longer than Knausgaard, but that covered every train of thought, from Heraclitus and Euripides to the idle musings of a street sweeper in Paris, 1937, the passing thoughts of a young mother while her children play in the sprinkler in 1958. An essay that reimagines the brevity of human life as beautiful by capturing all of it, every blade of grass, every patch of daffodils.
Sadly, this is not that essay. This essay, unlike that dense point of compression, is unlikely to create space and time, gravity and The Milky Way. It is unlikely to create the elements, to set the stars burning and gas giants collecting dust; nor will it set the path of the moon, who’s reflection lies silver on the ocean. Rather, this essay will merely move through space and time, like a train, like a sentence, like an emotion through a solitary Sunday morning of a man’s mid-life malaise, alone, mid-winter, slate sky, the children now sleeping at their mother’s a block away.
It is now Thursday morning. Time moves on like the obscenity that it is.
Once, a mad man shot the President from a hill. Once, the earth had two moons that smashed into each other and one was lost to the vast reaches of space. Once, a child, pink and peach colored, freshly-unwombed, held my finger in her hand. Once, that same little girl read Harry Potter in her small bed, stopping at the scary parts, so I could sit with her as she read. Once, passenger pigeons flooded our sight as though they were ink spilled on pages of the sky. Once, I knelt in a tiny room full of roses and proposed to a woman. Once I lay with my son cradled in the hollow of my chest, warm in sleep. Once, I sat in artificial light, thinking all these thoughts—all the things I’ve left undone, as though finally, years removed from religion, I had become a proper Episcopalian.
All things are full of weariness, Ecclesiastes.
The Pacers now have a 32-22 lead on the New York Knicks. The game is still taking place in the present time. The score will not, barring some catastrophe—the universe ripping itself to shreds, Yellowstone erupting, a meteor hitting the Yucatan Peninsula—remain as 32-22 for an indefinite period of time. It is extremely unlikely, though not impossible, that neither team will score another basket.
I am doubled by the bathroom mirror. I notice, in the reflection of my life, the ghostly shape of a spider threading its way down from the ceiling. And now we are both doubled, looking, I’d imagine, not at one another, but at the reflections of ourselves, the reverse of the way we actually appear. It is a shame that I can only see this reflection and not see instead, the reflection of myself in the eyes of my college roommate when I started dating the girl he had a crush on, or that of my mother this year, when I forgot to call on her birthday, that of my wife as we sat on the porch, and I told her that we should part, that of my brother on the cross-country drive when I said that I hated him. I regret that I cannot show my neighbor, yelling just now, the reflection of his voice, hammering through the walls as he shouts at his daughter. I hope that no one ever writes about me or the shouting I’ve done at my recalcitrant daughter.
My face has grown weary of itself, or so it seems as I stare. Stare long enough and you’ll be reminded of every psychological thriller, reminded of the way we are all slowly losing our minds. Except my own life tends to be a bit boring: no Spidey sense developing, no face that breaks into a cruel smile revealing a split personality, no aliens emerging from my stomach. No, just the cold and inexorable passage of time, making small outlines at the corner of my eyes, at the edges of my cheekbones, turning and turning the details of my life over like a leaf in a storm, furrowing brow and greying hairs at the temples.
I wipe the spider away with a Kleenex, this contingent arachnid taken quickly from the world. It is as though, for this brief blip of time, that I am not a contingent creature, who soon will be wiped clear from the mirror of time.
I try to explain to the spider, who can no longer listen, something of scale. I say the mere fact that I’m able to consider myself in the mirror, to muse over the Big Bang, the feeling of silk—soft as passing rain, the kiss I shared with Sasha in the dark in 1998, the dull ache of my shoulder as I carried the front left of my grandmother’s coffin—reifies my decision to end his/her life. The development of consciousness, up here in the ragged world of skyscrapers, GDP and thrift savings plans, seems to entitle us to so much death dealt without awareness, without understanding, like a drone hovering over a gathering of strangers in the night.
The spider and I didn’t cover much ground. Though perhaps it would have been for nothing anyway. Spiders are notoriously poor listeners, but renowned for their singing, which is lovely and soul-piercing but that cannot be heard by human ears.
My lover and I sit in this city of trees beneath an awning shedding rain, amidst the smell of wet asphalt and petrichor. We are in a silent fight, which gives me space to be alone. I’m thinking about the children, how tender their feet once were. And about the solo trip I took to Spain—the way I found an orange tree behind a chain-link fence and photographed it, thinking the way the light was passing through the fence, illuminating the cracked earth and the dusty limbs of the tree, was somehow a work of art as much as the funhouse of Gaudi’s Parc Guell. There are so many moments I still need to share—that time I was seven and skipped stones on the back of Lindo Channel, that time I sat at my first night in college in Santa Barbara, eight hundred miles from home, talking to Iris about all the things I’d wanted to say in high school within the velvet folds of night, that night I sat among the Eucalyptus and listened to the wind mimicking the ocean, feeling as though my whole life would be full of wonder.
You see, my lovely reader, I say, as we lean in together, I would like this essay to be about time. And since I can’t expand it to include everything I’d like to. I see now that the best mode is compression. I’d like to compress all these moments down into a single paragraph, a single sentence, a single word, a single letter. I’d like to tell you what I’ve been thinking about these past few months that we’ve been part, that we’ve been together, that have passed since I wasn’t your child anymore, wasn’t your lover, your neighbor, your husband, your friend, the many things I’ve wanted to tell you from three thousand miles away, from across the city, from exactly where you are, without having to say anything at all. I want the quiet compression of things before there was any space before there was any time, only these billions and billions of moments, unborn.
Andrew Bertaina’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in many publications including: The ThreePenny Review, Tin House, Redivider, Witness Magazine, and The Best American Poetry 2018. More of his work is available at www.andrewbertaina.com.