I’m writing here to see what I remember from a moment ago; I’ll see how fast the moment ahead passes. I’m in Santa Fe, where time may be moving more slowly, where it’s two hours behind already for this Floridian. They talk about the manaña syndrome this close to Mexico, and it’s certainly slow and easy going for me, here in a house on Calle Lento--Slow Street--on summer break, far away from the set pace of home. Slowed down, the moments in my day can be peered into, but I’m afraid they are only full of what I am doing, no mysteries. Time only turns mysterious when you look back and wonder where it went . . . so it’s memory that is mysterious, not time. How we see time after the piece we’re looking at has passed. We try to remember the leaf we saw out of the corner of our eye as it slipped out of sight down the river. Or the ring we dropped into the river and couldn’t find, after treasuring it for only one day. Or the man we fell in love with tubing on the river that day in June, the one we later married. It’s the goneness that’s mysterious. We know it doesn’t exist now except as we remember it, and it’s crumbling or calcifying—it’s changing, and it’s not anywhere near as good, we believe, as that time when it was there. The attempt to recall it is satisfying, may even make it more perfect and give it sense it didn’t have, but the moment is gone, and we can’t examine it to verify anything in it. We have to imagine to fill in the gaps, we have to be artists all the time. Artists who rarely get any credit but work night and day, whose work will be destroyed with the passage of very little time, amounts of time you can’t predict. Usually a few days wipe out a decent memory. It takes too much time to keep one alive, stretching it with attention every day. How long will it seem to fit in each day or seem worthwhile to nurture it, even for a moment? The occupation of remembering uses up time that could be spent creating new memories that might turn out to be more useful or sweet. It’s 12:07. I’ve put in a load of laundry, balanced my checkbook, prepared mail. I come here and write, hop up for a chore, sit back down. That’s what’s in these moments. But when I think back on how I “used” my days here, will I be astonished by something related to this ordinary morning? One thing is certain: that I have written this down will preserve a part of this morning--a way of looking at it?--that would surely have been lost to me. Now I’ll know what time it was when I put in the dark load. The sketchy record will tell me about this time . . . I’ll be able to tell what the time was like . . . I’ll tell time who I was here today.
When we came home last night we made love and I tried to guess how long we spent at it. I used to wonder how people could “do it for hours,” and now I think I’m seeing how and wondering if we are doing it for as long as an hour or so. I asked Don and he laughed at me a little, especially when I began to think about how we could figure it out. We saw that checking the clock beforehand would make us conscious of time, which would ruin the sex and alter the natural course. If Don just took a quick look and didn’t tell me . . . no, we’ll never know, unless we have only so long, in which case we might not go the full course. These nighttime raptures can only be guessed at (does darkness affect the telling of time?), and the guess feels wild: I don’t know if it’s 20 minutes or 50, or more. We’re not looking at our watches as much in Santa Fe, or we’d know roughly when I asked Don to come in to bed and when I thought first about it when we were talking afterwards. Yesterday I talked to a woman I’d just met about the strangeness of time, and she told me she’d recently met someone from her past who remembered things she didn’t remember about their time together, and she recalled things he didn’t recall. There didn’t seem to be any overlap as they talked. You expect to revisit common ground, and there waits a familiar stranger with reminiscent stories you’ve never heard. It’s 3:05. I thought more time would have passed. There isn’t a size or value consistent in one moment and the next, even if we need to pretend there is. Contents in one hour don’t necessarily shift to the next: they may not be needed or they may not fit, which could be good or bad but probably won’t matter long, or seem to.
Seeing so many children here, through my brother’s kids, reminds me of how we are taught about time. We experience it first through waiting for things our mothers and fathers tell us we can’t have or do yet. We learn to wait, we learn to hurry, we learn not to take too much time and make others wait. In school, we learn to “tell time” and to “use it wisely.” These are oddly peremptory phrases. They suggest we dictate our wishes to it and manage it with great caution, like a tricky, dangerous machine. We teach little children to interpret and employ this time machine, a finite system we impose on the infinite, and to believe in our dominion over it. When they are still very new at handling the charge, the students’ skills are evaluated. Their teachers are expected to judge the wisdom of the chidren concerning their use of time. I can still see the folded report card with primary-colored stick figures illustrating the skills I was measured on, with O’s, S’s, and U’s: keeping one’s hands to oneself, following directions, using time wisely. Did I get S’s? even O’s? Was I wise? . . . It’s 3:53. I’m 42 years old, and I am digging around to see if I am yet possessed of any wisdom about time. Am I squandering it in my vain search? Don’t I have enough evidence that the crude grid we lay over our existence is too complex for me? Every day I wonder to what causes my portion has gone; I’m lucky I don’t judge myself too harshly at the end of the sloppy account.
I woke early but lay in bed for what turned out to be about an hour. As I drifted around consciousness I thought about how hard it is to judge time without all your faculties. Morning can be a treacherous time, because I can’t guess yet whether I’ve spent five minutes or twenty sitting by the window with a cup of coffee. It’s a peculiar sense, intuiting how much time is passing, but you have to be awake and sober to access it. (I’m sometimes as good as the cats at guessing it’s 5:00, their dinner time). When I was a young prankster I used to take advantage of the groggy napper who muttered upon waking, “What time is it?” I’d inform him (what woman naps when others are around?) that it was quite a bit later than in fact it was, for the pleasure of seeing the lurch of shock that would sometimes propel him onto his feet. I still am occasionally so juvenile; the temptation to pull this on my husband has, a couple of times, been too great to resist. I must be partly captivated by seeing how much I can distort time: the sleeper often believes in an alleged time many hours beyond the present. It is marvelous to have the power, for a moment, to launch someone into the future: if he understands it to be 10 a.m., it is as though it were, for both of us. It is also beautiful to suffer a loss of time and then to have it back. It is a little like dragging a leg that has fallen asleep--you know you are not permanently handicapped, so it can be delightful, just as drunkenness allows us to enjoy uncoordination and muddiness of thought, the effects of a brief, mild stroke. It becomes “an experience,” instead of “experience.” We can laugh at almost any painless alteration if we can see the end of it, coming very soon, giving back.
Management of time, paradoxically, is reliant on faith. We have to live as though everything can be done later that isn’t done now, though it is impossible to know this. We have to feel confident, believe in our inborn talent to make our lives fit into clocks, expect that we will make work tomorrow what fails today. Time seems to accelerate in middle age--the decades are flying by--and it becomes sweeter. It is a cruel pleasure to age, to watch ever more precious things vanish even before they can be seized. It’s 9:50 a.m. I woke in the night (I don’t know what time it was) and couldn’t go back to sleep. It irritates me not to know how many hours of sleep I was able to get. How tired should I be? I let time tell me how I should function. I’m like a mouse on a track that I think is a maze. . . or vice versa. Time’s trick of looking concrete, hiding behind clocks, is confounding. It just leaves evidence, in hobbling people, rusty machines, and pocked and layered rocks. I hope by examining all the minutes lined up, I’ll be able to see a shape, some kind of substance. Time is in everything, like air; it’s weird invisible stuff; it’s our idea of what keeps us alive. The time is now 10:06 . . . I remember, as a kid, calling the time and listening to that phrase repeated until another moment had passed and she said The time is now 10:07. I’d let the taped voice take minute after minute from me, as it gave minute after minute to me. I remember in a dull 9th grade class making little boxes next to each of the 50 minutes of class, and checking each one off as the clock clicked the boredom away. Time is usually a negligible, unlimited resource to kids: only time out of school is precious. In school, it is a persecuting reality, something to wish away. Adults do this with work, certainly, waiting to finish a week, a year . . . to retire. Perhaps time itself is a matter of opinion. Wouldn’t we be fools to rely on a cipher of our shifting emotions, to be faithful to it, to have faith in it?
The other night my sister-in-law said the shape of time must be a spiral, that a linear model couldn’t possibly describe what she experiences. I believe we can make timelines, that it is linear in retrospect, but that while it’s moving through us it feels nothing like that. It’s like touching something in the dark and guessing wrong about what it is. We don’t know what’s going on till we see it later or we’ve felt it lots of times. I’m not sure if I know even then how time has turned any part of my life out, but I have to trust what knowledge I have. It’s my language, currency, native custom, remade by me continually like a traditional tapestry. I weave according to custom, for the most part, but my time at work is entirely original. I can’t change that: every moment I live was absolutely unpredictable beforehand. It may be uninteresting when I suddenly get a stomach ache and put down my book and walk over to answer the doorbell, but itIs never happened before. We’re making history, contributing (if microscopically) to our times, to our family trees, and to our personal stories. We do it in spite of sensing it won’t matter or remain; we live unable to stop creating history. I feel as though I’m not supposed to, almost, but I am making friends with time, writing this journal. I’m reaching behind a veil that should keep me distant, cooperative. Instead I’m tempted to become familiar, drop the polite manner of seating myself in its chambers, and let myself talk and talk, and even interrupt when I’m excited. Time will run out on me, a disloyal friend, ultimately, but I know that’s coming. Such uncomplicated friendships are hard to find.
There’s a hellion clock in the kitchen here that has gained almost an hour in the six weeks we’ve been here. It started out 8 or 9 minutes fast, confusing us a little, and we got used to taking no heed of its ridiculous account. When my niece and her boyfriend were here last week they were thrown into accelerated motion one morning when they saw they had only 30 minutes before a lunch date. We hadn’t thought to mention the clock, since we hardly believed it was there anymore. They basked in the hour and a half they actually had, frittering the gift chatting on the porch in the sun, and ran about getting ready in the last 20 minutes. Consciousness of time is undeniably absurd. The wish to master it makes fools of us. There is no perfect attitude toward time: we are either habitually late, preposterously punctual, or chronically early. We seem to judge with greater ferocity as we age, too, condemning the senseless waste, the criminal misuse, the appalling decisions of others. If we could find our health or the environment were damaged by the way others abuse time, we would be gratified to make public accusations. We are disappointed to realize we sit alone with time, who doesn’t mind second-hand smoke or the wafting scent of fetid trash. We don’t understand each other’s relationships with time—it’s like not seeing why your boyfriend hates his mother when she seems so nice. Don trusts that time will be generous with him, allowing him to read a few poems, have breakfast, take a shower, and get to work in 20 minutes. I am afraid to trust time: I have been betrayed. I don’t expect much from 20 minutes. If I didn’t know better, I’d think I was only getting 10, in some kind of “time snare” scam. I’d insist that my minutes are smaller, flatter, deceptively full-sized, each one like a short-sheeted bed. I try to trust--I want to forgive! I set out at a saunter, pleased with myself luxuriating in all of these upcoming 20 minutes, whole and hearty every last one, only to find I’m suddenly skidding on the last minute. I arrive early everywhere, out of breath, certain I’m late. Then the minutes taunt me as I wait for everything that’s on time, and all the rest that’s late: then the moments drag their lumpy feet and slur their turtle speech, while I drum my fingers and shake my head in wonder at my suckerhood.
I feel like the constant element in days that are mysterious because of time’s variability. That’s a distorted effect, I know, like thinking it’s not the train that’s moving but the scene outside. I prefer to wonder at time’s inexplicable passage (and not my own), its disappointing vagaries, its blame-worthy qualities. It’s 10:21, according to my computer. Funny how it doesn’t make much sense apart from a plot or a calculation. The time itself has a haunting vacuity when presented alone. It has meaning for me only, unless I explain a way it is connected to a story or an obligation that involves others. We don’t care what time it is for others without such supplemental information. When we ourselves think what time it is, what day, what month, what year, the fact of when it is resounds with implication. It is 10:28 on Tuesday, two days before I leave this place, 10 days before I arrive home in Tampa on August 23rd, almost four months into my 43rd year, very likely beyond the halfway point of my life. What am I doing at this juncture? How does it relate to moments in my past? There doesn’t seem to be any more or less significance to this moment: it’s a point on a graph. It’s full for me, but so empty, really. I want to reconcile that, always, and there’s no good way to do it. The second hand twitches and the world has never been here before! Cause for celebration? Apparently nothing to be excited about, in the long run. It’s 10:53again, just as it was yesterday, though I can’t say anything about tomorrow. Not working, it’s an hour as good as any other. Actually, I feel all rig about late morning. Nice time of day. As long as nothing bad is going on for me. God, my life seems small. This is as small as I can get it at this moment, crawling around inside of a minute, peering at the lining, straining to see out.
It’s 11:11. My niece came close to being born on 8/8/88. We love the matching up of numbers in time. We have a need to count, to pair things up, to read into numbers some explanation. I ought to worship at clocks, as some people do at altars. God is time, healer of all wounds. Our faith is symbolized in watches, like crosses. We are Time’s blessed children who sleep with abiding alarm clocks, whose watches chime like the bells of a church at the hour of prayer. Is Time too ageless and travel worn to wonder at our faithfulness? How long can this woman hope? How long can this man suffer? How long can this one live with a bad heart? How long will these two hate? How much will be remembered of this joy? How brief is belief?
Some days have passed and I’m back East, on my own faster street in Tampa. My computer is way off, still insisting on a time lost to me, parked (oblivious as ever) on Calle Lento. The screen corner says it’s 6:52 a.m.; it’s really and truly already 8:52 a.m. I’m going to take a minute and reset the clock. A couple of my watches I left behind weren’t even changed to Daylight Savings Time, so everywhere I look I’m getting another interpretation. Luckily I don’t need precision today. It’s two hairs past a freckle in my world. I love the way that silly line reduces time to a little hairy, freckly flesh at the wrist, showing us how absurd we are to think we know the time we’re in and we see the moment for what it is. It’s 9:02. Not for everybody, but for it is for me. Time to eat. Time to shower. Time to work. Time to read. Time to waste time. It’s always my decision. If I were ill, I would still have to decide, if I should go to the chemo treatment, if I should go in the next day for surgery. I can even decide when it is time to die, though I cannot decide it is not time. I cannot choose when it is time for others to do anything, either. I can tell people what to do, but they can choose to honor their own decisions, or chance can choose. But there is only so much chance for me: I can’t eat or shower by chance, but I can eat by chance at 10:00, or shower by chance at 11:14. Chance interferes, blessedly, relieving me of the incessant scheduling. I sometimes feel nothing else orders my life for me so benevolently. It’s 9:38 . . . though I can come up with no good reason to note that, I am certain of its importance. Everything has to do with time. If I wrote my daily entry about it till I had lived 90 years, I’d probably only know I’d spent many thousands of hours thinking about life. I’d know something about some of the small parts, my own minutes and hours as they passed. I wouldn’t know about the ones coming, or the ones I hadn’t stopped to think about. I might have theories, and I’m interested to imagine them, but they’d inevitably be so idiosyncratic and intricate they’d be useless to anyone. Anyone but me.