Recently I had to stop at a train crossing to let a freight train pass by. As I watched it go, car after car, I thought, "I will never see the whole train at once. But by using my memory and imagination, I can estimate the length of the train by constructing a mental model of it from all the cars I've seen."
That's pretty much how time works. The past and future don't exist; you construct them in your mind. Your life is a long string of moments, and all you can sense is the moment you're in, but you can think of your life as a unified whole. Time is the dimension we can perceive, but not travel in -- or at least, only in one direction and speed.
It could also be compared to the pier-glass in The Gift of the Magi: "A
very thin and very agile person may, by observing his reflection in a
rapid sequence of longitudinal strips, obtain a fairly
accurate conception of his looks." So you know who you are, because you can put together all the moments you can remember.
It's just weird, you know? You'd think, living with this reality every day, it would stop seeming weird to me, but it never does.
For instance: 1998 me is not really the same as 2015 me. When I read my old journals, I'm just puzzled. Would I get along well with her today? Would she be proud of me? Which one of us is right? Heck, I can't even get a tattoo, because I would hate to do that to future-me if it turns out she doesn't like it.
But moment to moment, I feel like the same person. There was no moment where the kid me died and the adult me was born. And I certainly act like it's all the same me -- I apologize for things past-me did, and I carefully set up rewards for future-me by passing up advantages for present-me.
To get weirder, I think of other people I know. If I could meet my mother at 29, would I be friends with her? If could be five years old and play with Marko, would I understand him better than I do today? I look at pictures of my husband at eight years old and my brain skitters off the rails. Would I have liked him when I was eight? Maybe, maybe not. I think we met each other at the exact right time.
Perhaps it's wrong to imagine "myself" as a snapshot of myself in the moment, the feelings and preferences that I have today. Maybe "myself" is really a thread throughout time, the choices I've made that have constructed myself into what I am today, and will be in the future. Perhaps it is impossible to say who I am until I'm dead, and the whole of my life is available for evaluation.
I don't believe time travel is possible, not like in the movies. Time is nothing more than the measurement of change, and it always goes in the direction of causality. But shows about time travel definitely make me think. Like the romance of two people going in opposite directions in time (present in more than one work of fiction) -- it's one of the saddest things I can imagine. Because what is better, when you're in love, than to share time together? Both John and I have changed so much since we met, I am not sure either of us would have picked the other if we knew what we'd be like in ten years. But it's okay because we've changed in compatible directions. I hope we continue to change together.
Time makes me sad. Every spring I feel the urgent need to go look at cherry blossoms, and every year when they fall, I feel nostalgic. There's a year of blossoms, gone. I know I looked at them, and yet I feel I can't possibly have looked at them enough. I should have looked at them longer.
And the kids -- every time I look around, they are older. When did that even happen? I feel like I must have not been paying attention, I must have missed it, but I pay attention every day! I resolve to take more pictures, to write in my journal more, as if to bottle up the time that is slipping through my fingers every day.
Sometimes my life feels like a dish of ice cream. I sit down to eat the ice cream, but then I get distracted, and when I look down I find half of it is gone and I hardly tasted it. I resolve to pay more attention to the rest -- but somehow I get distracted again! There's so much of life to live, so much to pay attention to, it always feels like you missed something.
I have always been very attached to places. I don't know why that is. I miss hotel rooms I stayed in, views I once looked at. I think a part of it is a feeling that as long as the place still exists, maybe I could go back there and relive those moments. I certainly feel that way when I go back to my alma mater and wander around campus -- it brings me right back to those years, and the way John and I fell in love there, so very slowly that I don't remember all the details anymore. But it winds up being disappointing, because the place changes, the people I knew are gone, and my memory leaves out so much.
When the place is gone, it's worse. My grandparents' cabin, which was one of my favorite places growing up, and where John and I spent our honeymoon, has been sold. My childhood home was sold, and I think my favorite tree is gone. But I comfort myself by storing up these places in my memory. I remember every detail of those places, and as I mentally walk through the rooms, I see moments of the past. Swimming with my great-grandfather, helping Grampy mix cement for the stone wall, snuggling up in a blanket with my cousin to watch a meteor shower. I have it all stored up. I can go back.
And yet there's never enough time. Twenty more years with my children is not enough time. Fifty more years with my husband is not enough time. I can't relive my first twenty-nine years without missing out on today. This moment when I'm alive, right now -- there are so many important things I could be doing with it! I could play with my kids, I could write to a friend, I could be washing that huge pile of dishes. But any choice I make takes away the other options. And frantically chasing experiences might not be the best use of my time, either.
I'm not one to try to see it all, to try to hit everything on a bucket list. I'd rather live slow, smell the flowers, try to go deep into a single place and a few special people. I feel like you can go more deeply into time if you don't travel a lot in space. You can see the cherry blossoms again every year, watch children grow before your eyes. In the massive scale of time, our lives are very short. But the massive scale of time is a figment of the imagination -- we can't experience it. And in our human scale, the scale with which we experience life, time seems to pass at the right pace -- fast and slow, in its own kind of rhythm. I just know it's disrespectful to time to wish it away, to try to rush past. I've done too much of that in my life. I want to sink deep into the moment, to capture what I can before it fades, and to allow it to transform me into the person I will be tomorrow.