Thursday, August 6, 2015


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.


Enbrethiliel said...


I can get so melancholy when it comes to time, too. So that I don't go on and on with you, I'll just share what another blogger recently wrote about her five-year-old son's first experience of Vacation Bible Camp. It was the most enjoyable thing he had ever done in his little life, and when it was over, after one week, he cried and cried. And he started telling his mother about all the things he had loved in the past and knew he'd never experience again! That's pretty deep for his age, aye?

I'm a little better at managing my emotions at my age, but I can still be a little weird about some things. (What? Most things? =P) For instance, I try to put off watching all the episodes or reading all the books in a series I love, just so there will be a few more good things left for me in the future, instead of irretrievably "locked" away in the past. Perhaps this is also the reason food gets wasted a lot in my house: I can't bear to eat the very last slice of cake! Of course, if I have to throw that slice out anyway, the effect is the same . . . but try telling that to my emotions!

Your description of lovers separated by time reminds me of The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger . . . but now that I'm writing this paragraph, also of the love story in a movie whose title I won't reveal in case you haven't seen it. Basically, the hero and heroine fall in love and get married, BUT saving the world involves the hero having to be separated from her TEN YEARS at a time! When someone points out to him that a decade is huge when weighed against a single day, he says that it depends on the day; and I guess it's kind of romantic (i.e., "A single day with her is worth ten years with another woman!") . . . but I'm with you on sharing time with someone you love. Another reason why I don't want to finish things is that I feel lonely experiencing them alone; and I think that maybe if I hold out a bit longer, someone special will come along to share them with me. Of course, the first time I had that thought was several years ago. I might as well seize the day, but I rarely do.

Sheila said...

I haven't read The Time Traveler's Wife, but I've heard of it and want to. I was thinking of Doctor Who. But you remind me also of a book by John C. Wright, The Hermetic Millennia, in which the day after a couple's wedding, the wife goes off on a lightspeed voyage and the husband goes into a cryonic freezer to wait for her to get back. The trip's going to take 10,000 years or something, but subjectively each of them isn't going to be experiencing all of it. But people keep waking up the bridegroom for various needs and he's furious every time -- because he's worried he won't live long enough to see her come home.

A few weeks ago I was getting the kids into the car on a really hot day when a deliciously cool breeze floated into the car and cooled us down. "Feel that breeze, Marko!" I said. "Isn't it great?" He gave a big smile, but then the breeze stopped. "I want to feel that breeze again!" he said. And I felt sad ..... because I can never feel that particular breeze again. That perfect moment is in the box. It's done.

Marko cares about this sort of thing as much as I do. He cries so hard at the prospect of growing up, of changing. He knows we don't plan to stay in our current house forever, but he cries at the thought of moving. He cries if I say he'll turn six someday, or that Daddy's hair will turn gray when he's old -- and the prospect of death is something he can't bear at all; we had that conversation ONCE and now we tiptoe around the possibility that either he or anyone he loves will ever die. It's just too upsetting and none of the usual comforts are at all comforting to him.

And anyway, what comfort is there? I can tell him, "I once was five, and I grew up, and it turned out to be okay." But where is my five-year-old self, really? I hardly remember being five. So I think his sad feelings are entirely valid.

When the Doctor and [one of his companions] were separated for the last time, I felt so sad. He can travel anywhere in time and space, but with each of his companions, there's a Last Time he sees them, and there's generally no going back. His own timeline is just as sealed to him as the rest of all time is to us. But then I thought -- it's not sealed to ME. I can go back and watch [that companion] again whenever I want!

But in reality, I don't. Because you can only watch something for the first time once.

Enbrethiliel said...


I should have figured out you were talking about Doctor Who! As I told you before, I stopped watching after 10 regenerated (Sob!); but I continued to hang around some of the stauncher fans of the series. And so I learned about the strange time-crossed love story that followed . . . and got to read an essay which described the Doctor's losing of his companions as an experience of a loved one's death.

And now this reminds me of another novel in which a girl from our time travels several hundred years into the past and falls in love with a boy she meets then. They do not stay together at the end of the story, and since neither knows if time travel will ever happen for them again, their goodbye is also as good as a death. But I love the metaphor the author used for death: the closing of a time gate. There's a sense in which everyone and everything we have ever loved will always exist in time; they'll just not always be accessible to us.

I almost told a colleague at work what you just said about what you wrote about your selves at different ages probably not liking each other. You see, he's thinking about getting a HUGE tattoo--and I already warned him that he should be considering how his future selves, who will inherit his inked back, will feel about it. But his present self really wants to make his mark and doesn't care what the others will think. Well, at least he'll always remember himself. =P

This is also related to a new idea that I picked up from the blogs of language learners. Apparently, truly mastering another language involves noticeably changing your personality. Their experience is that your manner of speaking, moving, and acting, and even your tastes, really will change--even if it's only when you're "plugged into" the other language. I hope my older selves thank me for picking German and Italian!

Anonymous said...

I just had to say this post was very moving and beautiful. Memory is such a powerful and unwieldy force, yet all of it is valid. God bless!

Sheila said...

"There's a sense in which everyone and everything we have ever loved will always exist in time; they'll just not always be accessible to us. "

Yes, this is the most comforting thought I have at the moment about death: that those I have lost, are not *gone* -- they just live in the past now. My grandpa lives where he's always lived -- 1930-2010. I just can't go there anymore.

Of course the echoes of a person last long after they're gone as well. Just as my past self has affected my today-self, I also have memories (in story form) from my ancestors that affect me too. And I can filter down what's most worth saving in my life and my ancestors' stories, and pass that on to my children and others. As long as I participate in helping other people on this earth, I'm a link of a chain -- I will always matter, because I altered the flow of history for the better.

About tattoos -- in a way, it's like a letter to your future self. "Don't forget me! Remember what I wanted and cared about!" I think that's an interesting idea .... but I never could bind myself onto anything that way. I know who I was and what I liked. But I don't want to act as though I were saying to my future self that she's not allowed to change. I've been wrong about things in the past, so I try not to be too sure I'm right in the present.

Enbrethiliel said...


My colleague's tattoo plans have inspired several conversations at work. Someone with ten tattoos has warned him that she regrets three of hers and wishes she could have laser surgery to remove them. =/ If only there were a way for our future selves to write letters to us as well!

Which reminds me: have you seen Memento?

Sheila said...

No, I haven't even heard of it.

The trouble is, causality always goes one way -- and knowledge always goes the opposite way! What an unfortunate fact when it comes to decisionmaking. Of course in The Once and Future King, Merlin isn't subject to this problem, and he still makes bad decisions.

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