Thursday, April 07, 2011

In Time or On Time?

Last night I went to an early evening lecture at the University - Art & Science were up for discussion in  the Archway Four lecture theatre. . . Afterwards, friend Jenny and I went on to Eureka Cafe for Laksa, cider and scrumptious conversation. We inevitably got talking about books; Jenny asked me if there are any books on my shelves that I read - or re-read - regularly. Well, yes! Im sure we all have a handful that fall under this umbrella? Amongst mine are The Four Wise Men by Michel Tournier (pretty much an annual read since December 1984) and, too, evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis's What Is Life? (with chapter titles like 'The Autopoietic Planet', 'Cosmic Wiggles', 'Living Carpets and Growing Stones', 'Kissing Molds and Destroying Angels', 'Hitchhiking Fungi' and 'Underbelly of The Biosphere', you will understand my saying I take this book to bed with me often; I have (blush-blush) even been known to tuck it under my pillow pre-sleep?! Lynn Margulis co-authored this volume of reflective essays with her son, Dorion Sagan - son of Carl). Another book I read regularly is Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman. . .   

"Suppose time is a circle bending back on itself. The world repeats itself , precisely, endlessly. For the most part, people do not know that they will live their lives over...'' (pg 8)

"There is a place where time stands still. Raindrops hang motionless in air. Pendulums of clocks float mid-swing. Dogs raise their muzzles in silent howls..."  (pg 70)

"A mushy brown peach is lifted from the garbage and placed on the table to pinken. It pinkens, it turns hard, it is carried in a shopping sack to the grocer's, put on a shelf, removed and crated, returned to the tree with pink blossoms. In this world, time flows backwards... " (pg 102) 

These are various lines that open the succinct, time-defining (time-questioning) chapters in Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman.

One of the insistent global themes at the moment is 'living in the present.' The ideal is that by living in the present, one can still assimilate and integrate the past (without getting stuck there) and trust that - with a healthy dollop of proactivity on our parts - the future will unfold as it must. Lightman addresses time from a number of different angles. In each chapter, time is introduced as a unique concept with a peculiarly different set of characteristics. In one chapter, time is a sense. In another, a memory. He wanders and muses, opening the subject up rather than drawing any conclusions. 

I consider time a gift, not a commodity and yet, we think (in our so-called civilized communities) that we can trade it, save it, promote it, bottle it, consume it... Not so! I read somewhere that 'time' is one of the most frequently used words in the English language. It is also one of the most elusive and un-pin-down-able of subjects. This is one of my favourite excerpts from Lightman's book -

"In this world, there are two times. There is mechanical time and there is body time. The first is as rigid and metallic as a massive pendulum of iron that swings back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. The second squirms and wriggles like a bluefish in a bay. The first is unyielding, predetermined. The second makes up its mind as it goes along.

Many are convinced that mechanical time does not exist. When they pass the giant clock on the Kramgasse they do not see it; nor do they hear its chimes while sending packages on Postgasse or strolling between flowers on the Rosengarten. They wear watches on their wrists, but only as ornaments or as courtesies to those who would give timepieces as gifts. They do not keep clocks in their houses. Instead they listen to their heartbeats. They feel the rhythm of their moods and desires. Such people eat when they are hungry, go to their jobs at the millinery or chemist's whenever they wake from their sleep, make love all hours of the day. Such people laugh at the thought of mechanical time. They know that time struggles forward with a weight on its back when they are rushing an injured child to the hospital or bearing the gaze of a neighbour wronged. And they know too that time darts across the field of vision when they are eating well with friends or receiving praise or lying in the arms of a secret lover. 

Then there are those who think their bodies don't exist. They live by mechanical time. They rise at seven o'clock in the morning. They eat their lunch at noon and their supper at six. They arrive at their appointments on time, precisely by the clock. They make love between eight and ten at night. They work forty hours a week, read the Sunday paper on Sunday, play chess on Tuesday nights. When their stomach growls, they look at their watch to see if it is time to eat. When they begin to lose themselves in a concert, they look at the clock above the stage to see when it will be time to go home. They know that the body is not a thing of wild magic, but a collection of chemicals, tissues, and nerve impulses. Thoughts are no more than electrical surges in the brain. Sexual arousal is no more than a flow of chemicals to certain nerve endings. Sadness is no more than a bit of acid transfixed in the cerebellum. In short, the body is a machine, subject to the same laws of electricity and mechanics as an electron or clock. As such, the body must be addressed in the language of physics. And if the body speaks, it is speaking only of so many levers and forces. The body is a thing to be ordered, not obeyed.

"Taking the night air along the river Aare, one sees evidence for two worlds in one. A boatman gauges his position on the dark but counting seconds drifted in the water's current. 'One, three metres. Two, six metres. Three, nine metres.' His voice cuts through the black in clean and certain syllables. Beneath a lamppost on the Nydegg Bridge, two brothers who have not seen each other for a year stand and drink and laugh. The bell of St. Vincent's cathedral sings ten times. In seconds, lights in the apartments lining Schifflaube wink out, in a perfect mechanized response, like the deductions of Euclid's geometry. Lying on the riverbank, two lovers look up lazily, awakened from a timeless sleep by the distant church bells, surprised to find that the night has come.

Where the two times meet, desperation. Where the two times go their separate ways, contentment. For, miraculously, a barrister, a nurse, a baker can make a world in either time, but not in both times. Each time is true, but the truths are not the same."


Time and Truth. Endlessly fascinating subjects. . .

I can't help wondering whether there mightn't be two primary prompts - interchangeable and essential - when it comes to our relationship with time: (1) time awareness that acknowledges responsibility to self and one's own rhythms and truth, and (2) time responsiveness that takes into account one's place within the community - i.e. in relationship with others?

Seems to me, it makes sense we pay equal attention to
both these calls, since the neglect of either surely serves neither the group nor the individual well? As for the elusive 'still point' . . .  the 'still point' is, I think, where we find equilibrium - of self, as well as in relation to the call to link in more effectively with others. Few things take the path of a simple straight line, though, do they? (Or do they?) 

My tussles with these themes are very much in evidence on this here blog! And yes, there are A Lot of words here today - I hope not too many. ; ) Ta ra.

Not Rebelling To Agitate Trouble But As A Lover of Something Poses Questions ii
Oil on paper - CB
from Questions of Balance series 2009


  1. Claire, thank you for such a long and thoughtful piece. Lightman's book is a marvel. And the parts you have quoted make it crystal clear that two different kinds of time exist simultaneously, perhaps in the same soul, but that both can't be 'in' both at once, but can only seesaw from one to the other. The fulcrum you always talk about is like balancing on a tightrope--hard to manage at first, terrifying, yet it gets easier with practice. And at that fulcrum is the place where one is given the gift of 'standing in the heart.'

    Most people don't consider anything but mechanical time. How much Lynn Margulies and Alan Lightman have to show them. xo

  2. Marked as read later. Some posts need to be savored. :)

    BTW, do you read comments on older posts?

  3. A fascinating post. Not too long, but then I have time ... I am also interested in the way time loops: have you ever thought on an airplane or train or somewhere you have to be patient - that time was an illusion between the journeys and only becomes real (or starts again) when you are back in that seat, waiting? again ...

  4. We need time for such so-called long posts, not long at all really, but in the blogosphere people tend to rush. Mores the pity.

    Lightman's writing here is exquisite and it sets me thinking and slows me down.

    Thank you for this, Claire, and for me now, it's time for bed and sleep and dreams. My body says so and so does my mind. I shall try not to be driven only by the mechanical or the body clock. Both apply.

  5. I, too, will return to read when my wits are more about me. A theme that speaks to me, an introduction to a book I did not know. xo ((O))

  6. Hi C. What a beautiful post. I have been noticing of late that when we stand in the heart time eases and expands. Body time runs slower than mechanical time. When time is machined it becomes an inferno, voracious, rapacious, annihilating, fell. Heart time burns slower, like a candle or lamp, and gives softer light.

  7. Dear Melissa
    Have you seen the film 'Man on Wire'? If not, I recommend it for the way in which it so perfectly demonstrates what you have expressed here re; the fulcrum being 'hard to manage at first, terrifying, yet it gets easier with practice'. . . Phillipe Petit's discipline, defiance and focussed determination enable him to 'claim sole ownership of the sky' during the moments he is poised about the world on his high-wire. Breathtaking to watch; meditation and dance occurring simultaneously, miraculously in mid-air.

    How much of life is enacted in these kinds of indefinable, un-measurable time(less) spaces? 'Tis all a bit of mystery, that much is certain.

    Thank you for your thoughtful reply, M. xo

  8. Hi Antares Cryptos - I know how you feel. I am doing the same thing at the moment; there's so much out here (in our blog landscape, I mean) that's asking for fuller engagement, for more than a fleeting glance.

    That rascal time, eh?!

    I do go back to older posts' comments from time to time (there's that word again), yes - have I missed something? If so, my apologies - perhaps you can point me the right direction? Thanks ; ). C

  9. Hi Isabel - I've been slow to get back here since posting this. Thanks for coming by.
    Yes, time 'in' suspension, 'as' suspension, 'as us in' suspension. . .
    Where do those 'waiting' hours go, one wonders? Or are those moments 'in between' our points of real contact?

    I find myself becoming both more aware of time and at the same time less concerned about it and/or governed by it.

    Each day seems to have entirely its own rhythm, measure and punctuation.

    Thank you for prompting me to reflect further on this. Yes, time loops and hovers; it somersaults and stalls; it's a trickster, keeping us all on our toes! C.

  10. Dear Elisabeth
    We are all well-acquainted with this dance, are we not? Slow quick quick slow. Or,
    s l o w, quickquick, s l o w.

    As I said to Isabel, we are constantly on our toes and can flip from a state of rest & repose to one of action in an instant. 'Creative stress' is how James O'Dea (previous director of Amnesity International - and a master of 'poise') refers to the state we live in. . . He reckons it doesn't have to be a bad thing at all - that so long as stay in the present moment/stay present to the moment, we stand a chance of transforming 'stress' into 'creative stress' which implies a good, productive outcome.

    I think I've just digressed, though? I hope you've been enjoying fine days, that you've been sleeping well and dreaming satisfying, illuminating, dreams (You have such richly detailed dreams, Elisabeth!).
    L, C

  11. Dear Marylinn - the dance again! I am also whirring even whilst doing my best to float, breathe and move slowly. We are here and there - 'tis good and fine and enough. Love to you, Claire

  12. Dear T - I like that. . . 'when we stand in the heart, time eases and expands' and 'heart time burns slower, like a candle or lamp, and gives softer light.'

    During these hard-edged times of reactivity, irrationality and revolt, the energy of expansion allows us to meet each other and our world with some sense of trust, forgiveness and hope?

    It seems to me that in pretty much all matters and circumstances, standing in the heart is the first thing we are called to do.

    L, C

  13. addendum. . .

    It seems to me that standing in the heart

    is the first

    the ongoing

    and final place

    we are called to stand?

  14. Took the time to read and think about this piece. Einstein's Dream is one of my favorites, there are many.

    It is strange how a construct that doesn't actually "exist" in three-dimensional space has us spend so much time thinking about it.

    The current amusing trend of living in the "now", as opposed to when? A personal obsession with thinking about our perception of linear time and memory, relativity, warped space and time, there is much to ponder here.

    At times like these, I would prefer the immediate interaction of our band of bloggers, sitting over a good meal (by the ocean;)), discussing this topic.

    The blogosphere, stimulating and time-consuming, there is more than one has time for. I don't always have the time to comment, but there are some bloggers, like you, where I don't miss a post. Thank you for this thought-provoking piece and a shared passion for pendulums.

  15. For sure. It's the only choice that always works.

  16. Hi Ant. C - thanks for this comment; am so glad to have found it, tucked away as it was in the SPAM folder I didn't know I had.

    Time and wind have (un)certain things in common - both are illusory/non-3D; both make themselves known by the effects each has on the environment/people/circumstances; both enliven/disturb/reinvent the world as they pass.

    Wouldn't it be great if our band could meet around a sturdy old table on a beach somewhere, or perhaps share a picnic within eye- and earshot of the ocean. . .

    I keep abreast of your posts, too, AC. Those I miss, I go back to. I v. much appreciate the breadth and depth of your explorations - and, too, the thoughtfulness of your comments here and elsewhere. Thank you ; )

  17. Too right you are, TC. And 'tis good so.