The Trouble with Time

father_time.jpg2They talk. They talk to. They talk about. God. Please, God. Dear God. Thank you, God. Comfort, heal, save us, God our God dear God. They should talk. That’s what they’ve been told.

I don’t know. I don’t know from God.

They say God is the One who shaped the ear. I’ve said it, too. God, the One who gave life listening: Ishmael, God listens, God hears. They say God is near, near to all. I’ve said it, too. Near to all who call upon God in Truth. Where is that, Truth? Near here?

They have names for God: Rock, Redeemer. What shall I call you? And if I call, will you listen, respond?

You are near. I know you are here.

I’m exhausted. You: inexhaustible.

I swoon, wobble. You’re steady.

Are you everything they say God is?

Time, Your most precious gift, they say, talking to God about you.

And here you are: a few moments of silent prayer as the organ softly plays. It’s my favorite moment of the service at Temple Emanuel, the temple of my youth. But the Temple has moved on; it has followed the Jews of Cherry Hill east. You moved with it. I, too, have moved away, and you’ve stayed with me wherever I’ve roamed, settled. I can’t get away from you.

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My Soul Thirsts

My children’s Michigan fact book says you can’t go more than eight miles without hitting water in this state, but it must be less this far north. I imagine the land shifting and disappearing beneath my feet as it does at the shoreline, except I’m standing in my kitchen.

“You’re basically living on a big dune,” a woman says when I mention my back pain. I thought I’d pulled something lifting moving boxes, but she says transplants often complain of chronic pain. We go rigid trying to find our sea legs.

Today I imagine the strain in my back isn’t from bracing myself against water but from shouldering a cross in the form of a giant clock, the old-fashioned kind that ticks loudly all night until it sounds a shattering alarm. I want to carry it into the woods and leave it, take it to the lake and sink it, to float home weightless and free from an unhealthy obsession with time, from circling thoughts of finitude that have kept me awake since before my mother died young. They never leave, not even with my lips against the warm cheek of a toddler so full of life he can barely stand still for a kiss.

These are the thoughts that drive me to the page, and they used to drive me to the pews too, where I could escape for a moment into that ethereal world of hot wax and flickering light and melt into years of other people’s faith in a place where death has no sting. But the churches up here don’t seem any more set apart from the flow of time than their social halls do. They smell of musty carpet and HVAC systems and food.

A couple of weeks ago a parish priest thoroughly shocked and horrified me when he described stained glass and art—both lacking here—as distractions. My dear man, my inner Chesterton bristled, that’s exactly why I’m here.

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I Don’t Have Time

In our current Western culture, we think we have control of time. With our watches and clocks we regulate our lives: meetings set at a certain hour (see you at noon!), alarms wake us at the set minute, we schedule bedtimes and lunch breaks. In the U.S. we even change the time by one hour twice a year. What hubris.

Not so in other cultures. Living in New Mexico years ago, I remember going to a Pueblo tribe’s festival. We Anglos arrived and waited impatiently as our precious time passed. When would the event get started? “When the time is right,” a woman of the tribe told us.

And the end of Ramadan for Muslims everywhere: it’s determined by a sighting of the new moon. I ask my Muslim friends who have invited me to share their breaking of the Ramadan fast “what time will it be?”…

Time’s flux. Though we Westerners try with all our might to pin it down, the effort is fruitless. Or, as the contemporary Mexican poet Javiar Sicilia puts it in “The Track in the Wilderness”:

time is not time

but the vast emptiness from which things flow.

Sicilia’s poem, in the current issue of Image (#78), is a profound meditation on our perceptions of time. The poem begins with the speaker and a female companion walking down a beach along the “track of time,” toward a huge red rock that later in the poem becomes a cave and then the dark void from which issues “the resounding language of God.

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You Can’t Hide from Winter

Winter is coming. All of northern Michigan seems to whisper the warning. The sun is slower to rise each day, and the mist clings to the lakes when I drive my children to school in the darkness. It’s not yet Halloween, but our neighbors have been anticipating the first snowfall since we arrived here in August, when it was ninety-two degrees and sunny. They look stern and offer advice (much-needed) on snow tires and Vitamin D supplements.

I can’t help but think of the residents of Winterfell in Game of Thrones. If the threat of such a long, hard winter wasn’t terrifying to me, a homesick Southerner who has never owned a proper coat, I might find it funny.

When I open my checking account, the bank teller raises her eyebrows when I say we’ve come from Virginia. “Have much winter there?” she asks, knowing the answer. The lady at the shoe store tells me I need four pairs of boots, not one, “for the four types of winter days: wet, icy, snowy, and it’s-May-and-if-I-wear-boots-another-day-I’ll-cry.” I suspect she’s taking advantage of me, but later a real rugged Northwoods type confirms her advice.

“And don’t get cheap boots either,” he warns, “or you’ll cry like a baby.”

Our new doctor recommends a high-quality multivitamin and a ski pass. Skiing and snowshoeing and even ice-skating are all as foreign to me as a moonwalk, but I smile and nod and try not to look worried.

“You can’t hide from winter here,” she says. “You have to embrace it.”

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Conscience: An Epitaph

Lucian Freud, Reflection (Self-portrait), 1985.

Time melts as it’s made, said Anthony Burgess. Each moment is both increase and surcease, the tip of the fountain, bubbling, collapsing—itself upon itself—at once always there and then never there at all. Like ice in a country made of steam, it lives and dies in the rift.

Wrapped within our youth, we do not see this, or if we do, it is of no consequence. We purchase the perjury of our stature and trust the deceit of our mass. We weigh ourselves, take our measure, and assume our heft and reach too great for a world so flat. In our young fancies, we are the stuff of marble, and cannot feel time’s rain wear upon us, both outside and in.

We would not care about time at all but for what it does. And what it does is always a shock. For in spite of what we believe of ourselves, one inauspicious morning, or one historic dusk, without notice, the cold, flat mirror resolves to house a stranger—an unwanted guest that will not leave, that lingers like a bad taste, intruding in pools of water, in store-front reflections, and in the sheen of another’s eye. [Read more...]


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