Wrestling With Time: A Chilling Challenge That Could Be Beautiful
I wrote an essay about time, and a trusted reader sent me an urgent email: “Call me as soon as you get up. I want to talk to you about your essay.”
Clearly this meant that she had qualms about the piece, but the strength of her reaction surprised me: “It’s so negative, and you sound so unhappy, about life and about yourself. I really don’t think you should publish this. It’s very unflattering to you.” Hmm. My trusted reader used the same word for my essay that she has always enjoyed when I shop with her for clothes, gravitating towards wild stripes and colors that often don’t suit my short body.
Now, I happen to know that this particular reader wants the best possible outcome for me, always: there’s no remote ambivalence or ulterior motive. I might even say that she has known me longer than I’ve known myself, but that’s a huge leap with many assumptions. It’s certainly possible to believe this, though, which should give a sense for just how close she is to me.
I had to decide how to respond. I could ignore these comments and just send the essay out for everyone’s pleasure or pain, or I could think about writing something new. Thing is, my reader and I have the same ultimate goals for me, and I always take her advice seriously, even if I go my own way in the end.
She thought I should be more positive. But I’m writing about time. Time! Is it just me, or is time the biggest problem most of us face? Whether from the large-scale view of an entire life or a snapshot of an afternoon when you’re running late, time usually seems to be doled out too skimpily.
Often, though, when people I trust comment about my writing, telling me what they missed or disliked, I wind up rethinking, even when my first reaction is to stick with my initial creation, unchanged. My mind is always shifting, always moving towards some new idea. This morning, I thought I could never be positive about time. I went outside, took a walk, ordered a bowl of Japanese ramen, bought an intriguing-looking bar of white chocolate for later, and returned to my apartment. An uncharacteristic wave of fatigue overtook me, and I got into bed for a few minutes. Weirdly, my trusted reader called before any sleep could happen, even though we’d already spoken today. Though she didn’t say it, I think she felt guilty about panning my essay and pushing me to do more work when I thought I was finished.
When I got out of bed, I had some new thoughts about time: ones that didn’t make me cry (the first essay had me on the verge of it). An even newer thought occurred to me just now: time, essentially, is what brought me these new ideas. Something had to pass to allow my brain to percolate and create something new out of something that was, admittedly, quite dark. If I had stayed exactly the same, no new notions would have come. Time elapsed between one state and the next — or, more accurately, time facilitated a gradual change that culminated in some new ideas. I would never extrapolate from this to say that aging, illness, death, waning opportunities, and other problems entwined with the passage of time are positive forces, but I have to give a certain amount of credit when it’s warranted.
I didn’t mention this in the previous, ill-fated essay, but, for the past several months, time has horrified me with particular force. My next birthday, thankfully many months away, is a big one. I’m trying to avoid acknowledging it or giving it any credence whatsoever. When you were a kid and some other kid was annoying you, were you ever told: “Ignore him, and he’ll go away”? That’s how I’m handling this birthday. Some say the mind controls the reality it perceives. If I refuse to perceive this birthday, maybe it won’t actually happen. Don’t misunderstand: I have no intention of dying before the calendar claims it comes. It will come in that sense, and I will deny its existence.
You know how light refracts when it goes through a prism, creating a brilliant rainbow because it divides different wavelengths traveling at different speeds, showing us colors we don’t normally perceive within the white? Maybe we could figure out how to do this with time. Get a giant prism of the mind and soul, shine time through it, and break it up, until it becomes something we never could have imagined. Something very unlike this beast that robs us of strength, health, dreams, possibilities, and connections.
Well, that might work up to a point, but there’s a place beyond that point and it terrifies me. We are talking pure, raw terror, and I’m not sure if I can handle it. I do best as a young, healthy adventurer. Nothing else suits me; nothing else fits. Decline would mean decline and nothing more. It wouldn’t suggest: “Wow, you’ve done so much, created so much, and now it’s time to rest.” No. I need much more time as a youthful soul. I haven’t even begun to live.
And of course age is just a number that doesn’t necessarily say a thing about personality, goals, health, strength, appearance, or number of years left on this earth, but it’s a basic fact, an immutable piece of a person’s biography. Sadly, many social groups use age as a key criterion for acceptance. Synagogues have activities for teens, for the “20s and 30s” crowd, for retirees. Much as it horrifies me, an actuary would have a clear prediction of the approximate year of my death if I gave her some basic information, and age is a key factor in that calculation, perhaps the most important one. My odds of being able to hop around and do my thing with strength and vigor in 50 years are much lower than if I were 20 years younger. Odds are far from everything, but can I defy them completely?
So here’s where my new idea comes in, and I kind of love it. Last night, I went to an event that I always enjoy: an “art salon” run by friends here in Boston. I was chatting with the hosts, a married couple who always have fascinating ideas about spirituality, the meaning of life and death, and the like. I’ll call them David and Alison. (I’m sure I could use their real names, but I might as well be super-safe, just in case.) Alison is involved with a community of priestesses, and invited me to come by their house at a quieter time and learn more about her tradition. I readily agreed: she is a warm soul whose insights could only soothe and empower me in one way or another. David loved the idea and suggested, in particular, that I let Alison do a Tarot reading with me.
Then David added an intriguing twist: “Honestly, Stephanie, you probably don’t want to know too much right now. You just want to be really open to everything and explore.”
“But I would be so happy if I knew, in the way that Alison knows, when it comes to soul survival after death.” Alison had been talking about disembodied spirits who hang out in their house, in her office at work, and in pretty much any hospitable place they can find. Her point was not that her house and office are haunted; she believes these spirits are all over the world. Some but not all are deceased humans. She spoke about this casually, calmly, like she was discussing the regular humans who spend time in the café across the street. If only I believed with casual calm that our souls survive death and continue to explore, enjoy, learn, whatever… I mean… I could forget about this birthday fiasco and live, live, live, with full pleasure and attention, and very little fear. After attaining this knowledge, I would rejoice with pure gratitude and transcendent peace. It would mean everything to me, and would probably suggest all kinds of truths that I currently can’t begin to imagine.
David smiled and shrugged, as if to say: “I get that, but you are meant to be unsure and explore for now.”
This happened last night, and, ironically enough, some time had to pass before I put together a full meaning. It came to me this afternoon. I feel like getting older, reaching a point where most would not consider me young, is a supreme challenge for me, a spiritual challenge. Some accept this challenge as a matter of course: it fits with their self-conceptions, their responsibilities, their stature, whatever. I, meanwhile, could never accept such a thing. I fear death and aging with full, raw pain.
So, in a sense, I’m moving into a metaphorical fire, a battleground of the mind and soul. Some say true wisdom can never come out of ease: we must be pushed to our limits. And, silly as it may sound to more serene personalities, contemplating this birthday, and all the future ones I very much hope to have, is pushing me close to insanity. I’m hysterical, desperate, angry, fierce, confused, and disbelieving, though I’m also profoundly grateful to have reached this point with health and a youthful spirit. I want to go back in time, not forward. I can’t do what the universe is asking of me; I cannot move into this new age. And yet I will do it. I must. I hope and trust that nothing much will change for a very long time.
I pray for a revelation that shows me it’s not like it seems: Our souls will survive death; we can know it and rejoice in the fact; we can move forward in life, safe and cozy in the knowledge that death is not the end. But I haven’t gotten that revelation, and I’m moving forward without it, into a new place. I’ll find myself there, whatever there might hold, and I will meet it. The mystery is my nemesis and, ultimately, if there’s any goodness and purpose within the world, my reward.
To reach this point and beyond and still reach no spiritual conviction: I’m telling you — it’s chilling. But the ultimate reward and knowledge when it does come (and for all my grumbling and negativity, I am so open to the possibility that it will) may well feel sweeter because I’ve waited so long. To be pushed into desperation and beyond, and then to feel relief… that would be glorious.
So I wait. And I hope. And I tell myself that birthdays are meaningless; I can be any age I choose, because the mind ultimately molds the world. I believe it, just for a second. And a second can move into infinity.
***Image Credit: “timepiece” by Robert Couse-Baker, September 24, 2012, on flickr.com