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The Elastic Nature of Time


I'm finding that the more time I spend writing the sequel to The Piglys and the Hundred-Year Mystery, the less time I have to write blog posts. I use the word "time" advisedly, because I actually have plenty of clock time. What I don't have is the kind of time in which I can formulate thoughts and put them into words and then put the words on paper. I only have a certain quantity of the kind of time that can do that. And when I've used it on the pigs, my internal clock and energy-meter tells me I've used it up.

Time is a funny concept. When I allow myself to become bored, I can accomplish nothing in a week. I mean, I can take a week to accomplish nothing. When I am inspired, I can build the Mary Coons version of the Parthenon in a day, with energy left over to paint the barn. In life-and-death moments, those who don't die report their life passing before them in the space of a heartbeat. Decades fit perfectly in the space of a second or two! I spent a day sick in bed a couple of weeks ago, and held the time like a slack rope slipping between my fingers. Perfectly good hours went by, and nothing got built, written, or drawn.

Clocks give a false impression. They lead us to think of time like we think of inches or ounces, when it actually has near-magic properties of expansion, contraction, and a touch of the infinite. Time has an elasticity. It expands like a middle-aged waistline in response to my lackadaisical moods. It pools up into a gray, unattractive and undistinguished puddle that I don't want to play in. But when I'm invested in something--a project, a conversation, an event--time constricts and infuses every moment with intense color, a jewel-like quality. It seems to speed up and stop at the same time. I have a new granddaughter, six weeks old when I held her last week. When she smiled it felt to me that the world stopped spinning, and that moment became timeless.

I look back across time for similar instances, and a number of them pop up. But if I balance those moments of intensity and memory against the whole of my life, it's like comparing the handful of gold nuggets a prospector finds with the vast amount of silt and gravel he sifted to get the gold.

I'm writing this while I wait for a car repair. I can take in every detail of the showroom where I'm sitting, balloons and hubcap displays and classic rock, snazzy posters and banks of windows looking out on a rainy Monday. Five years from now, the very fact I was here will be a blur. All the time spent in waiting rooms, at the breakfast table, the various lawn-mowings and floor-waxings collapse in on themselves, become categories and lose their individual moments, drained off into that featureless gray pool of undistinguished moments that make up a lot of every life.

I've kept a journal for about forty years. I started it to defend my life from drowning in that gray puddle. It bothered me to think that I wouldn't remember this birthday or that Thursday or a particular pot roast. I thought I could rescue my life from obscurity by writing down, compulsively, what I made for dinner every night. I think I was onto something when I settled on writing as a way to cheat obscurity, but the fact is, even with my journals in hand, I don't remember every pot roast and sunset. But the act of putting it all into words made it more real than it would have been if I hadn't. It pulled some things out of that gray pool of lost moments.

We only have what we put into words, we only get to keep what's committed to them. Edwin Newman famously remarked, "If you can't say what you mean, you don't know what you mean." Even as I write that I can think of several arguments against it, but I've decided to let it stand. The subject is time, memory, and what will last. Although some of our golden moments--like my granddaughter's smile--don't need words, they DO require words if we're going to keep them. And if Vera Louise is ever going to know what her smile meant to me, I will need to tell her or write it down for the day when she can read or hear it.

I've felt for a while that God plays fast and loose with our time. He allows us to make twenty-year mistakes--bad jobs, mis-matched marriages, iffy decisions about smoking and drinking and eating entire bags of miniature marshmallows--and seems to count the cost of those decisions as a minor thing. He lets our decisions funnel hour after hour, year after year, into that gray puddle of lost time, then nudges us with an invitation to inspiration or redemption or love. Then He redeems the mistake in a moment of time, makes the wrong right or gives us the understanding that makes the mistake a gold nugget we can hand on to another foolish human. He gives us enough time to goof, to grow, to waste, to redeem, and lets us choose. And in the end, all the water in the gray pool of lost hours produces the shining moments that we hold onto, pass along the generations, that have eternity in them.


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