In her new collection of poems, Jane Hirschfield writes,
A day is vast.
Then it’s over.
braided still wet in my hair.
I don’t know what time is.
You can’t ever find it.
But you can lose it.
Every one of those short lines resonates for me. Like Hirschfield, I don’t know what time is. But I know with awful intimacy lots of ways to lose it. Last week I spent one whole morning indulging a kind of fierce nostalgia brought on when two of my three children flew back out to Chicago where they now live. The Christmas vacation had been lovely, with all three kids under our roof for what seemed at the start to be an enormous stretch of unstructured time — but which was suddenly over. With the house again feeling too big and too quiet, without even realizing it I found myself wandering in the land of memory, going back to their childhoods, baffled and sad that all of that time has passed.
Nostalgia is a classic way of losing time. If we think about it through a spiritual lens, we can recognize that it is also a form of suffering: willful, self-inflicted, delicious in a kind of perverse way — but still, in the end, suffering. We get seduced by a sweet memory, and instead of lightly waving to it with an easy smile, we cling. Before we’ve even recognized what’s happened, the interior weather has gone grey and cold.
When I caught hold of my own nostalgia last week, it was because I realized — again and for the millionth time — that this is the truth about our backward gazing. I stopped myself and questioned this sadness swirling around me: Is there something I regret? Something I want to change or do differently? Not at all! The truth is more embarrassing: I want to have done exactly what I have done with my life so far, lived everything that I have lived — but I don’t want it to have taken any time! I want all the events, adventures, relationships and experiences, but I don’t want to have aged in the process, and I want still to have the same wide swathe of years in front of me that I felt I could count on when I was thirty.
What a greedy little mind, and how delusional! There are only two antidotes, as far as I’ve been able to discover. One is gratitude: we pry open these clinging hands of ours and lean into our gladness for all that life has brought us. And we bring our minds back here, to the present moment — the place where our bodies always live, after all, no matter where our imaginations wander — and greet this moment as a gift.
William Stafford wrote a poem about time called “The Gift”, which ends with these words:
It’s a balance, the taking and passing along,
the composting of where you’ve been and how people
and weather treated you. It’s a country where
you already are, bringing where you have been.
Time offers this gift in its millions of ways,
turning the world, moving the air, calling,
every morning, “Here, take it, it’s yours.”
So welcome in this new year. Here, take it: it’s yours.