Time (Again)

In her new collection of poems, Jane Hirschfield writes,

A day is vast.

Until noon.

Then it’s over.

 

Yesterday’s pondwater

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.

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Cleaning Up Christmas

There is something about dismantling the Christmas tree, no matter when it happens — something that makes me feel simultaneously nostalgic and impatient. The pre-Christmas process of choosing, setting up and then decorating the tree is communal in our family. One of the great pleasures is hearing the kids recognize various ornaments as long-lost friends as they shake off the tissue paper and then choose the perfect place to hang each one.

But taking the ornaments off the tree is almost always my job as The Mother, and it’s the decoration process in reverse: as each ornament is wrapped up again, instead of that little throb of joyful recognition it’s something more wistful. It makes me deeply aware of time passing and my children growing up, and of all the changes coming our way now that even the youngest is about to head off to college. The impatience is there in the wake of it, a kind of stiff-upper-lip salvation that says, Okay then, since we’re done with this Christmas and all the sweet reconnections it’s brought us, let’s just get on with it! Pack it up already and let’s usher in January! For God’s sake, where’s the new calendar?

I’m not sure how Christmas clean-up ended up as my job, but I suspect it’s out of the same semi-masochistic tendencies that drive other mildly neurotic mothering habits that lead us to take on the hidden, rather onerous tasks that make a house a home (such as changing sheets or cleaning out the nasty detritus in the kitchen drain). No one likes to pack up Christmas. And every mother wants to make the holiday as pure and lovely as possible for her kids. So we gladly engage them in the anticipatory fun of preparation and the sated relaxation of the holiday… and then the Christmas tree and whatever other decorations announce the season become a bit invisible. No one is much motivated to turn on the tree lights on December 26th, and though everyone does a part of the post-presents clean-up, the scene itself just kind of fades into the background, though all the trappings are still there. 

And then here it is January and a new year already. We help our kids get ready to plunge back into school, or we pack up a box of lovely new stuff there isn’t room for in the suitcase and ship it out to them in Chicago or wherever it is they’ve landed for this phase of their lives. And after they’re out of sight we finally set to work to pack it all away for another year, like the stage hands who take down the elaborate set after the show is over, sparing the audience.

I don’t really mind. Every once in a while I do feel like announcing, in a slightly passive-aggressive way: Hey folks! This stuff doesn’t happen by itself! And then I remember all the years of my own growing up, how after Christmas there would be a day when I’d come home from school and suddenly realize that everything was back to normal — just a winter day, post-Christmas. My mother never announced that she had put away the decorations and gotten the tree out of the house. But I’m pretty sure she never had any elves helping out.

Greeting a New Year

Just Now, by Ted Kooser

Just now, if I look back down
the cool street of the past, I can see
streetlamps, one for each year,
lighting small circles of time
into which someone will step
if I squint, if I try hard enough —
circles smaller and smaller,
leading back to the one faint point
at the start, like a star.
So many of them are empty now,
those circles of roadside and grass.
In one, the moth of some feeling
still flutters, unspoken,
the cold darkness around it enormous.
(from Flying at Night)

The start of a new year is a good time to take stock of our lives — not so much in the framework of the typical New Year’s resolutions, but in a larger sense. At the turning of a year we’re more than usually aware of the simple passage of time. Are we doing what we want to do with this precious gift of life?

It’s not always an easy question to answer. There are so many elements of life that are out of our control, after all: we might be stuck in a dull job that we need to keep in order to pay the bills, or we might be hanging on to a sour living situation because we can’t afford to move. Maybe we’re struggling with illness, grief or depression. In those cases we’d say, “No, I’m not doing what I want to do with my life, but what are my choices?”

The concept of equanimity is familiar within the practices of Buddhism, and for a long time the word brought to my mind the serene face on a statue of the Buddha. That seems to be what equanimity looks like, but it isn’t usually the face that I wear, or that you wear, when we’re surprised by changes we didn’t want or stuck in a situation we’d like to exit. But then I learned that in Pali, the language spoken by the Buddha, “equanimity” translates more literally as “to stand in the middle of all this.” I love that definition, and I hold to its wisdom each time I take stock of my life at the turning of the year.

We don’t get to choose the good and the bad that will visit us in the new year we’ve entered, and it’s unlikely that we’ll greet the winds of change with balanced calm and serenity at all times. That vision of equanimity is more than we can manage. But “to stand in the middle of all this”? That’s something we can do. We can ground ourselves in spiritual practices that let us breathe more deeply and see more clearly. We can commit ourselves to a community of faith we trust and love. We can open our eyes each day with the intention to heal, in some small way, one of the wounds in the world around us.

All of these things help us “stand in the middle of all this” – in the middle of the rush of our lives. They help us see it differently, greet it differently, as we recognize both our feast of losses, and the preciousness of each stone in the road, each thing that comprises our sweet lives.