Thursday, March 13, 2014

Slow Cooking, Slow Looking: It's About Time . . .

So already, I'm finally relaxing, taking it slow.  Re-conceptualizing the first phase of my life post-Cambridge Rindge and Latin School (CRLS) as a sabbatical has empowered me to stop trying to put time to use, and to begin appreciating and noticing time for its own miraculous sovereignty and flow. I've begun looking for time.  And so far, it seems that I may be hallowing time rather than wallowing in it.  Or what may be more accurate is that I'm hallowing time because I'm wallowing in it.

Interesting that "wallow" and "hallow" look so much alike -- which I only noticed while writing the above paragraph. While online etymological dictionaries don't link the two words (just checked!), not every definition of "wallow" has a negative connotation.  A few definitions suggest that wallowing can be an expression of the desire "to delight greatly," but not "to an immoderate degree," in some kind of a "medium" that isn't "defiling or unclean."*

When I set out to notice time, I found it immediately in a few places.  The first was the side streets of Beacon Hill. A predicted major snowstorm had not materialized on March 3, so a good friend's and my plans for dinner were still on. It was a bitterly cold late-afternoon/early-evening when I walked down Charles Street toward Chestnut Street. But it was March; the sunlight and the colors proclaimed earliest spring, defying the cold's brutal hold on the body and imagination. The photo at the left captures the seasonal mixed message:  at the bottom of the hill, shadows dark enough to merit headlight use; at the top of the hill, bare tree branches illuminated copper-gold by sunlight promising imminent warmth and growth.

I had just been seated at a table by the restaurant's front window, when a cellphone message alerted me that my friend was delayed and en route.  Nothing to do but alternate my gaze between the televised fire in the hearth (pretty funny, but atmospheric nonetheless) and the street's darkening shadows. Especially during the last five years, I've come to love reasonable, informed amounts of seated waiting:  on slightly delayed Amtrak trains, in comfortable waiting rooms with lots of recipe- and celebrity-filled magazines, in cozy restaurant booths with a menu and a glass of wine at hand. In these situations, time feels like a taffy rope stretching sweet and supple without the obligation of anything other than waiting itself.  "Might as well just sit back and relax," I tell myself at such moments.

After dinner, my friend and I headed to the ele- vated plat- forms of the Charles T Station. Settled on the inbound platform, I began pay- ing atten- tion to time again--with help of the electronic update signs. 

I've gotten into the habit of carrying my camera with me wherever I go, so I knew I had the perfect means of capturing time--and distracting myself from the frigid wind that was calmly rolling across the platform. (I was changing my camera's battery pack during minute #5; but was pleased to capture the arrival of the Alewife train at the 2-minute mark.) 

I've spent a lot of time watching the time change on various subway stations' electronic update
boards, but I  have generally watched those boards with a sense of impatient, beleaguered hope: when the sky was dark, they generally lay between me and getting home sooner rather than later to deal with the countless responsibilities that preceded turning in for the night and getting up the next morning to do it all over again. But on March 3, those minutes felt like magical, evanescent entities, each deserving of its own celebration and preservation.

My deliberate efforts to experience and cherish time reminded me of the passage from Camus's The Plague in which Dr. Rieux, the narrator, shares an excerpt from Jean Tarrou's diary:
**So after describing how the discovery of a dead rat had caused the cashier at the hotel to make a mistake in his bill, Tarrou added, . . . : 'Question: how can one manage not to lose time? Answer: experience it at its full length. Means: spend days in the dentist's waiting-room on an uncomfortable chair; live on one's balcony on a Sunday afternoon; listen to lectures in a language that one does not understand, choose the most roundabout and least convenient routes on the railway (and, naturally, travel standing up); queue at the box-office for theatres and so on and not take one's seat; etc.'
I'm no Jean Tarrou figure:  he takes it all a bit further than I am willing to go. Still, there is a sense that time has an inherent value, even though one's efforts to experience it fully can become absurd and counter-productive.

But in reading the suggested daily meditations in Rabbi Chaim Stern's Day by Day: Reflections on the Themes of the Torah from Literature, Philosophy, and Religious Thought, I keep encountering helpful perspectives on the topic of time. For example, among his materials associated with the the P'kudei Torah portion (Exodus 38:21-40:28), Stern includes the following quotation from Arnold Bennett's How to Live on 24 Hours a Day"The supply of time is truly a daily miracle, an affair genuinely astonishing when one examines it. You wake up in the morning, and lo! your purse is magically filled with twenty-four hours of the unmanufactured tissue of the universe of your life! It is yours. It is the most precious of possessions" (155).***

That's what I'm focused on right now, the "daily miracle" of time--not experienced in short supply, as was often the case before I ended my tenure at CRLS on January 31, but experienced as full, unfolding, ample, able to be assigned and spent, at least some of the time, as I see fit. Some daily rituals are helping me with this: besides walking (almost) daily and reading and thinking about the daily meditations offered by Stern's book, I'm reading The Writer's Almanac's daily poem and watching one hour of television without doing anything while I am watching, just because I know from my students recovering from concussions that television demands less of the brain than almost anything else.  I need time to think, and time not to think; time to dig in, and time to let things flow by and over me.

It's only twenty-two degrees in Boston right now, but the sunlight that keeps finding its way between the scattered clouds, remnants of this morning's snow-storminess, is butter-warm and butter-yellow. Hard to believe the wintry view outside of my window after I spent two temperate, April-like days just earlier this week at the far end of Cape Cod.  Balmy temperatures, lots of sunshine, and the gentlest of breezes meant multiple beach walks -- and lots of opportunity to watch the tide go in and out.  What more satisfying way to notice time than by watching sunlit water inch its way up and down the coastal shelf? And what more satisfying place and time to witness the rhythms and cycles, hopefully eternal, that contribute to the shapes and meanings of our lives?

At one point, I thought to myself: "Maybe I won't do anything at all after this sabbatical.  Maybe I don't have to." Enjoying that sunlight and the gentle sound of the surf, I didn't feel guilty at all.

* Quoted phrases from various definitions offered on the following web page:  <>
**Extract from Penguin version of Camus, Albert. The Plague. Camberwell, Vic.: Penguin, 2009. Print. <>
***Stern, Chaim. Day by Day: Reflections on the Themes of the Torah from Literature, Philosophy, and Religious Thought. Boston: Beacon, 1998. Print. 

1 comment:

  1. The digital display signs on Route 95 between Orono and Bangor today read "ICE AND SNOW--TAKE IT SLOW," which we do or risk spinning out and landing in a ditch. I really like the idea of waking up with a purse full of time each day, although I am somewhat of a spendthrift!