The Riddle of Time

The Riddle of Time

Today, a riddle about time from Emily Dickinson:

The Secret

Some things that fly there be, –

Birds, hours, the bumble-bee;

Of these no elegy.

Some things that stay there be, –

Grief, hills, eternity:

Nor this behooveth me.

There are, that resting, rise.

Can I expound the skies?

How still the riddle lies!

I’ve owned the collected poems of Emmy D. (which was surely Dickinson’s street name in Amherst) since high school, when it was given to me as a gift because “she, like, has your name and so I thought you’d like, totally like her. Plus, it like rhymes.” I’d been writing that girl’s poetry assignments for English class for $5/page for the last four months. (I was particularly quick with the sonnets.) I didn’t appreciate Dickinson at the time; the poems seemed too simple, the language wasn’t (hello!) bombastic enough to be poetry, even though it was odd (behooveth? Really?), the line breaks felt too deliberate, it wasn’t about tortured, unrequited love of cute boys, and the cover, glossy and white and covered in cartoon-ishly perfect pink and red flowers, reminded me of those tacky, pseudo-Christian, not-even-Hallmark cards with a dark bird and a badly painted sunset and a sappy religious poem inside. (During my Jesus phase I actually sent those cards to my friends; I loved the overflowing emotion, the bird-flecked sunsets, the helpless, amorous expressions of adoration that you could send – just like that! – in a card. I never would have been so open in my emotions otherwise). My own “confessional” poetry at the time consisted of meditations on insecurity, boys, and Homecoming dances. Deep stuff.

What I’m learning, years later, is that the cover of Dickinson’s collective poems is deceptive, as are the surface “simplicity” of her poems. There is violent compression in her choices, distilled moments that the reader is forced to turn over and examine and inhale. Little poetic burrs that stick in the mouth and are difficult, if not impossible, to digest. Each time Rick rides out on the arroyo path he gets what the bike people call “a Santa Fe burr” lodged into his tire. He has about one flat per week. These poems are like those burrs – forcing the reader to pull them out and see what’s stuck into them and what damage it has done.

Birds, hours, the bumblebee. I spent the morning with Ronan, playing with the music block, the magic “Jason bunny” puppet, the usual cloth book favorites (farm, fish, jungle), a fat strip of wrapping paper from a Valentine’s gift. Touch seems to be his most treasured sense; he stroked my hair (smooth), and then brushed his fingers across one of the embroidered pillows we use to prop him up so he can play (rough).

When my nephew was two we were standing at the top of the stairs when he moved his hand over the wall, and then again, staring now, touching again – his first time feeling that exact sensation. “Rough,” I said, and he watched the word move in my mouth. Then I took his hand, led him to the wooden banister and said, “smooth.” He darted back and forth between “rough” and “smooth” for almost five minutes. This summer, five years on, when we set Ronan in Iain’s lap and asked him, “How does it feel to hold your cousin?” his response was, “really good.”

Grief, hills, eternity. Fourteen years ago I traveled with Other Em and her parents to a chateau in Chamonix for a winter hiking vacation. I was having trouble with my eyes at the time – spots and floaters and other remnants of an infection I’d picked up in Africa (along with what one doctor called a “relatively mild” case of malaria that did not seem so mild when I found myself puking into a trash can in an almost empty hospital on Easter Sunday), and at the end of each day my muscles and eyeballs would be throbbing as I struggled to fall asleep in the darkness, the glare from the moonlit snow waiting at the edge of the shade-covered window, worried that I was going blind. Days of crisp, ambitious hikes in scenery so bedazzling it felt unreal, mountains jagged and impossibly high and almost mocking in their magnificence; bottles of wine hauled up in a pack and chilled in the snow bank before being cracked open; a pub appearing miraculously at the bottom of every hiking trail, and one terrifying cable car ride. High up above the glacier the four of us hung in what, in that moment especially, felt like a flimsy metal cage with windows, the cable-line creaking, the air inside impossibly still and cold. A literally breath-taking few seconds as we hung suspended, rocking, in our human fragility. Below us, miles of glacier and beyond that, mountains stretching back and back and back. We couldn’t imagine the cable car swinging free (this was the Alps! Security of cable cars was surely rigorously checked!) We couldn’t imagine the drop, and yet that’s what made us sweat in our hiking boots and avoid one another’s nervous glances. To admit frailty or helplessness or inevitability is to live inside it. Grief is like living in that cable car, swinging and waiting, looking down, imagining the drop, the time it will take you to hit the ground. Loss like a bottomless well – drop a rock and it will drop and drop and drop and never hit the water.

In Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, after the sun goes down on one of his early days there, Hans Castorp, the newest patient in the Alpine sanatorium observes that: “The world seemed to be under a spell of icy purity, trapped inside a fantastic dream of enchantment.” Mann seems to be saying that it’s this distillation of a singular moment, this identification of a precise moment in time that is, in fact, a delusion, and makes us all into fools. We are all at the mercy of time; it renders useless the categories we create for one another even as we persist in creating them. A great big riddle then. Mann’s book can be a difficult read (lots of long speeches by characters who are overly familiar with the philosophy of Hegel), with themes often plunked down like anvils that the reader is asked to hurdle, but it’s a chewy read as well, satisfying for its weirdness, and the book’s interrogation of the role and meaning of time is particularly astute and, frankly, as terrifying as swinging over that glacier in a quiet, cold cable car. The book is a complex meditation on the fragility and heaviness and nature and flexibility and, ultimately, the meaningless of time. We record and measure and shrink and fill time (we talk about this in writing classes, asking frantic questions: Did that particular event actually happen on that particular day? If not, how can you call it nonfiction! How can I manage this flashback??) but what does it mean?

Last week, Hilary Clinton, in response to the recent rioting in Egypt said, “the world is turning more and more quickly.” It certainly seems so. Advertisements for major computer companies show people around the world turning on their computers and skyping and talking and texting. The catch phrase? “Everybody on,” accompanied by a theme song as sentimentally manipulative as any decent country song. There’s no time that exists now that cannot be engineered to coincide with someone else’s time. “It’s about time,” the pundits (who anoints these folks?) say about Mubarak’s resignation. Rodney King’s daughters, in their 20s now, were interviewed in a popular “women’s magazine,” about what they learned from their father and how it has impacted their decisions since the time of his beating. (These thoughts, of course, were sandwiched between directions about “how to wear a smoky eye” and “lessons from a 28-year-old-CEO.”) After all this talk about Ronan’s DNA and the sequencing of my own, I almost laughed out loud at an Estee Lauder ad about a new anti-aging cream that promised “advanced DNA technology” to “stop aging in its tracks.” Speed it up, slow it down, analyze it, obsess about it, fear it, and yet plan your future life inside of it until you are, like everyone else, sick sick sick with it.

Hans Castorp and the other residents/patients of the Magic Mountain take a daily “rest cure” for the ailments that have been diagnosed by the “specialists” at the sick ward, conveniently outfitted, it seems, with all the useful amenities of a relatively posh-but-rugged Alpine spa. Rich, expertly-prepared meals. Daily opportunities for pleasant meanders through the oxygen-rich, apparently healing air (during which Hans, the new patient, is told how long each of the residents has been on the mountain and how long each is expected to live), and then, of course, the daily rest cure, which involves wrapping oneself up in thick wool blankets and having a carefully timed nap in lounge chairs in the fresh air. Then it’s up again, another round of obsessively taking one’s temperature, another multi-course meal, another stroll, and, of course, another philosophical conversation that doubles as a plot-propelling scene.

Joachim shook his head. After a while he took the thermometer out of his mouth, looked at it, and said, “Yes, when you pay close attention to it – time, I mean – it goes very slowly. I truly like measuring my temperature four times a day, because it makes you notice what one minute, or even seven, actually means – especially since the seven days of a week hang so dreadfully on your hands here.”

“You said ‘actually.’ But ‘actually’ doesn’t apply,” Hans Castorp responded. He was sitting with one thigh hiked up on the railing; the whites of his eyes were bloodshot. “There is nothing ‘actual’ about time. If it seems long to you, then it is long, and if it seems to pass quickly, then it’s short. But how long or how short it is in actuality, no one knows.”

One month ago we were greeted by a flutter of information – packets arriving in the mail, lists of families with children affected by Tay-Sachs and other allied disorders, articles about symptom management and suggestions about how to plan for our son’s death. At each step in this process Rick and I will be asked to make decisions about “philosophy of care.” A softish phrase for a harsher reality: these decisions will impact how long Ronan lives (this or that tube or device might mean six months to a year, this other apparatus a year, but nobody knows for sure), and all the while the disease spreads across Ronan’s brain, making its imprint or fingerprint or stain in particular areas (I thought of the “moist spot” that is discovered by one of Hans Castorp’s doctors), the effects of which can only be detected by watchfulness and keeping vigil. We mark and measure and observe. The clock snaps off the minutes one by one.

A few days ago we had dinner with T and E. Laughter; comfort food; a lap dog literally in my lap, his happy heart beating fast against my palm. Other Em and I again told the story of how we’d met 14 years ago, and there was the story of how T and I had met six years ago. Time flies, I thought to myself, that old cliché; or how about this one: the day you are born is the day you begin to die. All of this is said so much more brilliantly by Emmy D. – of these meetings, these fleeting moments, there is no elegy, because we expect the webs of connection to continue being spun; we expect to go on, making relationships, planning for the future.  We expect to hear more bees, witness more flying birds streaking across the sky, express awe at more sunsets, scale more mountains and eat more meals and drink more glasses of wine, etc. And yet there is time: that scowling rascal running past you, laughing and pointing at your sick self with his vagabond, thief-stained hands.

The patients in (and literally on) The Magic Mountain busy themselves with their various treatments, filling time in order to stop it and therefore losing all track of it, and, as a consequence, themselves. Yesterday I sat down to do some work and I was alone: just the ticking clock, my desk, fading light at the window. Dickinson didn’t waste time or busy herself with trivial matters – she got right down to time and death and how our entire human experience is wrapped up in the world we work so hard to suppress and ignore and plan and control.

Grief, hills, eternity. I’ve been driving through hills a lot these days, back and forth to Albuquerque, back and forth to Colorado Springs. At some point, and usually at night, I find myself alone on the road, maybe a car every few minutes passing on the other side of the road, headed in the other direction. A bowl of blackness above me. Stubble of distant stars. The drive might go on forever. I might never get out of the car.

Sixteen years ago I arrived in the village of Latsch-Tarsch in South Tyrole and my friend J drove us to her village in the mountains through a tunnel of tiny lights. It felt as if stars were falling all around us and all at once. I’ve landed in a fairytale, I thought. In the morning I woke up, walked out onto the balcony of my small, second floor room and literally stopped short, the mountains so close it was as if my nose could touch them. Someone passing below on skis yelled up at me, “God be with you” in German, and in addition to this blessing gave me, a stranger in a town of 100, a hearty wave, and then skied on. I returned to my room, crawled into my bed filled with hot water bottles that had gone cold during the night, and cried for no reason at all (or so I thought until I read Mann’s book). Such a beautiful moment, so quickly lost. Like Hans Castorp, my understanding of past and future and his place within it – that “long-vanished hour” had been revealed. The existence of that moment in that clean air, snuggled into the middle of a hillside, a kind word from a passing stranger, also signaled its loss. A forever-feeling that was both comforting and harrowing, precisely because it was so fleeting and exact: “a familiar feeling stole over him – a strange, half-dreamy, half-scary sense of standing there and yet being tugged away at the same time, a kind of fluctuating permanence, that meant both a return to something and a dizzying, everlasting sameness, a feeling that he knew well from previous occasions and that he had been waiting for, hoping it would touch him again.”

Last week we met L and B, the only other family in New Mexico who’ve had a Tay-Sachs child in the last twenty years. We met at a café and told our diagnosis stories. “I’ve only seen this one other time in sixteen years,” the opthamologist told us when he saw the signature cherry red spots at the back of Ronan’s retinas. “That was us!” they exclaimed. “We were the other couple!” When their son was diagnosed they were told he would live only two years. But then two years passed, and then three, and then four. Their son died at age six. Four more years than they expected or planned on.

They have three children now. We saw pictures of them on B’s IPad; one brunette, one blond, one redhead – three boisterous boys under the age of two. Time has passed. And yet they both cried when they talked about E; like Ronan, he was their first child. We saw pictures of him at one year, two years, three weeks before his death. He was gorgeous and doomed. For the first three months they watched their boys carefully, waiting to see what they’d do, worried that the disease would unveil itself despite their testing and vigilance. “You’ll notice when Ronan stops doing things,” they warned. With our chosen philosophy of care (minimum medical intervention), Ronan might live three years, maybe two. “Quality over quantity,” we chirp, although we have no idea what this means, we’re just saying it to make ourselves feel better. This, too: “We have to wait and see what the moment brings, and how we’ll feel about it.”

Three years. The length of time Rick and I have been married. The years I spent in Minnesota as a college student. The time it took me to get my MFA. It seems both disastrously long and catastrophically short – we hang in between – waiting, loving, eating breakfast every morning and changing the sheets each week. The wire creaks. The well beckons. We wait. When I ask my mother if she still misses her mother she nods and cries. Searching for a picture of my grandmother in the drawer in my parents’ bedroom I found an enormous folder of all the letters and postcards I’d ever sent to my parents, ever (including printouts of emails!). When I wrote them, I imagined Mom or Dad finding them, like unexpected sweets, in the mailbox. All the times I thought of them while I was away and wanted to share what I’d experienced. The photo found: a grandmother I’ve never met in a 1920s flapper dress, chin in her hand, staring out a window, looped strands of pearls hanging to her waist. Time. What does it really do for us? We are yoked to it, we can’t make sense of it, and we certainly cannot stop it. We take our mental and psychological temperature (who am I? How am I feeling today?) and wrap ourselves up in blankets of delusion, thinking time will stop – how can it not? – for us. The alternative? The dreaded drop.

Time is the most difficult element to manage in any narrative. What are people doing and why? (Fiction writers ponder and discuss.) How do the characters change over time, and does it make any sense? (Readers need change and shift and both internal and external movement). The brilliance of Mann’s book lies in the fact that although the characters change somewhat, they spend more of their time attempting to track change than actually changing. Time marches over them in some real way; it leaves them behind. That is the change. The book takes hundreds of pages trying to unpack time (it’s terribly difficult not to love a book with a character who describes society as “twiddle-twaddle”) and the ultimate verdict? Time means death; it means nothing; it means everything. It is one of the most human and profound novels I’ve ever read.

And yet we live inside time because we have no choice as it moves and shapes us. Once when I was taking the DART from Blackrock (a suburb of Dublin) into the city (and this may not be a true story; I may have imagined it), the train stopped suddenly. It was fall, with darkness already gathering at the corners of the day, mist in the air, raw gusts of wind that surprised you when you turned a city corner. A few children in the yard of the houses facing the tracks ran up to the fence and began to shout at us. Three boys with freckled faces and messy hair throwing rocks. Some of the passengers began to wave and the rocks stopped as the boys waved back. Through the kitchen a woman (their mother? Older sister?) was on the phone, her head in her hands. Was she weeping, talking to her lover? We were too far away to know. Another time, another sudden stop on the train from Seattle to Vancouver, a snowplow stopped near the train tracks and quickly gathering flakes. Through a window I saw three people lift their wineglasses and before they made their toast we had moved on. I thought of the poem “The Flight Path” by Seamus Heaney:

“And now it is – both where I have been living

And where I left – a distance still to go

Like starlight that is light years on the go

From far away and takes light years arriving.”

He could be talking about the patients in The Magic Mountain, or those boys, about five or six, maybe seven years old then, who have had, since that moment when they hung over the fence, moments of anguish and triumphs of their own, and maybe families, their own boys, their own moments at the kitchen table with their discontented wives. Perhaps they commute on the DART into the city; perhaps they have emigrated; perhaps they have died.

A few nights ago I was up all night, staring into Ronan’s crib, watching him, trying to memorize his movements, his shape, watching for changes, signs, watching each moment. One night. And now Virginia Woolf steps in to join the conversation:

“But what after all is one night? A short space, especially when the darkness dims so soon, and so soon a bird sings, a cock crows, or a faint green quickens, like a turning leaf, in the hollow of a wave. Night, however, succeeds to night. The winter holds a pack of them in store and deals them equally, evenly, with indefatigable fingers. They lengthen; they darken. Some of them hold aloft clear planets, plates of brightness. The autumn leaves, ravaged as they are, take on the flesh of tattered flags kindling in the gloom of cool cathedral caves where gold letters on marble pages describe death in the battle and how bones bleach and burn far away in Indian sands. The autumn trees gleam in the yellow moonlight, in the light of harvest moons, the light which mellows the energy of labour, and smooths the stubble, and brings the wave lapping blue to the shore” (from To the Lighthouse).

There are, that resting, rise. Is Emmy D. talking about a flock of birds, a long scroll of dark bodies moving across the sky in some kind of predictable, interpretable sign? No; it’s too easy, too much like those sappy religious cards with the rhyming poetry that I once mistakenly placed in the same category as Dickinson and slipped into the lockers of my unsuspecting friends. Is she espousing some Buddhist philosophy, this 19th century hermetic poet who probably wore exactly the “right” clothes for every occasion, was perfectly polite and acceptable in public, and wrote only for herself? (E was no tortured poet fumbling through dinner conversations because she was so preoccupied with the artistic magic happening in her upstairs room. I admire her restraint, and her ability to divide her life, although if her poems are any indication, this came at a great cost.) Is she talking about resurrection? Again, it seems anti-Em, too easy, too neat. The Lazarus story always did feel a bit simplistic to me (“He’s going to die again anyway, right?” I once asked one of my Sunday school teachers. She ignored me.) And it’s hard to imagine E getting on board with the befuddled and swaddled Jesus rising up, ragged-voiced and with his wounds already cleanly scabbed over, to speak to the women standing mutely beside the rolled-away stone. The whole scene seems too cleaned up and packaged, too crisply tied together. Void-less and therefore false.

Emmy D. seemed more concerned with people moving from sleep to wakefulness, in all the myriad ways that happens – violently, peacefully, lovingly. Microscopic moments in time. Flannery O’Connor once said in a letter to Elizabeth and Robert Lowell, “What you have to measure out, you come to observe closer, or so I tell myself.” Suffering with lupus, she learned to look at time “with one eye squinted.” Everything shrinks to the numbers on a thermometer, a baby shifting in the corner of his crib, a drip through an IV, a moment of startling peace on a walk in the woods with a friend.

There are two conflicting timelines in Ronan, as Other Em observed. The first is this biological drive to develop: he babbles and reaches out and tries to do the physical things that the body is programmed to do. And then the timeline of the disease yanks him back; he swings in the middle, too, waiting. Mann’s obsessive patients again:

“And no sooner had they finished eating than Joachim would return; and then it would be almost two-thirty before he left for his balcony and the silence of the main rest cure settled over the Berghof. Not quite two-thirty, perhaps; to be precise, it was more like a quarter past. But such extra quarter hours left over from nice, round whole ones don’t really count, they are simply swallowed up along the way – at least that is what happens on a grand scale, on long journeys, for instance, or in train rides that last for hours, or in similar situations when life is emptiness and waiting and all activity is reduced to whiling time away and putting it behind you.”

So we get Ronan’s blood drawn, have our DNA sequenced, buy bacon, go for hikes, teach and edit and have conversations, make flight arrangements, dance, kiss, hug, talk and talk and talk and file away each moment of Ronan with each new visitor, watching, watching, and then settling each night and this is how are days are swallowed. These moments are all we have. They are the whole world.

And now as if the cleaning and the scrubbing and the scything and mowing had drowned it there rose a half-heard melody, that intermittent music which the ear half catches but lets fall; a bark, a bleat; irregular, intermittent, yet somehow related; the hum of an insect, the tremor of cut grass, dissevered yet somehow belonging; the jar of a dorbeetle, the squeak of a wheel, loud, low, but mysteriously related; which the ear stains to bring together and is always on the verge of harmonizing, but they are never quite heard, never fully harmonising, and at last, in the evening, one after another the sounds die out, and the harmony falters, and the silence falls. With the sunset sharpness was lost, and like mist rising, quiet rose, quiet spread, the wind settled. Loosely the world shook itself down to sleep. Virginia Woolf, The Waves

The world ends, each night, without end. The riddle will not be solved. There is a sense of lift at the end of Dickinson’s poem, but a great emptiness as well – a look downward, even as something before you takes flight. An unreachable darkness stretching out beneath a moment of beauty. Chaos reigns in those few lines, as it does in our world as parents, as it does in everybody’s world, whether we’re conscious of it or not.

How still the riddle lies. When I was small I used to crawl into my parents’ bed and make sure they were still breathing; I’ve done the same with Rick, with friends. I put my hand on Ronan’s back to make sure, for now, to make sure. We are all tied to these rhythms of time: from the beating of our own hearts, to the wingbeats of insects and birds.

3 responses to “The Riddle of Time

  1. Em, thank you so much for this deep, fascinating, and heartfelt reflection. I love the theme of the mountains that weaves through all your memories. It makes me think of the awe and terror of the Alps, which both inspire breathless excitement in me, and can take lives suddenly.

    Your reflections caused me to revisit T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets: (Here’s a quote from the first)

    Words move, music moves
    Only in time; but that which is only living
    Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
    Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
    Can words or music reach
    The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
    Moves perpetually in its stillness.
    Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
    Not that only, but the co-existence,
    Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
    And the end and the beginning were always there
    Before the beginning and after the end.
    And all is always now.

    I guess, as a writer, you are always grappling with time. With time past (memory), and with time future (anticipation of how your words will be received), and then with time present (the words themselves and how they reach out to try and fix something, make it still).

    Being with Ronan has made me reflect on life. He doesn’t have language, no sense yet of past, present or future. He just has the now. He will die. So will we all (“but that which is living/can only die”). I want to celebrate his beauty, the stillness of the violin while the note lasts, in the knowledge that it will come to an end.

  2. Alma Luz Villanueva

    I’m so glad you’ve met parents who lost a child and then went on to have three healthy children….this blog is beautiful the way true grief/joy always is. The photos are wonderful, enjoy enjoy enjoy your beautiful boy…

  3. Beautiful words about the indefinable, Emily. I wish there was something I could say or do. You are all in my heart, every day.

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