Image and Essay by Mary Reddy
Lately I have been pondering time. I’m old enough to look back on decades of experience. And I long to distill the essence of certain moments in my history as an offering to my children. So I am writing a memoir. The way women once constructed quilts out of patches of old worn garments, I am snatching time here and there to describe memories that are lodged in my heart. Someday, I hope to string these moments together, like a rosary of beads tracing the story of my life.
In one of my life fragments, I am five or six years old, squatting on the edge of a suburban Texas curb, my arms wrapped around my legs. The land and houses and concrete stretch out around me like flat bread baking in the Texas sun. I see brown grass or unplanted dirt yards, newly built ranch houses, newly planted young trees—not another person in sight. And above it all an endless blue sky—not a cloud in sight.
Maybe it was the sensation of all that space, hot and still. I don’t know but suddenly I was simultaneously aware of my own legs, the curb, the street, the heat of the day—but also of a vaster self inhabiting a very different space/time. The sensation was powerful, there and then gone again. I had just experienced “more” of me, beyond the little girl I was, beyond the hot summer morning slowly drifting toward midday. I remember staring up toward the endless blue and wondered where was I before I was here right now?
We humans live in time but how much do we know about time, really? The sun and moon count out the rhythm of our days and nights and their positions around our earth dance us through the seasons. Because we live with intimate awareness of the ticking of the clock, can talk about our plans for the coming week, and can name where we were the moment we heard about the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers, we proceed as though we understand time. We don’t waste time wondering about it. What we did yesterday is written in stone, what we’ll do tomorrow is a guess—though perhaps a well-informed one. If we wonder about time, it may only be to wonder how much we have left. Is there more sand in the bottom of our hourglass than at the top?
Over the centuries, scientists and philosophers have examined time more intently than those of us just trying to keep our schedules straight. To put it simply, Aristotle proposed that time does not exist independently of events. If nothing happens, there is no time; time is change. Isaac Newton, on the other hand, described an absolute time which ticks away in a void even in the absence of any event. Is time really that definite, irreversible, and inescapable? Albert Einstein cracked open the established wisdom by describing the relative subjectivity of time. Our clocks appear to tick at different speeds in different places.
Mystics know time differently. Shamans enter altered states where they travel into the past, forward to the future, or into worlds where our time does not apply. The plasticity of time has been a common thread over the centuries—for example, in stories of human-faery encounters, where a person’s hour-long visit to the land of the faery might actually take years in human time. And in dreams, in mystic reveries, or sitting on a curb in a Texas suburb, we can feel as though we’ve left time behind to enter other realms.
A theoretical physicist, Carlo Rovelli, has been studying how to join a quantum-physics view of time with Einstein’s relativity. In his book, The Order of Time, he suggests that there are no things, only events. Ephrat Livni reviewed the book and put it this way, “Even what might seem like a thing—a stone, say—is really an event taking place at a rate we can’t register. The stone is in a continual state of transformation, and on a long enough timeline, even it is fleeting, destined to take on some other form.”
Rovelli believes the more you widen your scope to look at the universe, the less relevant your human sense of time becomes. As I understand it, the more micro you go, down to the levels of unseeable particles, the less you can measure time. The same seems to be true of the macro. In Rovelli’s eyes, the time we all agree on and experience daily is a human construct.
In my eyes, rather than a limit to struggle against, time is an instrument we can play with creatively. Maybe time is one of our magic powers. In this moment—now—our identity, sovereignty, and presence engage in relationship with the rest of the world. How we interact with each moment of our lives constitutes how we wield that human tool of time.
I picture it like this: I am a time magician. I funnel my lived time through this small cylinder or tube which is the present moment. I hold that small cylinder in my hand. A great flood of all potential past events must narrow itself enough to fit through my cylinder. Coming out the opposite end, the narrow stream of the present moment expands vigorously into a flood of all potential future events. As I move this cylinder high or low, here or there, I alter not only the direction of the flood coming out in front of me (the future) but I alter the direction of that coming in from behind (the past). The slightest shift in my conscious engagement with the present moment can magically alter the flow of what comes next.
This excites me—every ‘now’ that I encounter carries the promise of change. Will I move the cylinder in the direction of great delight and wonder? Or is it a moment where I must hold it steady to channel grief over an acknowledged loss? Where can I direct the flow? How much love can I tap into Now as I channel the flow?
I reached out to David Spangler to see if he had a unique IS perspective on time. Several of his subtle colleagues came forward with comments about how we experience time in a uniquely human way. I will share their comments in future blogs. In the meantime, I’m eager to hear your time stories and/or your emotions about time, dear readers.