My husband and I have taken to saying “it’s always ten o’clock or Christmas,” meaning that the days and the years fly by so fast that it seems we are always either saying good night or scrambling to wrap presents. I’ve been reading Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer. Foer describes his research into, encounters with, and training by memory champions who can do feats such as memorize the sequence of one or more decks of cards in a matter of minutes and the sequence of a thousand random numbers in an hour. One of these champions, Ed Cooke, sheds some light on the reason why time seems to be speeding faster and faster with each year.
“I’m working on expanding subjective time so that it feels like I live longer,” Ed had mumbled to [Foer] on the sidewalk outside the Con Ed headquarters, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. “The idea is to avoid that feeling you have when you get to the end of the year and feel like, where the hell did that go?”
Cooke’s idea is that by providing more chronological landmarks of your life, you can make yourself more aware of the passing of time. “The more we pack our lives with memories, the slower time seems to fly.” Intentionally paying attention to, marking and remembering, moments in a day is particularly important as we age because our lives tend to become more and more routine and less memorable. Foer quotes William James who long ago wrote, “[A]s each passing year converts some of this experience into automatic routine which we hardly note at all, the days and the weeks smooth themselves out in recollection to contentless units, and the years grow hollow and collapse.” Hence, it’s always ten o’clock or Christmas.
Time for a wake-up call.
It’s easy to forget to pay attention to all the little thoughts and sensory events that make up a day, and I like this reminder to do so as well as the possibility of a pay-off in terms of slowing the perception of time. I’ve been experimenting with using a diary application called Day One. You can make entries in an electronic diary by day and time, but its genius is that it sends you a reminder at times you can schedule. Just jot something in the pop-up box that appears in the corner of your screen and you’ve created a new chronological landmark. Can’t think of anything to write down? The program gives you prompts to use as springboards.
This morning over at the Good Letters blog, Kelly Foster writes about pessimism and prayer, the murderous and the marvelous in “Reckoning the Marvelous.” Kelly is a good friend, an incredible writer and a beautiful person. Do yourself a favor and read her ongoing work at Good Letters, and this post in particular.
I could even see myself clinging desperately to my own vigilant anxieties as if they could buoy me or conversely, as if remaining anxious and vigilant would somehow communicate to God, as if he was unaware, my utter seriousness and desperation for the need for a happy ending in this case.
I could almost see myself physically holding the tension, grasping after it, squeezing it in my hands, clutching it to my chest. I could almost envisage my anxiety as a pulsating cloud, a more powerful force for good or for a solid outcome than God.
My boyfriend, who is about as gracious and empathetic a human as you will ever meet, made a simple but profound point when I confessed my panicked visions to him.
“Maybe we have to make space in prayer for the belief that good things happen too,” he said, kindly, kissing my forehead and putting his arm around my shoulder.
Ann Conway writes this morning in Image Journal's"Good Letters" blog, on the practice of noticing and collecting the wealth of images around us and making something whole in the process. There's much wisdom here, not just about writing, but also about life.
Here in central Maine, the world has come down to bone. The songbirds are gone and crows, which poet Mary Oliver terms “the deep muscle of the world,” have taken over my street. The landscape seems empty; the ground, a carpet of desiccated leaves.
One longs for the blanketing stillness of snow. The world, dark at four, appears grim.
I’ve started keeping a commonplace book in the hope of seeing better.
Comment magazine was good enough to publish a piece of mine in their Fall 2010 issue, an essay called "Spinning and Being Spun." Now that piece is available online. If you're interested, you can read it here.
When I was in first grade, a boy in my class--whose name I remember but will withhold out of courtesy--threw up. He was sitting at his desk and out it came, all over the floor with a splash. The teacher managed the episode calmly and professionally, directing all of us, except the boy, to go out into the hallway, with half the class on either side, and sit single-file along the brick wall. The uniformed janitor then arrived and we all knew why. We next saw our teacher walk the sick boy down the hall toward the office, presumably to his waiting mother.
It seemed a long while until the janitor emerged again. He walked through the middle of our group, pushing his industrial-sized metal bucket and mop. For some reason, his walk out of that room and down the hall, is one of my most vivid memories of grade school. I watched him and wondered if he had pictures of anyone in his wallet. I wondered if he was lonely. I wondered if when he left school at the end of the day whether anyone listened to what he had to say. I remember wondering those three things about him. That janitor, his walk and those questions, have continued to nudge themselves into my mind from time to time in all the years since.
This week I watched a documentary that caught my eye because it was about the inner lives of janitors. "The Philosopher Kings," released in 2009, films and interviews eight janitors who work in some of the most elite colleges and universities in America, including Stanford, Caltech, Princeton, Cornish College of the Arts, Cornell, University of Florida, Duke, and University of California Berkeley. It's a fascinating and moving documentary that reveals the challenges these eight have overcome in their lives, the dreams and goals they are pursuing, the sacrifices they make for others, what they learn from the institutions at which they work, and their significant inner wisdom.
The film is punctuated with a number of great quotes, including this one from Ralph Waldo Emerson:
Do you think the porter and the cook have no anecdotes, no experiences, no wonders for you? The walls of their minds are scrawled all over with thoughts.
They shall one day bring a lantern and read the inscriptions.
There's a website called "My Parents Were Awesome." No words, only pictures. People send in photos of their parents, separately or together, when they were young. The photos are posted with only the subjects' first names. The cumulative poignancy is amazing and terribly moving. Every parent could be a movie star or a teen idol or a heartbreaker, or the smartest or most popular kid on the block. Parents are dating and in love, courting even. They are people, not parents. If one of my sons were to send in a picture I'd like them to send the one of their father at 17 or 18--long wavy hair, jeans--sitting alone on the low porch of an old abandoned farmhouse, his feet sunk into the overgrown field of a lawn.
They give you free juice and cookies. There’s a choice of apple, orange, or cranberry-apple. There’s a choice of Lorna Doones, Fig Newtons, or Oreos. Peanut butter and chocolate chip cookies--bakery-style--are in a large Tupperware. You can choose multiple varieties of tea and coffee with flavorings from a little machine that makes it one cup at a time. The people around are all smiles and warm hellos. All this in exchange for 500 mL of blood.
After donating blood only occasionally for a number of years, I decided last fall to make it more regular. Life as we knew it seemed to be falling apart according to the evening news, economically speaking first and foremost, but you know how that trickle-down-and-around effect works. I decided that not ignoring the blood bank next time it called but to instead pick up the phone and schedule an appointment and do it again 56 days later was a positive act of citizenry. I couldn’t save Goldman Sachs, but I maybe could help save a child. I’ve tried to donate regularly since then but unintentionally skipped one or two intervals. I was there again last week.
I find myself collecting--maybe latching on to--images of hospitality. Maybe that’s because I was raised by a mother who made hospitality---not in an entertainment sense, but the welcoming sense--an art form. The basis of the television show Cheers stands out as an image of hospitality. Flaws and all, the bar’s patrons have a place and “everyone knows your name.” The blood bank is another image of hospitality. I was 40 years old when I gave blood for the first time. I had worked in hospital labs for years where blood--not donated in bags but drawn into test tubes--was our stock and trade, and I had a growing sense of guilt over not contributing my own to this system of caring for the sick that employed me. I confessed this to the phlebotomist at that first donation. “I’m feeling guilty because I’m 40 years old and this is the first time I’ve ever given blood,” I said. She smiled, touched my arm, and said, “All that matters is that you’re here now.”