It was during a family dinner, at six-years-old and around this time of year, that I glanced out our dining room window and was suddenly aghast. It was pitch dark outside. This made no sense. Dinner didn’t happen during the night.
I presented these findings to my parents, who replied, with disconcerting calm, that “…the hour moved backwards last night.”
The what did what?
“It happens each year. We get less sun in the winter so we adjust the time. It’s called ‘daylight savings.’”
Thus, the meal moved on, blithely unaware that I was on the verge of an existential crisis. Why did we ‘lose’ an hour? How does one save daylight? Can I save it?
This was, as best I can recall, my first tangible encounter with the elusive nature of time.
Several years ago, I committed myself to the practice writing 800-word essays, one every week. I was finishing my first year of graduate school and about to propose to a red-haired, green-eyed girl. Since then, much has changed. We did, in fact, marry. We graduated and found jobs. Several nieces and nephews were born. I was, for a time, rather sick. We bought a home. Friends moved away, and some family.
The poet Mary Oliver describes her vocation as “mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.” Writing those essays taught me the skill of astonishment. Which I needed. But, since that time- since I stopped writing those essays- what I’ve been needing- and learning- is hope.
Hope is futuristic, but it is also present. It is a painful balm. It embraces reality with defiance. It can only be experienced but must be taught. It is contradiction and synthesis. It is light that only shines in darkness. Its purpose fades as it fulfills. It is tears and laughter, chocolate and anti-depressants, children and funerals.
A future of hope holds plenty of space for what we seek: reunification with a loved one, physical healing, understanding, enlightenment. If life is a journey, then hope is the fuel that moves us forward. But the loss that I’ve not been able to reconcile, the question that’s haunted me even after finding hope, is that of which we’ve already been given. It’s the loss of what we’ve already had, already lived or held. What of the past experiences, possessions and feelings? What of lost time? I’m not talking about our memories, but the actual things to which our memories point. These were taken not by violence, disaster, sin and death. But merely by time, which pulls the ground beneath us, and everything with it, so inconspicuously that weeks, months, let alone years, go by without us looking up to realize, “My God, everything is different.” “Life passes most people by,” the infamous George Jung wrote from prison, “while they’re busy making grand plans for it.”
Christian Wiman, a renowned poet and cancer survivor is familiar with this desire for that which has passed. “Lord,” he cites Ilya Kaminsky, “give us what you have already given.” And Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s poetry: “I demand my / own life back. My past. You!”
I saw my two-year-old niece this past spring. One evening, I sat with her parents in a warm kitchen and she received- delight of delights!- an ice cream cone. But, within moments of holding it, she tipped it. The ice cream slipped off the cone and plopped to the floor. She erupted in tears. The cone was replaced, her tears dried. But- oblige this existentialist- why the loss to begin with?
Why is it that we lose time with only memory- the second cone- as compensation? Memories themselves are easy to lose, or deceive. What little piece of the past we hold is fallible and mortal.
This is the hole in my hope. It’s the corner of my faith that is eerily void. It’s problematic; I don’t know how to fill it and I can’t ignore that it’s there.
I’ve always aimed to take the advice of the poet Rainier Rilke to heart: “live the questions now.” The question of this void is one that beckons me to live it.
All this brings me back to my discipline of essays. Palpable observance is clearly not the anecdote for mortality. The ocean will always kiss the shore, and they will again part ways. I’ve not read Marcel Proust, but the titles of his monumental work strike a chord with me: In Search of Lost Time and Remembrance of Things Past. The search totals 4,200 pages. I’m not the only one asking.
But if love might possibly be, as the poet Nayyirah Waheed described it “like everything I’ve ever lost come back to me” then maybe, toward that end, this is a start. Well, this…and daylight savings.