Being present with time

As I was trying to write something earlier this week, I found myself distracted. Not so much by thoughts of the future or the past, but by other experiences of the present.

I looked out the window. I noticed a perfect gradient of blue to gray in the sky, which suddenly reminded me of all the time I spent twenty years ago fussing with the gradient tool in some PowerPoint sidebar. I saw two turkey vultures soaring, then a flock of noisy crows flying past, then a cloud formation that looked like a mother blue whale with her calf, swimming alongside.

The day before that, I was distracted by the presence of my own physical discomfort. For several hours, I tried to sit and focus while my body tried to get a word in. I ignored it until its complaints escalated into a silent outburst: “I’m uncomfortable! I hate this chair!! This chair is not comfortable!!!”

“Fine!” I silently yelled back. “What do you want me to do?? Research office chairs and e-ink tablets?!?”

I proceeded to research, fuming all the while because I know the issue is neither the lack of a perfect chair nor the lack of a technological device.

My actual issue has something to do with time. Sometimes the gift of time—the gift of being present to the experience of time, in all its multitudes—feels overwhelming.

I often feel multiple tenses of time at once, nested together.

When my six-year-old hugs me in her fervent way, I feel how much she needs to hug me now even as I feel the inevitability of missing her hugs one day. I see her moving away and not coming home for long stretches. I see her living her own life, listening to me patiently, but distracted, as she should be, by the details of her own life. I see her wondering about me as I age, wondering how well she knows me, and wondering how well I know her. I see her revisiting the childhood we are creating and considering her path to adulthood. I see her sense of regret about whatever it is she might someday regret. I see the loss and grief she might feel when I am perhaps much older, and after I am gone. I see how amazed I am now that she was once so much littler than six. I see how I will marvel one day that she was once exactly like she is today. I see how much I will forget and then how much I will never know. I see how much she will never remember.

When I talk to my mother, I see her seeing me and the arc of my whole life at once and marveling that I seem so old and independent, when once I was so young and, like my own daughter, refused to go anywhere without her. I see her wondering how it is that I am a baby who has somehow leaped into her mid-40s. I see her wondering how she, the baby of her family, came to be a woman in her late 70s. I wonder if I truly know yet how much I love her, or if I will simply need to remember.

When I see my nine-year-old, somehow wearing my old rainboots without tripping over himself, fearlessly exploring the grasses behind our house, determined to find the valley garter snake he discovered there last weekend or something of comparable interest, I also see myself in the future, remembering him there.

I am alive to the sense of time that Jenny Odell describes in Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock as “that restlessness and change that runs through all things, making them anew, rending the crust of the present like the molten edges of a lava flow.”

This, too, is a way of being present.

When it doesn’t overwhelm me, it leaves me asking: What remains? What do you want to remain? And how do you memorialize what it is that you don’t want to lose?

Writing is part of my messy, imperfect answering. I write to leave some breadcrumbs for my future self: You must always go on. But if you feel lost, here is something to come back to.

Tell me about yours.

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