Friday, December 31, 2010

Time, the Bandit

This is always the time of year when I find myself temporarily focused on the passing of time, the “temporal” world. Being so embedded in “being,” one seldom has time to notice, take note of, contemplate it is passing. However, when our calendars change, just as when our clocks move ahead or back, I find my mind turning to thoughts of what has passed and what will come.

Saint Augustine famously said that he knew precisely what time was as long as no one asked him. Once he was asked for a definition, “instantly,” he no longer knew. I have the same experience when I stop and take measure of all the moments that have occurred. It is as if I dipped my cup into the flow and by the time it reached my lips it had evaporated. It seems as if “now” is something we never have time to “know.”

There are essays to read, books galore to explore. Hawking and hundreds of others all the way back to Aristotle discuss the idea. The best I can derive from my reading is the complex relationship between “being” and “becoming” is serving as part of the current thought pattern that philosophers and mathematicians puzzle about. My mind has a hard time using language in a way the permits different forms of the verb “to be” to be parsed and placed, like their proper pieces in some larger picture. After all, every part of existence “is” now and at the same time “becomes” older, or less viable with each succeeding second. As much as I want to believe the cyclical pattern ancient minds perceived in what we in the West see as linear, I guess I just can’t get my mind to pull back so far as to see where the curve that “becomes” the circle “begins.”

It brings me back again and again to the magic and mystery of language, which permits us to talk about these abstract concepts in ways we actually “believe” make sense. As I child, would read the entire dictionary in the hope that by knowing all the words, I might actually “see” how things worked, how my incomprehensible world could be understood. Eventually, I gave that ritual up, not so much because I felt I knew. It was as if I realized it was useless and I had better things to do.

We can’t really stand outside of time, so it is exceedingly difficult to grasp at any sort of objectivity on the matter. We move through time and it moves through us, but like the air we breathe, we almost never notice ourselves in its grip. Pictures, captured light from one moment we were in that has moved on, give us some sense of its passing. I found fascinating this work by Argentine photographer, Diego Goldberg of his family, an interesting artistic comment on “the snapshot” and how it both kills the moment and preserves it as the next moment supersedes it.

Diego Goldberg and his family can be seen at his website, The Arrow of Time. His idea and its concrete expression is as powerful a mediation on time as any words I might pen.

I am not the only one to be inspired and intrigued by the Goldberg family, ABC News, ://, as well as artists and essayists have riffed off of the inspiration of these precise pieces of the past.

As I studied the photos, I kept noticing slight changes in the faces from year to year, ones that were subtle but perceptible, that must have been invisible as each body was touched by time. The collagen and elastin in the skin degenerate minutely each moment and after years, the faces that filled with life in youth, begin slowly to drain in the juicy and elastic dermis and epidermis and wrinkles, creases, furrows and folds appear. The number, size and length of the facial muscles fibers decrease and tone takes the path of gravity down.

More discernible to the self, but less visible to the world are all the internal changes, the joint wear, the cartilage breakdown, the acuity of vision, then hearing, the number of taste buds, then smell starts to go. The heart tires in its second billion beats, less able to pump so we tire more easily and recover more slowly. The number and density of nerve cells diminish and in most, the spinal cord and brain start to atrophy. The stomach produces less acid after the age of 50 and it therefore absorbs less vitamin B12, found naturally in food. Strength, motion and flexibility all decrease, along with height. We get about 0.4” shorter each decade as the spine compresses under the constancy of gravity. Some things continue to grow, the ears and nose getting larger and longer.

All this sounds pretty disheartening but age is the price of life. An interesting essay in today’s NYT ( about the delusions current baby boomers are buying into puts some perspective on how we face these incontrovertible facts.

I have concluded that there is much that can be done to make this process easier. Since I have been going to the gym a few times a week, I am much more able to cope with the everyday aches and pains of aging. A few of the buff geezers there have actually reached their eighties, while maintaining the appearance of someone in their early sixties. Still, 60 is six decades and there can not “be” too many of those decades “becoming” in any of our futures. One comfort, as I pump my half hour on the elliptical and travel from one exercise station to the next with my iPod inspiring me to "shake it with the oldies" is that even the youngest and most buff members are trapped, like all of us, in the matter of time. Like insects in amber, unable to escape the world that blurs along with us, inside and outside of us, we have no idea what we are coming to. Yes, just as the eye cannot see itself, the “now” cannot truly know its own essence.