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A Meditation on Time (with Tulips)

Bear with me, this may take a little time.

Actually, time is the subject matter here, so it’s appropriate that I should have begun this way, and the story you need to know is this: when I was getting my MFA, one of my professors said that every writer makes a compact with his or her reader. The compact was that in exchange for the reader’s time, the writer will give some measure of enlightenment and delight. “You are asking the reader to forgo Shakespeare, to forgo Dante, to forgo Neruda and Borges and Chekov and all the books of Moses. What astounding arrogance it takes to put pen to paper in our fallen age!” But still, every writer, from Tracy K Smith, who won the Pulizter Prize on her 40th birthday, to Gadi Ben-Yehuda, who turns 39 today, seeks to make that compact with readers. Give me your time and attention, even if only for 15 minutes, and I promise to make it worthwhile.

In many languages, the word for “time” and “hour” are the same, if not related, and in English, we can read “do you know the hour?” for “what time is it?” This is also the case in Hebrew, but in that language, a synonym for time is also “season,” and it seems to me significant that as our appreciation for time is becoming ever more acute (simply to know that 250 milliseconds is “instantaneous” is meaningful here) our ability to comprehend time on various scales seems to be waning. And this is what I’d like to warn against.

This is especially true for we who dwell in digital social media much of the day. A Facebook post, to say nothing of a tweet, is relevant for a short time indeed. Our email boxes fill with messages every day, if not by the hour, and reading–to say nothing of responding to–all of the demands from all of those writers is often daunting, if not debilitating.
Because we are swimmers in the torrents that we help create through the media at our disposal, we can forget how to float in the slower streams of our unmediated lives. And that is a capacity we give up at our peril, because time, paradoxically, is the one thing that, while we do not own, we can give to someone else forever, and thus is the only real currency in our relationships with others and with ourselves.
When I was seven, I was walking home from synagogue one Friday night with my father, the Rabbi at our small-town shul. It was winter and the streetlights made the snow look like it was covered in a layer of fine diamonds, My father had spoken that night about how everything we had we should consider to have been lent to us for a time only: our clothing which we would outgrow and give away, our homes, which we may sell to another family, even our bodies, which would change and eventually give out and go to feed the very lowest lives of which we never think in our perambulations from day to day.
Thinking about that, it makes the very idea of giving someone a gift seem strange. That watch is a hand-me-down and even at that, only a loan that you are keeping for your own children, as Cortazar tries to warn us. Time and its companion, death, will take everything from us.
Which is why we must not only take time, but give it as well, and in all its manifestations.
Another story: last November, I planted 135 tulips with my daughter. For months, as we walked by our house, I reminded her that they were growing, right now, under the ground, and that when I was a boy, I knew it would by my birthday soon when I saw them start to flower. Here they come up earlier, and when they did, they looked like this:
Throughout the winter, I also made breads with my daughter and as the dough was rising, I reminded her that the yeast was, even now, helping us make the bread we would be eating for dinner.
If you’ve been to a Jewish wedding, you’ve seen the groom smash a glass. We do this to mark a moment in time: that glass can no more be put back together than a loaf of bread can be separated into water, flour, salt, and yeast. For the glass to break takes an instant, for the bread to rise, an afternoon, for the tulips to bloom, a season, and for the seven-year-old to learn enough from his father that he could teach his own children, the passage of thirty winters.
Every day we drink time from a firehose until the one second when the water runs out, and the question is: will we spend that time buy what matters or simply let it pass through us as we pass through it it?
As we move through the time allotted to us, we change it from an unformed whole–from the cloth of eternity–into discrete segments, to which we give names like “the time I went to the lake” and also “my honeymoon,” and for most of us, though not for me yet, “the time I buried my father.” This time that we have in our lives to give, what do we exchange it for? To whom, exactly, do we give it? And what does it mean to receive someone’s time?
As I write these words, I am giving my time to you, my unnamed reader. And as you are reading this, you are giving your time to me. In both activities, we are exchanging time for light: for elucidation, for enlightenment, for delight, for the one thing that surely separates us from the dead, for whom time has no meaning, and to whom light has no utility.
And what does it mean to receive time? This I am still trying to learn, because I still cannot imagine the debts I owe in time to those who love me most: my parents, certainly, and also my wife and my family, but even my friends and coworkers and students and you who are reading this now.
I am still receiving time from my parents, but at the same time, I am reliving hours from seasons long past, and though the snow from that winter is more than three decades melted, I am still looking at that fine layer of diamonds as my father talks to me about time, and life, and light, and death. And I am still planting bulbs with my mother, even as I am watching these tulips bloom with my daughter.
Time does not wait for us, it does not live on our wrists, much less on our phones, which may charge us by the minute and which we rate in the megabyte per second. Time is all around us, swift as a herd of Centaurs and just as sure to trample us. But, even as it is common to all people, even as it is in endless supply, it is also all we have to make the most precious gifts we can: light, yes, and love, and the humanity that we should always be trying to encourage in others and to create within ourselves.
And to do that, we need to understand time–toe give it and take it–in various measures. There’s the time it takes to smell a rose, and the time it takes to grow a tulip. In between the time it takes to make bread, and less than either the time it takes to tweet or to break a glass. But these are all the measures of our lives, and if we don’t build in the time to do all these things, to reflect on them, and to give that time as a gift to others, then our lives remain a part of that black eternity that stretches beyond our lives in both directions.
This has taken me one hour to write, and I think it was time well-spent. I hope that of the time you spent reading it, you will agree.

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Kim Salkeld

Come what come may, time and the hour runs through the roughest day.

Thank you for sharing your reflections. Time well spent in reading them.

Lucas Cioffi

Well said, and happy birthday.

Yes- receiving someone’s gift of time is wonderful, and if it’s not possible to return it to them, then the next best thing is to re-gift it to someone else.