This appeared in Moondance last fall. I’m reposting it here in case anyone would like to read it.
In the fall, as the landscape withdraws into stark lines and the coming cold breathes brittle into my bones, I always mourn time’s inevitable creep forward into darkness. Yet, in very ancient eras — and to many people still — time was endless, like a wheel, and therefore hopeful. Its circle of birth and death always led to rebirth as it marked the seasons, the years, and the generations. Then, as science ascended, time became a mathematical concept, merely a dimension, often depicted as an arrow unstoppably propelled into the future. Time was captured and stuffed into clocks to regulate our lives in factories and offices.
And so was time also transformed in my own life. When I was a child, time was magic, a beloved friend who gave gifts of Christmas and birthdays and stretched out happy summer afternoons till I was too tired to play anymore. Now, time has become simply the grid of each week’s over-burgeoning calendar page, keeping me up at night wondering how I will accomplish all I must once morning comes too quickly.
Still, for over a hundred years science has known that time really is a great mystery. How fast I experience time moving varies with my velocity and how close I am to a gravitational field. Modern physics, with its oddly-behaving quanta and space-time bending wormholes, has made real the possibility of time travel. Researchers tell me that my own body, and everyone else’s, defies my traditional concept of time everyday, reacting to stimuli before my nervous system has had a chance to relay its presence to my brain as if it knew the impulse was coming.
However thrilling these scientific discoveries may be, in everyday life, I still perceive my body as continually moving into the future that, each instant, becomes the present. Yet, my mind has always travelled in time, just as the physicists say is the real way of the world. My most intense moment of mind time travel was when I happened upon the 18th century battlefield of Culloden in Scotland and found a marker showing the spot where a clan with my mother’s name had stood to fight. Somehow, from the moment I stepped onto that field, I was drenched in the despair that had soaked the ground more than 200 years before. Time’s constraints vanished as I walked in a fog of some odd kind of eternity that bound me for that afternoon to those who had perished on the soil under my feet. I did not see ghosts or hear the tramp of long-ago embattled feet, but that place was, for me, in both past and present and it seemed, at the time, right to be so.
This more flowing, sometimes-forwards-sometimes-backwards kind of time we occasionally experience in our minds is, to me, like a river. Many years ago I dreamt that I was sitting on a high hill with a dream being, watching a river languidly wind its way through the valley below us. It was full of people swimming onward, not looking to left or right or even behind them. The dream being told me that the river was time and the landmarks on the shore measure out the years. All I had to do to enter into the past or future was to dive in at the right place.
What if I stopped swimming and hauled myself up from that river onto the bank? What if I thought of myself as a being who is not bound to any particular spot along the shore but could choose where I want to be in time? What if I tossed out all my time-based assumptions, such as how women my age should dress and behave? What if I could find everyday the sense of intense relief I experienced in my dream when I left behind the pressures of the river’s currents for just a short while?
Perhaps I could stop fearing the end of my youth and celebrate the greater common sense and perspective that a longer memory has brought me. Recently, salespeople have twice given me “Senior Discounts,” assuming that I am older than I am. I think my first reaction to double-up on the moisturizer was wrong and I should instead think of all the experiences that have taught me how to make my life easier and be glad, or assume that maybe the salespeople glimpsed a bit of wisewoman in me. Perhaps, as one of the salesperson suggested when I told her my real age, I should just take the money and run.
Maybe, too, I can bring what feels comfortable and fascinating from other times into my own life without apology, no longer feeling as if I should only embrace what is 21st century. Over the years, I have come to feel a deep connection to the spirituality I see in the art of the Paleolithic era. I never tell anyone I feel anything other than an archeological interest in these cave paintings, statues, and other representational objects. What would people think? Yet I love the pure, direct, and essential relationship to a creating, life-loving, yet deeply powerful Source I sense in that spectacular art. The next time I have to identify my religion on some form, I will write “Paleolithic” and direct anyone who asks why to the nearest natural history museum.
However, no matter how flowing our view of time, I will still die as will my loved ones. I must face the fact that my time on earth is not limitless no matter how much I may bounce around different eras in my mind. Yet as I sat at my mother’s bedside at the moment of her death, I knew more positively than I have ever known any truth that love is eternal. At that instant, time became a beloved friend who had given me and my mother 40 years together on this earth. Even though that period was over, I did not doubt we would be together still outside of time’s grasp. Maybe it was only the shock of seeing her die, or perhaps a deep sense of denial, that freed me from the grief of absolute loss that day. Still, years later, I believe that at that instant I finally saw beyond the illusion of our everyday concept of time to its most profound reality.
In our daily lives, where our bodies live, time is that forward-moving arrow, and also, in the freedom of our minds, a gently flowing river. But, in our hearts and souls, time is a living being, one who gives great gifts that also require heart-wrenching sacrifice. The great Goddesses of time – Durga, Kali, Cerridwen and others – are often shown dancing the world into and out of being. This makes sense since time is made from rhythm, whether the oscillations of crystal in our watches, or the swing of a pendulum, or the circlings of the planets round the sun making days, nights, and years. I now like to think of time as a partner who celebrates all life has to offer with me.
I think that from now on I will not perceive of myself as plodding along, walking or swimming, relentlessly moving forward from past to present to future, but dancing with time. I will join her of my free will so that I can live on this glorious Earth. At some moments, the dance will be joyful and I will jump from delight to delight, back and forth. At others it will be slower, in sorrow or amazement or a quiet enjoyment of a moment. Sometimes I will lead time and sometimes time will lead me. But always, in this life, and in past and future lives, I will dance. Will you dance with us?