Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Time Escaped

I. Timeless
What is timeless? Polite silent snow knocking on my windows during late night storms, storms that put me to sleep with restless white stillness. The lingering beats of a March evening – small drums on rooftops and sidewalks – while I sit in bed in Connecticut, stirs the same expressions within me as the lingering final note of a violin (the violinist’s body displaying that note far past the note’s end; silence in the concert hall). Hold your breath, and the bird sings through the beats of the rain, and the snow taps on my windows during dreams of old cars, dream catchers and long ago places. Timelessness is the act of revisiting old memories and familiar places, the circulation of events in time.

I don’t remember growing up. But I’d imagine it happened in the crevices between large happenings. Those silent crevices of introspection casually links the past and present through understanding and time. Growing up is as continual as time moving through the years and as quantized as the shortest, conscious unit we have to measure that time. Growing up happened, and it is still happening.
* * * * *
Two years out of college and out of living in Connecticut, I returned to the state of New York after a ten year hiatus. I always hesitate to respond when I’m faced with any combination of the following: “Girl, where you come from?”, “What’s your hometown?”, “Please fill in place of residence here: ________”. My mother and I speak of taking a road trip from our Connecticut home to Potsdam, New York. I tell her I’d go with her on this trip if she comes to visit me in the City: She is frightened of gum on the sidewalks, honking taxi cabs, and catching the flu on subways; I am frightened of returning to a University town the size of my two neighboring blocks, Ponderosa buffets, and realizing my vividly imaginative fantasy-land childhood playgrounds are actually smaller than my parent’s current Cheshire home.

Sometimes, when I am back in Connecticut visiting friends or going to doctor’s appointments, I drive by the Waterbury condo we lived in for three years. I don’t know what compels me to turn the steering wheel to the right to take the longer way on Highland Avenue just to go two minutes out of my way to visit the same black and grey set of buildings with its short, pine bushes, double parking lots, two barely dressed trees and metal fence overgrown with poison ivy. Maybe I do it to feel the firsts (first Christmas celebrations, my mother’s first job, Catholic School, my first pets – two blue parakeets named Ocean and Sky), but really, I find myself staring at a set of condos that strangers live in, and I quickly drive away.

During slow days, I find amusement in comparing my past values – a distinct expression of self – to the ones I have now. In my mind, this is usually connected with locations: Potsdam, Waterbury, Cheshire, New York City. I like to envision what my Potsdam self would say to my Waterbury self, or what my Waterbury self would say to my New York City self. It is as if my memory grasps onto a place– Potsdam, Waterbury, Cheshire, New York – to anchor itself in telling a story. These memories come as vignettes, little flashes of images that I string together in fantastical narrative. But between the present photos of the past, contained in flashes of memory, where is time?
* * * * *
My physics friend Joe once told me in college, “In a hundred years, everybody is dead.” That phrase has resonated with me through the most entertaining moments: “Yes, you partner or director at some firm in New York City – in a hundred years you will be dead.”; “You angry clients, in a hundred years, you will be dead (and so will the people you’re litigating against!)”; “You, belligerent taxi cab driver – in a hundred years, all these drivers, and the j-walking tourists on 5th Avenue, will be dead.”. But the beauty in the phrase lies in the contradictory messages: life is short, so stop worrying, and, life is short, so every moment is critical! I carry this contradiction with me almost everywhere. Humorously, this means that every moment is the panicked realization that the moment’s passing is time’s moving marker toward the end.

In a hundred years, everybody is dead. Fourteen years have passed since Catholic School and the condos in Waterbury. Six years have passed since I last lived in my parent’s Cheshire home. And Potsdam is just a story I tell about my past, the memory so distant that it lives only through the voice of my mother and the hard-copy photos in our family albums. But I existed then like I exist now, mostly in the form of a recollection of words typed slowly onto a page, the meticulous stringing of stubborn thought after stubborn thought.

I ache, an internal ballooning feeling filling in cavities of emotion, when I think of driving through the Main Street of Potsdam with my mother, where I remember the summer festivals with old men dancing the tango with their wives on the closed street – where I remember the local folk bands playing, “Puff the Magic Dragon”; where the July zephyrs brush all memories of the upstate April-winter away; where the cattails dance next to marshes in nature conservatories in the fall for hordes of school children to visit; where little vignettes of memory embody the entirety of a childhood. I wonder, as time moves elegantly forward, what vignettes will be left of New York City years later.

In a hundred years, we will all be gone. Writing reminds me of the possibility of road trips to Potsdam and drive-bys through Waterbury. Placed onto silent, blank pages, my New York moments are safe, with the idea that I can move back in time to recollect them, scooping the singular moments of racing with my team in early, damp mornings in Central Park; of walking past bodegas selling white lilies and wax-yellow chrysanthemums, blooming even at 10pm in March at every corner around Upper East Side neighborhoods; and of listening to bagpipes at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, the accordion in the east gardens in Central Park, and the mumbles of languages from four different continents on Fifth Avenue. The ironic present, representing a relationship between past and future (where is present time?), is immortalized in the echoes of personal eternity by this desire for a record that we have been here, that we have existed with the reality of where and when.
* * * * *
Driving back to Potsdam or Waterbury misses the element of time, but the where is still there. Despite this, I find myself yearning more and more to physically revisit the settings for those memories, despite fears of dislocating realities of my past five-year-old (that indeed, that playground was that small!); I have the hope that a physical picture of a current reality will inspire me in my time-travel and bring me to new places. And traveling there, I can try to re-invent and re-discover a past, stringing the flashes of Potsdam to Manhattan and Waterbury to Cheshire into little stories.

Timelessness is still found in the gentle tapping on my windows every hard snowfall. Closing my eyes, where am I? Am I back in Potsdam, sitting on my mother’s bed in the flat on Lawrence Avenue. Or am I in Waterbury, listening to the sounds as I fall asleep in an overheated condo, or could I be sitting in my study in Cheshire, reading the words of writers who will shape the next ten years of my life? The silent tapping lingers into the moving night, and I drift asleep with my timelessness, the circulation of moment after steady moment.

II. Time Travel
Some physicists will tell you that time travel is impossible because nothing can move faster than the speed of light. Philosophers will use a similar argument by replacing light speed with causality.

Without going into thought experiment details about relativity, the speed of light, worm-holes and Euclidean geometry, one issue with time travel is the impossibility of the present tampering with the past. So, a classic example on the paradoxes of time travel will include the grandfather paradox: you cannot travel back in time to kill your grandfather because you are alive now. But what about non-physical time-travel? Einstein has shown that our reality is made of three dimensions of space and one dimension of time in Euclidean geometry, space-time, which can be treated as a continuum. The concept of space-time continuity, then, allows the possibility of traveling through time and not space.[1]

Time is part of the reality which our minds experience. The human brain is a physical, spatial thing that has a perception of time: we notice the world changing around us, and we notice that we too change spatially through another, non-spatial element. Though, physically, we travel in one direction in time, we can separate what has happened and what is happening by consciously revisiting past moments. It’s a skill that is essential to our survival (imagine if earlier human couldn’t separate the memory of seeing a predator and the current, physical reality?). But ultimately, I keep asking: how real is that memory compared to our present, as the past (some hybrid form of it) is coexisting in the present through the faculties of our conscience?

Identity development is a side effect of what happens when our ability to mentally time travel is done linearly. So during every passing moment, we are re-evaluating and remembering the past in the present and inadvertently choosing certain memories as representatives of some form of “who I am now”. So time, a formulaic component in cause and effect, the marker of the directional nature of events, cannot be described in a flash of memory. Instead, time must be reconstructed, through a story or narrative, woven along the mental pictures, kept as memories and developed as identity.

III. Storytelling
Caveat lector.

In our four dimensional world (with time moving in one direction and memory as our three dimensional way of skipping back to the past in the present, the cheater’s way of time-traveling) it is with words that one can use the unfolding of a memory to give a three dimensional picture its four dimensional narrative – like the Cubist’s two dimensional portrayal of the three dimensional world.

It must be impossible that all these written memories – retold now – are the same as when they happened in the three dimensions of space (the past). Was the car really blue or maybe grey? Was that whole sequence a dream, or did it happen? Did I remember Tiananmen Square, or had it been retold to me, and I have fashioned an imprint of a vision that was really associated with some other memory? Was that really that elusive and effervescent thing love, and did she really save my life? I’ll never know. I remember them, but stories have been told and retold, and a singular moment is cast into segments of interpretation and perspective, hand-picked over time and reconstructed with a motive.

So perhaps half of all this is completely a mis-remembrance. We’ll never know.

Then, it seems, that all this fuss about “who I am” is really just a narrative built by…myself. Things slip away into the “happened” and out of memory, forgotten altogether and perhaps never consciously integrated into the conscious “myself” of now. Ironic, it seems then, that what is “present identity” – the myself and reality of now – is a nice patchwork of fabrication and truth, contained by selected memories and a narrative to describe it.

So, then, to return to the initial time travel question: is it possible to travel back in time without altering the future? Even the time travel of flipping the pages through memory, using conscience as the conduit, will change something in the present. No story – retellings of an experience – is fully accurate to the past. Reconstruction is selective. But this type of non-spatial (and therefore, perhaps non-causal) time travel is exactly what we do all the time. In fact, it is what some of us call “self-evaluation”.

* * * * *

[1] Einstein proved this was possible for near light speed.


  1. I'm your first follower!! :)

  2. I love it!! Love how it helps me to think about things in ways I've never ventured to...so great!!