Has anyone else noticed that there isn't quite as much "time" in December as there is in, say, January? Why is it that I have as much free time as anyone, and probably more than most, but I always seem to be busy?
Back in the October half-term, which was either a while ago or merely the blink of an eye, I visited Cambridge. Thanks to a combination of fortunate circumstances, I was given a private tour of the College of Corpus Christi. Although I saw many treasures that day, including the rare and ancient manuscipts housed in the Parker Library, it is the image of the Chronophage which sticks in my mind.
The Chronophage is a massive golden time-piece -- a clock of sorts, but one unlike any other. It attempts to represent the true nature of time. A menacing grasshopper sits atop a large disc and relentlessly eats up the seconds. In a motion both smooth and jerky, the grasshopper seems to claw itself, round and round, the circle. (I know it is one of the paradoxes of the blogosphere that we waste endless hours on it, whilst simultaneously trying to spare ourselves the minutes, but it is truly worth taking the time to follow this link and observe the clock for yourself.)
The Chronophage is mechanical and philosophical. It doesn't aim merely to track the seconds, minutes and hours, or act as a warning for the loitering students of Cambridge. What really fascinates is its attempt to capture the "relative" nature of time. Tiny blue lights flash, and then freeze. Time slows, and then speeds up.
The timepiece is completely accurate only every five minutes. The rest of the time, the pendulum pauses then corrects itself as if by magic. The blue lights play optical illusions on the eye, whirring around the disc one second, then appearing to freeze the next. The effect is hypnotic. (Time Online, 19.9.2008)
A couple of weeks ago, as we were hurtling down the dark forested road between school and home, my youngest daughter said: "This moment will never, ever, come again." I have no idea what musings prompted this reflection -- as my youngest daughter is often given to deep thoughts -- but I couldn't help but think "well, yes -- but no." On one hand, she is right -- of course -- and so often lately I have wished to cling tightly to these precious moments of her ten-year-oldness before they vanish forever into the maw of adolescence. But on the other hand, I am so aware of the repetitious quality of my middle-aged life. There are still hundreds, maybe even thousands, of school runs to go before my life reaches the next fork in the road. It won't be the same moment, but it will feel it.
The Saturday night before last, the youngest daughter and I were wrapping the Christmas spoils from a day's shopping in Oxford while watching Einstein and Eddington. Although we were distracted by wrapping paper, tags and bows, I did manage to learn a few things. (There was a marvellous visual metaphor -- involving a tablecloth, a loaf of bread and an apple -- which really helped explain Einstein's theory of relativity.) Towards the end, David Tennant as Cambridge scientist Arthur Eddington, notes that time is experienced differently by everyone -- yes, that word "relativity" again. It must be so, because my youngest daughter groaned to think of Christmas being so far away . . . while I groaned to think of it closing in on us so quickly.
I can't help but noticing how differently my children and I experience winter Sundays. They find them slow and deadly boring, while I race from the preparation of one meal to the next, trying to cram in as many chores as possible and rarely finding the time to even look at email. My progress through space is impeded by apples and breadrolls, while theirs resembles the wide, smooth cushions of our sofa.
One of the truest clichés about time is that the older you get, the faster the days and years go round and round . . . and yet the past from long ago can seem more present than the past of yesterday.
We have been making plans for my mother-in-law's 80th birthday, which takes place later this month, and I keep thinking about a picture that she recently showed me. My mother-in-law and her older sister are dressed up as miniature poacher and bookie for the Fancy Dress Class at a Championship Dog Show. (Their parents "showed" whippets.) A photograph was taken and featured in The Daily Mirror of May 12, 1933. Everything about this historical scrap interests me. Here's one choice detail: Inside the jacket of the poacher's costume, and fastened to the waistcoat, is the dead body of a real rabbit. Such authenticity! Can you imagine the five-year-old of today wagging around a dead rabbit? Also, how typical of the English sense of humour to dress up small children as such disreputable sorts! The fact that it takes place during the Depression adds another resonant layer of meaning. (On the other side of the picture is a caption describing the burning of 20,000 books at Berlin University at the behest of Dr. Goebbels. History that is just lying in wait for the five-year-old that is my Londoner mother-in-law.)
But this is the thing: I look at that picture and see a historical document, but my mother-in-law looks at it and feels the itch (still so real!) of the thick wool of her poacher suit of clothes. Although my daughter's "moment in time" does get swallowed, isn't it funny how certain moments play over and over in our memories . . . while other moments, and so many more of them, are lost forever? As we decorated the tree on Sunday, I couldn't help but notice this same phenomenon. I can remember the story behind ornaments from my childhood, or the ones that I acquired early in my marriage, but my mind is full of gaps when it comes to recent years. I can still remember lying under the tree, only five years old myself, and gazing at my favorite ornament -- a sweet-faced angel. The real experience, lost in time, has become reified through the repetition of memory. My children know the story as well as I do now, and ask me to trot it out -- if I don't automatically do so. Time moves on . . . but how we cling to it!
(I meant to write about the Chronophage ages ago, but I just couldn't find the time!)
Addendum: Elizabeth made a comment about How we are in history and not in it too, and it immediately made me think about the wonderful memoir and poem that Dick wrote recently. Please take a bit of time to read Stille Nacht.