Time is a living thing.
We talk about it as something that ticks by or slips away, something we make or take or keep or lose, but it is a force, a dimension, an entity on its own terms. Though we often talk about telling time, we do better to listen to what it is saying, or revealing. Chet Raymo talks about looking out into the night sky as a venture back in time, the light in the sky coming from different stars and galaxies, all different light years away. What we see in the present moment, standing underneath Orion, are layers of time all arriving at once; tonight I am found anew by words from a few old friends.
Paging through an old book, particularly one I’ve read several times before, is much the same experience. Madeleine L’Engle published A Circle of Quiet in 1972; she was past fifty and I was closing in on sixteen and preparing to move back to the States for good, leaving Africa behind. I finished high school, college, seminary, chaplaincy, and was working as a youth minister when, Blair, a friend from Baylor Hospital days gave me the book for Christmas. I was thirty-two. Seeing the name written on the inside cover took me back to conversations long since buried under all that collects in life like the dust that buries ancient civilizations. I can tell from my margin notes that I’ve been though the book at least three times, not counting this Advent. Some of the comments I can calendar easier than others. I have names written in the margins next to lines that remind me of someone, or something someone said. Others are distinguishable because of the different colors of ink.
This time around, I’m reading the book at about the same age that Madeleine wrote it and I picture her being my age for the first time in our literary friendship. I am getting to know her when she was my age. And I smiled when I read this paragraph:
Jung disagreed with Freud that the decisive period in our lives is the first years. Instead, Jung felt that the decisive period is that in which my husband and I are now, the period of our middle years, when we have passed through childhood with its dependency on our parents; when we’ve weathered the storms of adolescence and the first probings into the ultimate questions; when we’ve gone through early adulthood with its problems of career and marriage and bringing up our babies; and for the first time in our lives find ourselves alone before the crucial problem of ho, after all these years, we are. All the protective covering of the first three stages is gone, and we are suddenly alone with ourselves and have to look directly at the great and unique problem of the meaning of our own particular existence in this particular universe. (113)
My twenty-year old margin note reads: “hope for growing old.”
In certain moments, the years feel as though they flow by like a river; in others, they stack up like altar stones. Either way, the more of them I live through, the more I find myself thankful to be here, and to be. Madeleine died a little over two years ago. My father-in-law is here, but disappearing in his Alzheimer’s. I went to Texas several weeks back because I thought my mother was not going to recover from surgery (she’s still here and doing fine). I am a couple of days away from turning fifty-three, perhaps the same way a farmer turns the soil in preparation for planting. I suppose I could think of turning, as in turning a car down a different road, or the way a horse turns toward the clubhouse; then there’s turning, as in repentance, and the turning of the leaves, blazing their way to death. Maybe all of those.
Everything in the universe shares the same arc of being, if you will, moving from where we entered the story to where we exit, stage left. We are both essential and temporary. At the bottom of Page 99, Madeleine wrote:
Paradox again: to take ourselves seriously enough to take ourselves lightly. If every hair of my head is counted, then in the very scheme of the cosmos I matter; I am created by a power who cares about the sparrow, and the rabbit in the snare, and the people in the crowded streets; who calls the stars by name. And you. And me.
My twenty-year old margin note reads: “Living with a sense of appropriate significance.”
Fifteen years after that note, my friend Burt called one day and asked me to write a poem about the value of daily work for worship at his church, and I sent him this.
In the crush of afternoon traffic I sit
in an unending queue of cars, staring
at the stoplight; from my driver’s seat
I can see the beckoning billboard:
“Come visit the New Planetarium
You Tiny Insignificant Speck in the Universe.”
When the signal changes, I cross the bridge
over river and railroad yard, turn left
past the donut shop, and park in front
of my house. Only my schnauzers notice
because they have been home alone.
I have been hard at work in my daily orbit,
but I stopped no wars, saved no lives,
and I forgot to pick up the dry cleaning;
today would be a good day to be Jimmy Stewart:
to have some angel show me I matter.
As I walk the puppies down to the river,
I wonder how many times have I come to the water
hoping to hear, “You are my beloved child.”
Instead, I stand in life’s rising current only to admit,
“I am not the one you were looking for.”
I stand in the stream of my existence,
between the banks of blessing and despair,
convinced that only messiahs matter,
that I have been called to change the world
and I have not done my job.
Yet, if I stack up the details of my life
like stones for an altar, I see I am
one In the line of humanity,
in the river of love: I am a speck,
in God’s eyes, of some significance:
so say, also, the schnauzers
every time I come home.
However the years stack up, I have spent more days than I can count going to the river or the altar or out under the stars to be reminded (convinced?) that I matter, even as I know I am only passing through. I lean into Madeleine one more time:
So my hope, each day as I grow older, is that this will never be simply chronological aging – which is a nuisance and frequently a bore — the old ‘bod’ at over half a century has had hard use; it won’t take what it did a few years ago – but that I will also grow into maturity, where the experience which can be acquired only through chronology will teach me how to be more aware, open, unafraid to be vulnerable, involved, committed, to accept disagreement without feeling threatened (repeat and underline this one), to understand that I cannot take myself seriously until I stop taking myself seriously – to be, in fact, a true adult. (132)
And one more twenty-year old margin note, quoting another friend, Reed: “We stop doing things that prepare us way too early.”
For all that has been, thanks. For all that will be, yes.
P. S. — There’s a new recipe.