not keeping time


    My beautiful lapis blue 1997 Jeep Cherokee Sport turned 166,000 miles today and it’s still going strong. Watching the odometer flip made me think about the waning days of this year and what awaits us in the next.

    Is this an ending or a beginning?

    For my car, on a day long before it became mine, there was Mile One when all but the last numbers on the odometer were zeroes. A little over two weeks ago, I marked the day I came into the world: my Day One. I missed being born on the eleventh by a little less than two hours.

    The odometer counts actual miles. I stack up my years from the day I was born. Yet, when it comes to our calendar, our choice to begin our year on January 1 marks nothing more than our arbitrary decision to say our year begins on January 1. The Hebrew calendar marks the beginning of the year usually in what we call September and says we are in the year 5767. Because their years are of different lengths, the Chinese New Year is in either January or February. This coming year, 4705 (The Year of the Boar) begins on February 18. The Islamic calendar marks the year as 1427. The Hindu calendar, which is quite complicated, marks the new year in May and sees this year as 5108. The Coptic calendar sees the year 1724 beginning on January 1. Best I can tell, this is the year 1376 on the Zoroastrian calendar and the year begins in March. The Baha’I calendar uses the same date for New Years and marks nineteen months of nineteen days. For them, we are in the year 163 BE (Baha’i Era).

    Quick – tell me what day it is.

    In Time Lord: Sir Sanford Fleming and the Creation of Standard Time, Clark Blaise tells the story of how Fleming came up with and implemented the idea of standardizing time after he missed his train because the time at the departure point and the time at the arrival point were not synchronized. He’s the one who decided the day should begin at midnight because sunrise wasn’t quantifiable. One of the people Blaise quotes in the first chapter is George Smoot, whose cousin, Oliver, was used by his fraternity brothers to measure the length of the Mass. Ave. bridge across the Charles River when he was a student at MIT. Instead of using a standard measurement, they used something they knew. Today, current students at MIT can tell you the bridge is 364.4 Smoots and one ear, but few – if any – know the length of the bridge in feet and inches.

    Blaise also says:

    First of all, time comes in two distinct varieties: the untamed mysterious Time, born with the big bang itself, and civil, obedient standard time, as in “What time is it?” or “How long has this been going on?” It’s not clear that the same word even applies to both, or what the nature of their relationship, if any, might be. Perhaps time should have two names, like “horse” and “equus,” the one to stand for hardworking, domesticated time, that which we control and can describe – the calendars, clocks, minutes and hours of the civil day – and the other for the untamed and unnamable, that which nature has not yet released.

    I love that last phrase: that which nature has not yet released.

    We can measure the time that has passed – or at least give ourselves a way to think we can – but we can’t quantify what is still to come. We may have things on the books for 2018 or 2029, but who knows how far away they are. Who knows if we will even be here. We can’t even see the next sunrise until the light is already breaking on the horizon.

    One of the things Ginger gave me for Christmas is a Watercolor Lesson-A-Day Calendar. I enjoyed working with watercolors a number of years ago and Ginger wanted to encourage me to get back to painting, so she gave me a calendar that calls me to pick up my brush everyday. I spent a lot of years wanting to be a writer without writing. As I wrote the other day, this has been a year where I marked the days by spending time at the keyboard putting words together. I have no idea of where the words or paints will take me, but I’m going to use them to mark my days to see what nature might release in the sunrises still to come.

    “Stack up the stones,” Joshua said, “so when the children ask what the stones mean we can tell them the story.”

    One of the things I gave Ginger for Christmas was a recording of me singing, “When You Say Nothing at All,” one of our favorite songs. I learned how to use the GarageBand program on my MacBook and turned my office into a little studio. I also went to the Apple Store for instruction. One of the biggest challenges was learning how to keep time as I played and sang, which meant I had to learn how to play consistently with the beat so I could use the drums and bass sounds stored in the computer.

    It’s a funny phrase: keeping time. It can’t be done.

    Time moves less like the clicks of a metronome and more like the meanderings of a small stream as it pushes its way through the valley, running over stones, cutting into the soft clay, winding back and forth as it finds its way to the sea. I learned early that Christian theology holds that time is linear: history is going somewhere. The contrast was with those religions that see time as a circle: the great mandala. I don’t think it’s either/or, but both/and. Like any good story, the history of creation is going somewhere, though I doubt seriously that any of us has yet to peg the ending. And the cycle of life, from sunrise to sunset to sunrise, year to year, generation to generation, goes around and around, even as we, as a planet, circle the sun. The circle is one of the archetypal images of creation, from the life cycles of the tiniest of insects to the awesome wonder of the galaxies. We are circling on our way to somewhere.

    When I write again, it will be a new year because we have deemed it so, even though it is only four sunrises away. As the sun and moon traverse the sky, I will make my circles to work (again), to church (again), and come home (again and again), as I do my part to unlock the time that nature has not yet released, setting loose the untamed and the unnamable.



    1. As Indiana Jones once said, “It’s not the years; it’s the mileage.”

      I like the “untamed and the unnameable.” Humans can do a lot of things but we cannot stop or control time. We cannot run out of time they way we can run out of bread. The sands in the hourglass will never really run out. Even after the sun explodes and the universe collapses back in on itself, there will still be time.

      Isaac Asimov once wrote, and I paraphrase, that a crisis occurs only when you no longer have any options. There is always time for healing, for feeding the hungry, for stopping the madness in this world. No crisis.

      Good post, Milton. Thank you. I’m looking forward to seeing your watercolors. If you paint as well and as deeply as you write dot dot dot.

    2. Like Gander, I’m wondering if you can blog your painting as you do your writing…now THAT would be a wonderful process.

      This, for me, was a wonderful ‘year’ in which to find a voice inside of me and to discover the joy of a daily interaction with the living words of others. My spiritual journey has found breadth and depth, often through the probing words and insights of daily visits to sites like yours.

      I like the fact that I can measure my days through the turning of the earth and the rising of the sun. It’s all in the process, the circling towards that which we anticipate will be completion.

      I measure my days along with your writing. Thanks for it.

      (Don’t you love Garage Band? What a trip! I have used it for practical things, but my daughters are writing and recording and it opens a whole new avenue of creativy for them…)

    Leave a Reply