Grand Central Terminal Time by Robin Gross
Our experience, while true to a point, is a limited perception of time. Einstein pointed out that time is not solely linear. It travels, probably simultaneously, in lines, in circles, even doubling back on itself. Although, for some reason, the contributors to this issue chose, for the most part, not to write about those patterns, we have all experienced them. We have, for example, seen time in its more forgiving, even hopeful aspect as a cycle that never begins, never ends, always begins, always ends, promising that life may not be just that railroad straight line, but may be instead, in some way, part of an endless cycle of death and rebirth and resurrection and reincarnation.
We are blessed with time’s circularity every day, as the sun makes its magisterial way across the sky, endlessly chased by the little moon that never quite catches up, except, every now and then, when it does and total eclipse results. But what is an eclipse, except an odd simulacrum of the night that both follows and precedes day, over and over?
And we’ve experienced the continually renewed promise of those cycles in the days, weeks, months, seasons that have come and gone and come again, over and over, in our long lifetimes. The bitterness of winter will, we know, give way to those April showers and May flowers. And, despite global warming, we are still fairly confident that, in parts of the world anyway, summer will cycle down into a cold December before the calendar brings those showers and flowers again.
Still, it is time’s damned linearity that does us in, that doggedly irreversible onward march. We cannot, Groundhog Day to the contrary, go back to relive and redo what we – or nations, or kings, or presidents – did wrong. Nor can we bring with us into this present anything or anyone left behind in the past. As we grow older, we try to come to grudging terms with our inability to correct what went wrong before, either personal or political. Regret is one of the most ubiquitous, and useless, emotions of old age. The best we can do is to try not to make the same mistakes again.
But the very worst of time is that it is unknowable. No matter how convincing Einstein might have been in his insistence that everything in time is happening now, we know it is not, because if it were, we’d know what tomorrow will bring. All the tomorrows. And try as we will, we cannot know. Will we pass the exam? Will the baby be born healthy and intact? Will my lover be faithful unto death?
And the most vexing and least answerable question of all: what will happen in the world after I die?
Almost six dozen turns for the Serpent
Seven decades of winters, springs, summers and falls
Three score and ten leaps from child to adult to middle to now…
What are you now?
You are a daughter, a sister, a friend, a wife,
A mother, an aunt, a grandmother, and a great aunt.
You are an old woman with luscious memories and poor recollection.
You are a young woman who still watches your elders with hushed reverence.
You are still learning to step back or forward,
To hold on and to let go,
To be concerned and to not “sweat the small stuff.”
You still feel the fears of your childhood
But these are now well mixed with your experience and wisdom.
Seventy vibrant springs …
Almost six dozen colorful autumns …
Three score and ten cold, gray winters …
Seven decades of warm, foggy summers …
613,218 hours when our lives were changed by some occurrence …
It all adds up.
In My Autumn Years
In my autumn years it seems that I’ve finally come to some agreement with time. I try to keep track of it but my watch needs a battery which is not easy to find, and my cell phone needs to be kept charged. I often just guess at the time by looking at the sun. I don’t like to feel rushed but I also hate to be late so I “give myself time” to get places. When I garden I often “forget about time,” especially when the days are overcast. No longer a car owner, I consult schedules and timetables. I don’t run for buses or trains any longer. I make plans with friends and they cancel, not realizing there may not be another chance.
Recently a friend has been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. She was given months to live. In the grand scheme of life, months seem like flowers that bloom and die in a few days: Sweet peas? Nine months to make a baby. Twelve months to orbit the sun. Knowing death, her memory will never completely die, but in several months I will forget her face. In a year I will not remember her voice.
Her sixty-eight year old friend does the following: ushers at the opera and the ballet, leads a book group reading Moby Dick (previous book, War & Peace), hosts a monthly movie group, sees one to two movies a week, participates in two other book clubs and actually reads the books. Each week, she works three days, goes to a collage studio twice, rehearses for chorus three hours, does jazzercise and modern dance once each, participates in a play-writing workshop and writes plays. The friend says, I’d get more done if I didn’t watch so much TV. When the woman listens to her friend, she wants to cry.
Once, the woman practiced piano two or three hours a day, read several novels a week, did homework and chores, spent long hours in the confessional listing imagined sins, talked on the phone for hours and managed the basics. Now she only manages the basics: daily – brush teeth, shower, mop down shower walls, meditate (five minutes), make lunch and occasionally dinner, and walk thirty minutes; weekly – rehearse music three hours, unwrap a bar of soap when the old one disintegrates, shave legs; rarely – open a new tube of toothpaste, see a movie quarterly, and host a party yearly.
One of her brothers is worse. Although his company’s work day is nine to five, because he’s an insomniac, he works from one to ten p.m., goes to the gym twice a week, farmers market once a week, the chiropractor when needed, and watches America’s Got Talent on the internet when he can’t sleep. He can’t unpack the boxes in his house where he has lived for three years. When she sees what he does, she realizes how much she does. It should make her feel better but it doesn’t. It makes her feel worse because she worries about him.
What she’d like to do, if she weren’t comparing herself to her productive friend, is read and straighten up the house. But the time management people say that, as you decide how to spend your time, you must consider how you will feel at the end of your life. Do you want to have lived a wasted life? That method of calculation helped when she had a power-hungry boss. She walked to the ocean every night and said, “Will I feel better at the end of my life if I stay and try to help and make her sane?” She pictured herself in a hospital bed looking back on her life. It took three months, but eventually she answered “no” and quit that job.
Today, when she cleans the kitchen counter, she thinks that at the end of her life she might wish she’d cleaned less, but right now she feels pleasure in running her palm over the clean counter, in not smelling stale watermelon on tile, in being startled by a gleam of sun on a beige surface, in the lightness in her mind reflecting the expanse of clean, uncluttered space.
Time Doesn’t Come When You Call
My friend, the poet Beth Margo Earley, cast forth a stream of unsettling and excruciatingly truthful poems in the last few months of her life as she dealt with death, fast approaching and untimely. Not denying, out of time, Beth reminds us that even when time is called, it will not come. She believed our riparian minds cannot prevent time from running only one way, though mentally we may still try to swim upstream.
Time doesn’t come when you call.
Willits, California, 1989)
At 86, still counting and still stupidly calling time, I stopped long enough to do another junk-sculpture-conglomeration using various bits of cast out gorgeous stuff. “Repurposing,” my neighbor Gale calls it. Every time I look at this mirror faced Thing I am reminded time will not come if I call, nor will it wait. Take it or Leave it!
Large dangling earrings, rusted
Busted alarm clock, out of time
The New Doors
Yes, her again! I cross into Johnsburg and she’s inside my head like a ghost with a pen.
I see things the way she saw them.
The paved roads melt away, and I hear her voice in the old pine
that once stood just over there, now long gone.Take, for instance, the new doors in the
old down-in-the-mouth mill town just five miles back.
There are new doors. I see her laugh at their incongruity.
The church that stood then where it stands now is a cartoon of its original presence.
Its tower tilts on half-rotted supports
and each side leans on a slightly different perspective to the landscape.
But the door is new.
The door is vinyl or metal and stands straight and
plumb against its horizon, an anachronism in its own piece of time.
And someone has pressed a long pole against its knob, thinking
to brace that old church against its nature.
Does it really hold still, inside – or outside – an elemental force?
If I pulled that pole away, would those four sides sway like a castle of unbalanced cards –
She said the door was always unlocked.
She said she reckoned – in its solitude – it would fall and become part of the soil.
Yet it stands.
Just down the street another new door stands alone, the only solid piece in the open
framework of an intended house.
A key dangles from the lock.
She would understand a key to a portal where there are no walls.
She recalled crazy old Francis
whose farm – just over there – mortgaged to the hilt, stood on less than an acre of land.
His portal was time.
He owned, he said, a piece of time.
He owned the years before he was born, he said.
– the flowers by the fence
– the ponds and the maples and the larger woods.
– he owned the Hudson, he said, – and all the
– white pine on Crane Mountain!
– he owned all that he saw and all he had never seen.
He owned, she said, his own piece of time.
He told her that his piece of time came in his dreams.
His piece of time – and hers –
– offered portals where there were no doors
– opened doors where there were no walls.
In an effort to bring the conversation to a close, I nodded quickly in what I hoped seemed like total agreement. You wanted to talk, and appeared to be unaware of the chores and obligations that were calling me, demanding my time and attention. The effort to find a balance between responsibility and respect was a frequent challenge for me.
I didn’t sit comfortably as you recalled your childhood memories of distant relatives even more distantly related to me. Those stories would be better received in the future, when my children no longer needed rides or help with their homework – when the kitchen floor was not a sticky mess, with Cheerios hidden in the corners.
Your stories were for the golden future when I would have much relaxed time to listen, to ask questions, to write down our histories – time to share who you were and had hoped to be.
I dropped everything to be with you when your medical crises began. I gave you my full, focused attention then. I took charge of your daily activities and put your life in order: safety first – talk later.
My life is different now. I have lots of time. The kitchen floor is clean – no forgotten Cheerios in corners. The children don’t live within driving distance, and their school assignments have been finished for years. They are busy with their families now.
I am ready now. So, who is that person in the faded photo? A great-great aunt or a neighbor? Is there a picture of your mom when she was young? What was she like?
I’m ready now, but you’re not here. You’ve been gone for quite a while, taking the answers to unasked questions of the past, and I’m sorry I didn’t give you the gift of listening.
I wish I had recognized the importance of time when we had it. I wonder if I can share what I’ve learned with my children and grandchildren, or if I will see that quick anxious nod when I start to tell my story.
My Mother, in the Nursing Home
Something happened during those eight years my mother spent in locked dementia units, first in assisted living, then in a nursing home.
Years and years of my mother’s silence.
She and I carried the secrets of our shared past; my mother brought them with her into dementia. Bitter words that stung. I held them in my head like a talisman. Words I refused to let go of, selfish, lazy, ungrateful. I held them against her.
Eight years of my mother’s silent lips. My mother’s voice gone, her thoughts locked inside the tangles of her diseased mind. Dementia had swallowed her tongue.
During those years of illness people would ask, How is your mother?
I wanted to laugh but it would have been obscene. The raspy breath of the dying. My mother is dying! The sound of death …
That’s what my mother sounds like. She sounds like the dead. This is what I wanted to say to people who asked. Except you can’t say that.
I used go to see her and stand in the thunderous silence. It felt like a slap in the face.
I tried to fill the emptiness with chatter. Grandsons, graduations, weddings. Your oldest grandson is getting married! All of life going on without her. Celebrations she could not join.
She greeted my words with her silence. And I hated it.
And then at the very end, in hospice: the thing that had been happening inside me for eight years became clear. I understood, finally, there would not be, there would never be, words between us. There were only my words. I wanted her to rest peacefully. I wanted my words to be meaningful and loving.
So I told her she would be an angel. I told her she would go to a place where she would be with those she loved and missed. My father. Her brother, my uncle Julius.
I told her I was sorry we’d never had a chance to talk about who we were to each other. I told her I was sorry for anything I’d ever done to add to the bitterness between us, my rejection and withdrawal.
I believe she heard me. I heard me. The air heard me. The room was quiet. Still and peaceful as dawn.
My mother’s final gift to me. The gift of a silence that allowed me to be at peace.
desert in Libya where there were no clocks, no calendars, no time keepers, only
the stars overhead and an endless sun in the daytime.
old she was when she died though I know she was beautiful. She hennaed her hair
and wore silver bracelets.
matter to me. I only think about the phases of the moon and how bright the stars
are when I emerge from my tent.
To My Daughter,
On Her Way to the Opposite Side of the World
where I wait