Setting the table for breakfast, when I tipped the plates the sunlight shining through the big window bounced reflections onto the walls and ceiling. Porridge was still cooking while Kay finished dressing and tidying up.
Eventually the minute-minder on the kitchen stove sounded off with its dull, rattly bing! … bing! … bing! … My call, “Serving the porridge!” reached Kay in the bathroom and she shouted back, “Okay! Coming!”
Tucking in a last stray curl at the back of her neck, my wonderful wife appeared, wearing her rose-colored slacks and a favorite green, rose and white blouse. She has kept her figure remarkably well through the years. When she pulled her chair up to the opposite side of the table, the reflections on the walls jiggled a little. So did my heart. I love that dear woman.
When I had thanked the Lord for the food and the promising new day, I added my thanks that Kay and I were still alive and together in love. Then the porridge.
“What’s on for today?” I asked, as the toast popped.
“Nothing particularly involving you,” she said. “I have to do up those pears I brought in yesterday morning. Maybe I’ll need you to tighten the jar rings. But you can get at your writing or whatever you’re doing in the study. When you need a break though, you might pick the plums. I really think you should set a minute-minder to go off at least every hour. It would remind you to get up from your chair. Exercise would get your circulation going and clear your head. Besides,” she added, “the plums might get picked sooner!”
I deftly changed the subject. “Speaking of minute-minders, this morning it occurred to me that, although both clocks and minute-minders register the passing of time, they do it in opposite senses. A clock will tell you how many minutes have passed since you put your cake in the oven. After the cake has come out of the oven the clock keeps right on ticking. A minute-minder, however, will tell you only how many minutes are left before the cake should be taken out. When it goes bing! … bing! its mechanism comes to a full stop.”
“So …” she inquired, “why did the difference between clocks and minute-minders catch your interest?”
“Waiting for the porridge to cook, I was thinking about how deeply Mina’s funeral had affected me. The minute-minder eventually went off telling me that the time for cooking porridge was over. Time to take the porridge off the stove. It occurred to me then that the people at the cemetery who said that Mina’s time had come – bing! … bing! and she was gone – considered that time runs like a minute-minder, always heading toward a dead stop.
“I can imagine that some retirees and people in mid-life may be saying to themselves in the back of their minds, ‘Time is running out on me like the sand in an hourglass. I’ve only got a few years left.’ Even during some glad celebration, such people may find themselves thinking, ‘Soon these good times are going to end for me.’ I’m sorry for people who live in chronic fear of time’s final bing! … bing! Their happiness will probably have ended long before their doomsday strikes.”
“Well, my clock is still ticking away. Lots of things around here need to get done,” Kay chuckled. “Like picking plums, for instance. Anyway, after hearing those time-haunted stories you were telling Marie and me yesterday afternoon, I’m glad you’re thinking more positively this morning.”
“Ah yes… Marie,” I said reflectively. “Off and on all night I found myself thinking about her saying that I should have kept a diary through the years. A written record of how my ideas about time developed would certainly have been interesting to me now, and maybe helpful in my writing.”
“That ‘diary’ idea does have possibilities,” Kay said seriously. “When you were young, why didn’t you keep a diary?”
I grinned. “Maybe I’m like that poor guy, Tristram Shandy, who set out to write his autobiography. Unfortunately he suffered from total recall. He remembered too much about too much. He found that it would take him longer than a day to write up in detail all that had happened the day before. He kept getting farther and farther behind with his chronicle. Living memorably and recording it at the same time were just impossible. In despair he finally gave up.”
“Yeah, well…” she half-smiled. “Maybe you were just too lazy. Perhaps you thought that only girls wrote diaries. Maybe you wouldn’t have wanted your parents to read what you had been thinking. I’ll bet you’d have almost died if a diary of yours had somehow fallen into the hands of other kids.”
“You’re probably right,” I conceded. “But what I might have written when I was a lad wouldn’t likely be of much use to me now. I’ve always had an interest in many things, not just in time. Anyway in those days I wouldn’t have known whether or not any particular idea or incident would eventually have relevance to some far-off future inquiry of mine.”
Kay wasn’t quite satisfied. “If you never had any intention to keep a diary, what kept your mind on diaries during the night?”
“Let me run this past you,” I proposed. “A happening significant enough to be written into a diary is supposed to be recorded on the very day in which it took place. What if I were too tired or too busy to write anything down before the end of that day? Would it be cheating if I recorded that day’s significant happenings on the following day? What if I delayed writing for several more days? Would it still be a diary if I waited a full year before I got around to writing out an account of certain events? Or only after many more years had passed? Like now, for instance?”
Kay gave little snort and wagged her head. “Oh you! That’s an ingenious argument, but what are you getting at?”
“Well, I’ve been thinking that, although the years have left my childhood experiences far behind, maybe I could try to set up at least part of my reflections on time like a personal diary. The details of those long-gone days might not be quite accurate, of course, and the dates would be only plausible guesses. But would that make much difference to the general ideas involved? What do you think?”
My wife nodded half-approvingly. “I suppose that adopting a diary format could at least get you started on your writing. The day-after-day feel of a diary with dated entries would certainly drench your script with reminders of time’s passing.”
“Right!” I agreed. “Writing my childhood diary as an adult actually has certain advantages. Years of experience have given me a more focused perspective for selecting what I should include. Also, along with the various entries I can now insert my mature comments – comments that would have never occurred to me as a child.”
“Do you really think you can remember enough out of your childhood years to make a diary format realistic?”
Suddenly I fell silent. The sun was no longer shining on the table. The jiggling reflections on the walls were gone. My eyes were staring but not seeing. My head drooped. Turbulent feelings of uncertain origin were welling up from somewhere deep inside me.
Turning to look out the window behind me I muttered, “Maybe so, maybe not.”
“Something wrong?” Kay broke the tense silence. “Honey, are you all right?”
I mumbled, “Sure. I’m okay I guess.” Then, hesitating a little, I ventured, “I’m kind of ashamed to tell you what just came over me.”
Kay waited quietly. I knew I had to explain.
“Yesterday, remember, I told you and Marie that when I was a child I felt that Time was always lurking somewhere, stealthily stalking me. I thought I had kicked that feeling years and years ago, yet for a moment there just now, it surged up in me all over again. I’m not really sure why.”
“Why don’t you just talk?” she urged. “Maybe you’ll get to the source of it. We were saying how hard it is to remember details from the past.”
I slapped the table, barely missing the knife on the rim of my plate. “A-a-ah! I think I know what triggered my feeling. It wasn’t about trying to remember time-relevant incidents from days gone by. My mind suddenly switched from remembering to what I can never remember. I can’t remember all sorts of things because I’ve never been able to experience them.”
“I don’t follow you. Why should not remembering something revive your old feeling that you were being haunted by Time?” Kay looked puzzled.
“Let’s see,” I said, groping for a way to start making sense. “If we didn’t have any memory we wouldn’t know anything whatsoever about days and experiences that have come and gone. Without memory we couldn’t compare today with any yesterdays. We couldn’t recall anything from the long succession of episodes that have made up our lives. We wouldn’t be able to talk about anything we had ever experienced because we couldn’t remember having experienced it.
“In fact, without memory we couldn’t connect meanings with words, so we couldn’t talk sensibly about anything at all. Every experience would seem to be first-time and brand new. You and I couldn’t recall having seen each other before. We couldn’t recognize anyone as our friend. No matter how intimate, intriguing or delightful our previous encounters had been, without memory our whole life together would vanish without leaving a trace. If we couldn’t remember anything of the past, we’d always be inhabiting some meaningless present experience. We’d have absolutely no sense of the passing of time.”
“Wow! That is scary! Never again will I take memory for granted,” Kay exclaimed. “But weren’t you going to say something about what you could never get to know?”
I continued. “At any moment anywhere anytime, any situation is very complex. You can’t possibly see and remember absolutely everything that is right there in front of you. Just take a look now at that apple over on the buffet.”
She looked briefly at the Gravenstein, then turned back.
“What did you see?” I asked.
“The apple on the buffet, of course.”
“Did you notice how many red stripes it has on its green skin?”
“No. And I didn’t count the number of green stripes on its red skin either!” Kay countered puckishly. She knows me well.
Ignoring her clever switcheroo, I continued. “On its shiny skin did you notice the highlight made by the light from the window? No. Water is evaporating from the apple but you couldn’t detect it. Nor could you see inside its skin – its carpels and seeds, the cells with their nuclei, vacuoles, molecules and atoms. The heavy fruit is pressing down on the buffet, but you couldn’t see the apple’s flattened skin underneath. Did you notice the apple’s colored reflection on the surface of the buffet? And what about its shadow stretching out behind, away from the light?”
“No,” she said dryly. “You didn’t ask me to pay attention to all that. Anyway it would have taken too long.”
“That’s the point exactly. In a brief glance or even a lengthy study of anything you will inevitably miss a great deal of possible information. Think how much you miss every day as you whoosh through life. You will never, never have enough time to observe absolutely everything about anything around you.”
“Agreed,” she nodded, and waited for me to make some further point.
“Okay. Now I think I can explain what made me shudder a few minutes ago. We generally see only what we happen to be interested in or what our eye happens to spot at a certain moment. Unless Time permits further examination, everything else in and around whatever caught our eye will be not only absent from our perception but forever missing from our memory. Glancing here and there, as we ordinarily do, we generally snatch at best only a scanty scatteration of miscellaneous impressions from the scene before us. All we could possibly remember from a certain experience will be those few impressions. We will have lost out forever on a great deal more that was actually there.
“We are robbed like that because Time, my ever-haunting villain, will never let us get to know the whole of what is really going on anywhere. While I am paying attention to ‘this’, I can’t at the same time be looking at ‘that.’ Time forbids it. When I am using a certain set of muscles or nerves to do or think one thing, I can’t use those same muscles or nerves to do anything else. Time won’t allow it. I can’t speak two different words simultaneously. One of them will have to wait its turn to get said. Like it or not, Time is always in charge.
“Now can you begin to understand, dear, why I was momentarily overcome by my old feeling about Time? Whenever I want to focus my attention on some small thing, Time immediately throws its dark cloak over everything else everywhere. Unless Time allows me to expand my field of attention, everything which I wasn’t able to observe will be automatically excluded forever from my memories. Time’s mysterious fog even blurs the edges of what I do manage to remember. Time lets me gain only mere vignettes of the whole truth about anything.
“No matter how dearly we’d like to get to know everything about everything, we’re not allowed to grasp the complete whole of reality. Time prevents us from taking in everything that is presently happening. It effectively blocks off all possibility of us ever getting to know the world fully. Right now interesting and important events are happening elsewhere, but you and I will never experience them. At this moment hundreds of possibly-valuable radio and TV programs are zipping through this room. Even if we had one of them turned on, we would be missing out on all the others. We’ll never be able to remember them because Time has forbidden it.”
Kay joined in. “I get what you’re saying. Because we took the great trips we took, we had to skip other travels and adventures. Pictures which would have had special significance for us never got taken and never will be. Words that could have been spoken will never be said. It’s too late now to take advantage of blown opportunities.”
“You’ve got it!” I exclaimed appreciatively. “I guess I resent the way Time chains us for now to where and when we happen to be. While we are sitting here at our breakfast table we can’t be breakfasting in Arizona or Switzerland. We can be in only one place at any one particular time. It’s possible to move from one place to another, but we can’t escape from the momentary now which Time assigns to us. Because of this tyranny of Time, Kay, we are missing out on nearly all of contemporary history. We can never have any first-hand memories of lots of world-class events. Time holds all the tickets to all the shows. Only one ticket is doled out at a time, and each is for only a certain place in the house.”
Kay was looking at me quizzically. “I never thought of time like this before. It’s true, sometimes I’m sorry about what I didn’t get done, or how I might have made better use of my time. But being stuck with when and where I am doesn’t make me shudder like it did you.”
“You’ve never been terrified of Time like I was. Besides, when a new idea appears in my mind, implications quickly shoot off in a dozen different directions. Having realized that Time limits the range of my memories, right away I saw that Time sets bounds for all human knowing. Immediately the sinister figure of Time, the one which had lurked in my imagination as a child, suddenly revived and inflated into a looming reality of cosmic proportion. Enormously powerful, the irresistible might of Time can block all sorts of possible developments everywhere. We are at the mercy of Time. For me, being overpowered and dominated by something I don’t understand is really scary. That’s why I shuddered.”
Kay looked at me soberly. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but I just can’t imagine how you were feeling in the grip of that vision. You must be terribly disappointed to find yourself married to a woman who lives on a different wavelength.”
“You don’t hear me complaining,” I quickly replied. “I can’t really expect you to know me through and through. Occasionally I learn new things about you too. But don’t worry, honey. We’re in this together for the duration.”
“That’s mutual,” she said warmly, and continued, “I suppose that our life together wouldn’t have been so interesting if we had always thought and felt alike. Apparently you have a great desire to know everything about everything. I’m different. I’m really quite content to know just what I need to know in order to handle our ordinary lives satisfactorily. I can’t do anything much about what is going on outside my bailiwick. I rely on specialists to pry into the world’s unexplored crannies. Jack’s friend, Michael Coventree, spends long nights at the observatory studying stars and whatever else is out there in space. If I wanted to learn about quasars and galaxies, for example, I’m sure he’d be willing to share with me what he knows. I don’t need to have a telescope of my own. Do you see what I mean?”
“But surely,” I countered, “you can think of times when not knowing the whole picture is worrisome for you – or even downright scary. If some of our guests didn’t show up for supper, wouldn’t you wonder and worry about what might have happened to them? Illness? A heart attack? Car trouble? An accident? Did we somehow offend them? Don’t they care about us anymore? Sometime later you will likely find out what actually happened. But for the time being, while you just don’t know, wouldn’t you really wish that you did?
“Or the telephone rings in the middle of the night. Don’t you tremble a little? A family emergency? A friend urgently needs help? An obscene call? Will you be able to relax until you have answered the phone? Won’t you be relieved if you find it was only a wrong number? I’m sure that Time will keep you in a state of alarm until you find out what’s up. When Time prevents us from finding out things we’d love to know about, nagging doubt is sure to destroy our peace of mind.”
“Okay! Okay!” She sounded convinced. “You’re right, of course. But look, it’s after nine o’clock! I have to do those pears today. You go on to your study and rake through your murky past for relevant memories. See if writing some of them down can deepen your understanding of time.”
We rose from the table and kissed. I was glad that Time was permitting the two of us to be there together at that particular moment. How otherwise could we have kissed? Reluctantly I let go her hands.
Kay and I will continue to coexist as contemporaries as long as her time and my time keep in step. For today anyway, “Good old Time!”