Chapter 3. Once Upon A Time

A diary is supposed to be a kind of historical chronicle describing personally significant events which happened during the day just passed.

However, merely describing what occurred on a certain occasion doesn’t really say much in depth about time. Time is far more than the day-by-day experiences of a single person. All sorts of notable events may be taking place elsewhere at the same time something special is happening wherever I may be. Besides, whether or not anything worth writing about has been happening in my vicinity, time keeps right on keeping on anyway.

It seems to me that keeping a diary is a complex matter – an idea that is seldom unpacked.

Setting down experienced events in the order in which they occurred, however, does reveal something essential about time: things in the world do keep changing in many ways with time. When we first pay attention to something – say, a large vacant lot in a subdivision – we see that it has a particular appearance which distinguishes it from other lots – say, a nice slope up to the base of a hill. Later on we may notice that excavating has begun there, and building materials are being delivered. When construction has proceeded, it becomes obvious that the architect is trying to make use of the slope up the hill. The drab basic structure of the house having been completed, its walls are faced with decorative stone. A nice U-shaped driveway and professional landscaping present an inviting approach to the property. A family moves into their fine new house. During the next year a high-rise tower is erected on top of the hill up behind, and the lovely house below it is dwarfed and overshadowed.

An amazing number of changes can happen in any portion of space. Everywhere things may be changing in size, orientation, structure, appearance, linkages, combinations and environment.

The number of possible combinations of changeable things and activities that could theoretically crop up in this world at any given moment is inestimable. If all of those possible changes were to happen at once at the same place, the changes could cancel each other out and nothing at all with any definite significance could be seen to have happened. However, thanks to the orderly succession of time, moment following moment, scene after scene, the world never turns into that kind of chaotic mish-mash.

Wherever you choose to look, events always come about one after another in an orderly “first this and then that” sort of way with a “before” and an “after,” an “earlier” and a “later.” Time’s scene-changing keeps heading ever in a single direction – toward configurations of things that never occurred in exactly that way ever before.

A diary reflects the orderly succession of periods of time and their straightforward direction in coming and going. Each recorded event is pinned to its place in the orderly historical succession by a date which is assigned to it – a certain day of a certain month of a certain year. A nurse in a hospital will even record on a patient’s chart at what time of day a prescribed medication was administered.

No one knows who started the practice of naming years by consecutive numbers. Day and night have always alternated regularly. The phases of the moon and the order of the seasons have always repeated regularly. In order to say how long ago some event happened, anyone who could count would naturally be inclined to tell how many repetitions of daylight and dark, moons or seasons had happened since that event. The numbering system being commonly understood, it would have been easy to adopt the practice of assigning numbers to years, as well as to portions of years and days.

But when numbering is used to name the successive years, where should the numbering begin? When did Year One commence? To locate subsequent events in the long universal history of time, year numbering should perhaps start from a Year Zero – the moment time began. But that wouldn’t work, because nobody knows for sure how long ago time began or even whether time ever had a beginning.

To mark a beginning for their year numbering, societies therefore have usually designated by name the occurrence of some event which had high significance in their culture. That event might be the beginning of a monarch’s reign, a terrible disaster, a remarkable deliverance or the birth of a Savior. The dating system which a society uses thus indicates that at some time in history it attached an extra-special value and significance to a certain historical event.

That starting point for year numbering having been established, it could be used as well to divide the procession of the years into “those before” and “those after” it. Each preceding or following year could thus be assigned its own number in the succession of years.

A dating system also reveals that at some time a society realized that dividing the whole sweep of time into numbered “chunks,” both lengthy and brief, would be socially advantageous. Then the order of events could easily be recounted and recorded for judges and rulers. Specifiable time divisions would enable people to arrange their affairs so that they could meet together at specific times.

The invention of a dating system thus also implies that long ago people had come to understand how important timing was for their lives in community. They made full use of the recurrence of constellations in the celestial zodiac, phases of the moon as well as sunrise and sunset. To organize life according to the time of day, however, each person had to have access to some kind of time-measuring “clock.” Many ingenious time-indicating devices were developed. They exploited processes which either happened at regular intervals or proceeded so steadily that they could be divided into numbered portions.

The practice of numbering time intervals eventually runs into difficulties. If things that happen very quickly are to be measured, an exceedingly small unit of duration must be devised. How precisely can time be divided into such minuscule units? What is an instant or a moment? Is an instant a period of time at all, or is it merely an attempt to put a marker on the process of time? Does a moment have a specific length of duration? Can a moment be further divided? Is there a smallest precise unit of time, one that cannot be further divided? Time in the large is baffling enough, but so also is time in the small.

Without time there would be no moving. But motion is not the same thing as time. Like the speed of cars, many kinds of motion may be speeded up or slowed down. We tend to believe however that time always goes at the same even pace, even though sometimes it doesn’t seem so. Large-scale movements over a distance may be visible and divisible, but time cannot be seen, let alone strung out in a way that can be divided. The circumference of a working clock’s face can be divided with markings which indicate hours, minutes and seconds. No one however can put a mark on time. Moreover, the existence of every marking instrument itself depends on time.

A steady movement can be divided into units, which can then be compared with units of some standard rate of movement to arrive at a “measurement.” Thus divisions of the movement of a clock’s hands can be correlated with units of the daily rotation of the earth. In turn units on a clock can be used to describe the comparative speeds of runners and moving objects. But if time in itself is utterly unique and is not physical motion, to what can it be compared? How then can time be truly measured? Hmmm!

My dating game

If I intend to chronicle “Time in My Life,” where shall I start? When people who teach students about creative writing are asked where to begin their story, they are likely to advise the prospective writers to “begin at the beginning.” But in lining up episodes from my lengthy life, that advice doesn’t help me very much.

Where shall I locate the commencement of my life? At my birth? At my conception? I have no recollection of either of those events. Nevertheless they are of vital importance to my story.

Perhaps I should start with my parents. They had to meet and get together in a special way. But my parents also had parents who had parents, and so on, back to the beginning of the genus Homo. Should I reach back in thought beyond the first humans to the beginning of life upon Earth? To the formation of this planet and the solar system? To the origination of the universe? Should I start my time-diary at the beginning of time itself? Or maybe even before that?

Nobody really knows for sure how or when any of those most ancient beginnings came about. Everyone nevertheless knows of stories which purport to give an account of those beginnings. Even scientists have their favored speculative hypotheses. Whatever may be the beliefs or conjectures asserted in such beginning-stories, I know for sure that time is inextricably involved with each and every beginning.

What do I mean when I call a certain event a “beginning”? Put it this way: at a certain time some sequence of previous states of affairs came to an end and a distinctively different arrangement of things then came about and continued like that for a while. With time perpetually at work, the face of the universe keeps taking on a different aspect from moment to moment. Some particular change, however, may seem especially notable in that it drastically altered the character, significance and direction of a person’s life, or the course of certain other important events. To call something a beginning is to make a value judgment, to single out some event as being of special importance, one that made a highly significant difference to the story which follows it.

For aeons the universe had been getting along quite well without me. But when I quietly took shape in its midst and eventually burst into the scene with a loud cry, my first-time appearance certainly changed things, not only for me but for my parents and for a considerable number of other people. My continuing presence has done so ever since. Let my conception and birth then be arbitrarily chosen as the beginning of my “Time-Diary.”

Excerpts From The Untimely-Written Time-Diary Of John A. Ross

March 14, 1919

Tonight at the supper table my mother announced to my father that they would be having a baby. I was unable to decipher his reactions.

My father’s people had emigrated from northern Ireland to Upper Canada (Ontario). They settled not far from the “Scotch Settlement,” where my great-grandmother’s folks had obtained land. The latter were immigrants from Scotland who had come to Lord Selkirk’s ill-fated Red River colony near present-day Winnipeg. Nor’wester fur traders “evacuated” them by canoe down the Great Lakes, leaving them off at York (Toronto). In order to reach the land which had been promised to them, those woebegone people had to make their way north through the terrible swamp and marsh around the Holland River southwest of Lake Simcoe. Years later one of their female descendants came to teach school near a farm which belonged to one of the male descendants of those above-mentioned settlers from Ireland. That farmer eventually became my father. If he had not persuaded that young schoolteacher to marry him, no heartthrobs anywhere would have punched my ticket for life in this world.

A hundred years earlier my coming into existence would have been highly improbable and certainly unpredictable. The distances and routes that had to be traveled by each party of my forebears were formidable. The decisions that had to be made were extremely complex. Who could assess the risks to be taken? The hardships to be endured? The emotions involved? If my parents had never met or hadn’t “clicked;” if that one specific sperm cell had not made its way to that one particular egg cell and had not been welcomed there at that particular time – NO ME! On that auspicious occasion, if a different pair of cells had joined their forces and DNA, would I have been somebody else, or…?

Before I could be here at this moment writing these words, a marvelous multitude of events had to happen in just the way they did. So many moves of so many beings had to occur at just the right times and in the right places. Although originally I feared that Time had sinister intentions toward me, I have to admit that I admire Time’s success in coordinating so many seemingly unrelated events to produce me!

But then again, Time would not have been able to haunt me if it had not brought about the circumstances which produced me.

October 17, 1919

I was born at home today around 5:15 a.m. I can’t remember making my entrance into this cold world or breathing air for the first time. I am sure though that I was not enthusiastic about having my mother’s comforting heartbeat replaced by the ticking of the gilded, cast-iron clock on her dresser. The midwife disconnected my cord and bathed me with warm water in my mother’s big bread-mixing pan. I cried about the radical change in my environment until I found something warm and soft in my mouth.

Now I’ll fast-forward through my preschool years … past my having a defective heart … past the death of my dear Aunt Mina … past being confined to bed so often for so long. Those scenes reveal more about my feelings than they do about the nature of time.

March 27, 1926

Not much of winter’s snow left now, except two dirty heaps along the front walk. A big V of honking geese flew overhead this morning, probably heading for the lake.

At breakfast Dad said that, now spring is here, sap would likely be starting to flow in the maple trees along the road. Before lunch he bored a hole into each tree trunk and tapped a spigot into the hole. From each spigot he hung a honey pail. Soon maple sap started dripping into the pails. The sap was clear, like water. It tasted mildly sweet, but it wasn’t much like maple syrup.

Late this afternoon we brought the pails of sap indoors to Mother. She poured it all into her big blue enamel kettle. It’s still boiling on the wood stove in the kitchen. Everything is damp and steamy there. Mother says that the amount of maple syrup we will get isn’t worth the wood and the time it takes to boil down the sap. Anyway, I hope there will be enough for pancakes tomorrow.

From time immemorial the human race has relied on the positions of the stars by night and the sun by day to foretell the coming and going of seasons. The celestial bodies have always served notice that appropriate preparations for an approaching season should be begun. Plowing, cultivating, planting, harvesting, storing food and fuel – all are prescribed by the heavens. This important knowledge is passed down from generation to generation and is revived each year in seasonal festivals.

In olden times people’s attention may have been drawn to a certain post and the shadow it cast upon the ground when the sun shone. As the sun moved across the sky from east to west, they would observe how the shadow moved from west to east. As winter approached and the sun moved southward, the shadow of the post lengthened accordingly northward. As spring was coming on, the sun moved northward again, so the curved path of that post-tip’s shadow moved back closer toward the post. As that shadow changed through the year, its position on any particularly significant occasion could be marked out permanently for future reference. Each year those markings would indicate the right time to plant seeds, to look for nuts or to remember some special event. Each year, without even looking at the sun or the stars, the shadow-paths could provide a calendar which alerted people to prepare appropriately for important upcoming activities.

That primitive device was able to translate the timing of the celestial cycles into helpful information. Many peoples have worshiped the sun, their guiding light.

Later more sophisticated sundials, clocks and calendars were invented to help people with their schedules. But migrating geese and maple trees don’t possess such devices. In a bird’s very first year of life, when the shadows of sticks and rocks move northward or southward, do the lengths of those shadows tell a bird that it is now time to start moving southward or northward? How do eyeless saplings know that it’s the right time to start moving sap up or down?

May 23, 1927

When Jim and I were walking to school this morning we found a small blue-green eggshell in the grass by the sidewalk. It must have been kicked out of a robin’s nest somewhere up in the tree. Such a pretty color. Like a jewel it was.

Jim thinks we should collect bird’s eggs and see which of us could collect the most kinds of eggs. I told him the eggs would only go rotten, but he said he knew how to blow out the insides of eggs. He makes holes in their ends and pokes in a blowing straw to break up the yolk.

After school today I lined the twelve pockets of an egg carton with cotton batting. Now I have a jewel casket for my collection of bird’s eggs.

June 11, 1927

I now have three white eggs: a flicker’s egg from the old dead tree stub down at the swamp, a kingfisher’s egg and a sand swallow’s egg from the high banks along Warrington Creek. Another three are greenish blue with brown speckles or blotches: a chipping sparrow’s egg from the lilac bush over at Jim’s; a song sparrow’s egg from a clump of dead grass in Doners’ raspberry patch and a crow’s egg from Pine Grove. Up high in that tree I was really scared when the crows came at me diving and cursing. Yesterday in Hendersons’ pasture I found a brown-spotted cowbird egg in the same nest with the smaller eggs of a meadow lark. My buff-spotted killdeer egg came from along the railway track.

Today when I was going to blow the goop out of a robin’s egg, I ran into trouble. Poking the straw into the egg, I hit something sort of solid – not the usual soft yolk. There are lots of robin’s nests with eggs around here, so I broke that odd egg open and found … a baby bird! I felt awful. I had killed a helpless little bird.

I realize now that bird’s eggs are not just there for guys to collect. Mother explained to me that a hen’s egg is much more than a white and yellow splat in a frying pan. Any egg is a bird’s way of making another bird. Although eggs in a nest may lie as still as boiled eggs in a bowl, they are really alive. For days and days while the mother or father bird snuggles down over those eggs, nothing seems to be happening. The eggs keep looking just the same on the outside but, during that time, inside their shells little bird-bodies are growing heads and wings and legs and feathers. A bird’s egg is kind of a miracle – new life in the making.

So my egg-collecting days are over. Never again! The three empty pockets in my “jewel casket” will never be filled. Jim can win our competition if he wants to. But count me out.

I have never forgotten my inadvertent bird-killing, nor have I forgotten another lesson: when nothing seems to be happening, I shouldn’t automatically assume that nothing is actually happening.

At a busy intersection, when I’m waiting for the red light to change and tapping my fingers on the steering wheel, I sometimes have to tell myself that, hidden in a box somewhere nearby, a timing-clock is even now preparing to switch the traffic light to green.

When a municipal crew is making a sidewalk, they pour and smooth the muddy concrete within forms. Then for several days they leave it alone. During that time, although nothing seems to be happening, an invisible molecular process is crystallizing the mud into a rigid structure which people can walk on without leaving their footprints.

Even without entering a vehicle or walking anywhere I am actually traveling at more than a thousand miles an hour, whirling around with the Earth. Add to that the incredible speed at which Earth is orbiting the sun and – wow! – I’m really moving! Yet sitting here quietly with my eyes closed, I can’t detect the slightest movement. If gravity ever failed, however, I would undoubtedly fly off into space. Then I’d know for sure that I had actually been moving when I was “sitting still”!

Though I cannot sense directly that my location in space is always changing, I do know that time is always changing me. My heart and lungs keep pumping away. My blood and juices are circulating. Electrochemical impulses are traveling up and down my nerves. Within each cell of my body there is a maelstrom of activity. Minuscule strands of living stuff are snaking and gliding in streaming currents of protoplasm. In some cells chromosomes are performing a stately dance.

If these kinds of things were not happening, I would not be writing these words. Yet, despite all the changes that time is making in my body, my experience and my surroundings, I keep on feeling that I am always somehow the same old me? Amazing!

Scientists have demonstrated that things which I ordinarily call “solid” are actually in ceaseless motion. Watching a stone ever so carefully, it seems to be utterly motionless. But that is not so. The solidest rock is made up of myriads of vibrating molecules. These are composed of atoms which have spinning protons and orbiting electrons. Rock crystals are resonating with electromagnetic waves which are passing through. All of these obscure movements acquire their activity from time. When nothing seems to be happening on visible levels, time is nevertheless not only sustaining things in existence but ceaselessly changing them.

Is Time then an unconscionable deceiver, showing us one thing while secretly doing another? Or is Time like a skillful magician: deliberately distracting us with obvious movements while furtively changing other things faster than our eyes can follow? Are we humans just too insensitive and dull to discern the quiet working of Time? Instead of accusing Time of misleading me, I suppose I should be profoundly grateful to Time for having given me at least an intriguing glimpse into things paradoxical and mysterious. If Time is really a deft and adroit magician, I should at least enjoy the show.