Time flows like a rain-swollen river, carrying the detritus of hopes, dreams, regrets, certainties and uncertainties, works and lives, all history out to a perhaps, an I guess so, a big maybe made up of innumerable snaking tributaries, a vast, unreachable delta which we can only imagine and invent. It courses by and through all that is, its relentless, continual movement indifferent to us, even though we are its architects and keepers. We made time, we gave it power. And then we imagine that it’s going somewhere, taking us. We’ve bought in, fully, and now it’s bearing us onward, toward something else, more, better, some remote conclusion that only patience and steadfastness will reveal, believing we’ll be better for it and better then.
It’s hard to stay afloat, and, to tell the truth, I don’t really see the point. Sink or swim, as they say—either way you’re giving in to the current. Well what if I’d like to climb out? What if I climb up onto the bank and let it all flow by, just watch? What will I be then and what would that mean? What if I just walk away, leave time to do its thing while I go do mine, declining to participate in this game any further?
Because it doesn’t end. Because there’s a whole world out there, out beyond this rush and tumult of busy-ness, schedules, advancements, and productivity, and, swept along, I can’t help feeling I’m missing it, missing it all while I’m impatiently anticipating a whole lot of nothing, treading water, wearing down, all for the prospect of some great future reward I don’t believe in, or just something other than, maybe in addition to, this. Maybe the soil is richer and the grass along the banks is greener downstream, maybe it is. Maybe the flora and fauna are different, more majestic and beautiful, and maybe I’ll be different when I get there. But I’m tired of fooling myself into this all-or-nothing wager with maybe. Maybe shouldn’t hold so much sway.
Anyway it feels lazy to just go along like that, in spite of the effort it takes sometimes to keep from going under—is it that hard for everyone? It feels lazy because it’s common, expected, and accepted, so much so that time and its great bearing on lives come to seem real and normal. And not only real and normal but guiding, commanding, comprehensive in some unquestionable naturalness that we’d do well—and have done well, history is supposed to say—to accept. That’s strange. Strange because we dug that ravine in the first place and now it’s a deep gorge carved out by progress, by just being there, the water running faster and faster, more violently and blankly than ever because we stuck to our guns, sometimes quite literally.
It’s harder than ever to climb out, the more we accept that things move forward and not around, the more infrequently we stop to consider that maybe sometimes—or more than sometimes—they don’t move much at all. I know too many people—friends, relatives, acquaintances—who would tell me flat out that it’s a waste of time to think about that, that what I should be doing instead is swimming, focus on swimming. Because tic-toc, tic-toc, the world is ruthless, life is short, and you better find a way to get ahead.
Ahead of what? I think if I got out, stopped, and looked around, time wouldn’t matter, not nearly as much. I would stop my flailing and thrashing and it would be someone else’s word, not mine, ticked off by a tool as unfamiliar and curious as an astrolabe, an interesting, even beautiful and captivating peculiarity no longer having an immediate bearing on my perception, another quirk of human fear and ingenuity, worth considering but no longer in control.
I’ve done it before, I’ve scrambled up the bank and gotten out. But I never stayed for long, and I don’t really know why. Maybe I’m weak, maybe I think I don’t have what it takes, maybe part of me needs the pressure and restriction and expectation of time. Maybe, maybe, maybe. I swim a little, then get out and try to dry off, start to stray and then worry that I’m too dislocated and detached, and finally fall back in and swim some more, repeating the whole thing over and over. I know there’s more, I’ve touched it and it’s out there, beyond this swirling fray. But I think I’ve always been a little afraid to stop swimming and climb out for good.
It bothers me, this hesitancy, this oscillation between boldness and passivity. I’ve always dreamed of being on the outside, wished for what I like to imagine it must entail, for the freedom and otherworldly yet deeply present and connected carelessness, that comfortable disregard for petty things that I’ve long envied in those enigmatic characters I’ve seen standing there beyond the riverbanks and out toward the horizon, going about their lives with near-saintly indifference and even a refreshing disdain for the unimaginative and banal.
Out there is a different sense of things, different sights (or the same sights seen differently—is that not what it’s about?), a more expansive point of view, broad and panoramic, patient and disaffected. Time is just a concept, life is, and there’s room to know. Room for questions and wonder, something cosmic, raw, and open, all possible. Clarity, simplicity, expansiveness, and deep and enchanting mystery—that’s what’s there. Out there are the spark and flame, what were once tacitly and explicitly understood as the sustaining mysteries of poetics but now seem bygones, relics of visionary, mythic, myth-making, and magical minds that time has supposedly washed away and left behind. If that’s true then I want to go back, I want to see and know them firsthand, do something promethean. I can only do that if I get out.
Adam Zagajewski said the quotidian “is like the surface of a peaceful, low-lying river, where delicate currents and eddies are etched, auguring rushes and floods that may or may not come to pass. The mute lightning bolts in the sky don’t trouble us for now, they are omens of distant storms. But those storms will reach us one day. A notion of the quotidian that omits all possibility of heroism and saintliness—the shiver of tragedy still distant—is flat and monotonous.” That’s what I’m afraid of, and I feel like this struggle with time effectively denies this possibility, maybe even prevents it. And it’s made worse by the fact that nothing about the quotidian seems peaceful or delicate to me at all. That’s its great trick. But it is not the innocuous thing we take it to be, not ever, not even when those storms are far off.
It feels dangerous, threatening, toxic. I want to get it off of me. I feel infected by my contact with the stream of time and its conventional wayposts, its standard markers and assumptions of production and progression, outcome and accumulation. That stuff finds a way in, no matter how vigilant I am, and I can’t shake the sensation that the more I float along in these virulent waters, the sicker and weaker I become, metamorphosed into a defeated invalidity perfectly contrary to my dreams and perfectly aligned with my deepest fears of what I always hoped I’d never be. And that’s stuck, dull, and ordinary, watching (and punching) a clock and just going along in an absolute servility that will end only in death.
I’d like to do more than just survive until my body gives out and I can’t swim anymore. I’d like to crawl up onto the bank and lie back in the grass at the edge of one of the fields flanking this wild torrent and take a moment, my own moment, extended and serene, to notice what’s above and beyond time’s rushing, interminable waters. Dream, wake up, I think to myself—they’re not mutually exclusive; they correspond, in fact. They are the enlivening “mixture of impermanence and permanence, the blending of what vanishes and what remains,” Zagajewski said. But you have to stop to see this, remember that. Those waters flow under the pressure and pull of the principle that dreams are opposed to wakefulness. So get out, give yourself a chance to let things come together, a chance to see, do, and be, no matter how much “time” it takes. Because what’s really rushing by when you’re out there trying to stay afloat is not time at all. It’s life. You may not make it through to find you have none left, and nothing could ever be more wasteful.