My concept of time changes. As a young person, I worked at a nursing home with elderly people who were wards of the state with few relatives or friends. There, I learned that relationships help our minds stay fluid, alert, in tune with our surroundings, grounded in reality.
Later in life, I noticed that as we age we have more data: memories, knowledge, often negative and traumatic incidents. These experiences change how we react to people. We may reject some experiences to protect ourselves with prejudice based on things from the past. Or we may not forget things but have trouble accessing them because there is more information in our brains, just like data on our phones and computers.
At the University of Wisconsin, I took a course in geology. What I learned there has inspired me, helped me deal with overwhelming issues, and stayed with me in my careers and relationships. The concept of time in geology is one where events occur in a trifecta: boiling igneous lava; layers of sediment; metamorphosis caused by pressure, time, and water. All of these occur with the idea that the earth or bedrock, things we like to think of as solid, are fluid. In geologic time, our lives are inconsequential. Seeing my life as fluid — sometimes passionate and molten, sometimes with conceptual layers and lessons, other times molded by events pressed upon me — helps me appreciate life’s flow and my ride.
Time is there, swimming in the air as my life encounters hills and valleys, spiraling and tumbling and always out of my grasp. It provides little solace when I am hurting and lacks assurance when things are going well.
Time does what it wants. It never slows down and it never looks back. Time might be the opposite of what I am. I am deliberate and gradual, often cautious.
As someone who identifies as disabled, I value all the time I can get. However, I end up with very little. People with disabilities do things differently. Often this means needing more time to achieve what others can do with less. Whether it is applying for a job, planning a trip, or going out to a new restaurant, I am always planning and figuring out the best order in which to do things. When access is a necessity, being prepared is crucial and time is needed. Time will never be a friend to someone who is disabled.
As a Hmong woman, I also feel that time is not on my side. Culturally and generationally, I was taught to always be mindful of time. My mom makes it a point to be on time for everything and instilled in me the need to do the same thing. However, Hmong people are generally known for not being on time. We do not see time in the conventional sense that our American counterparts do, especially if it involves gathering for food.
Being a disabled Hmong woman causes conflicting perceptions of time for me. It can be exhausting. I cannot help but feel like time was meant for the privileged.
In my lived experience, ableism and racism have a huge presence. I wonder how much of my perception of time has been influenced by these forms of oppression. Just when I feel like time can be an advocate, a healer, a teacher, or even a friend, it does a turnabout and becomes unforgiving, rigid, even an adversary.
I grasp at time over and over in the moments of my life, wishing I could have more of it, wanting to control it, hoping and praying that it will afford me what I need.
One of the many gifts I received on my recent trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) was the way my relationship with time changed as I became more immersed in the natural world and less encumbered by the routine of my everyday life. Just before entering the BWCA, I tucked my phone away hoping for a respite from the burden of knowing the time. As I began paddling, the pull of time tugged at my mind. What time is it? Is it time to eat?
In the BWCA a magical transformation occurs with each passing day. The desire for direct knowledge of time melts away, and I begin to let the rhythms of the rising and setting sun, the wind, and the calls of loons speak of time to me in their own ways. My body becomes attuned to these rhythms; I follow its lead. This rhythmic relationship with time feels natural to me and allows for presence in a way that I struggle to attain in my everyday life. Shortly after my last paddle, I felt the gentle tug of time return as the need to rejoin the structured world presented itself. I relearn an alternative relationship with time every year in the BWCA.
As I look back over a year and a half of life, I’m forced to grapple with a shift in my relationship to time. I follow the line of it, note by note. Opening my eyes each morning, I hope for a change in the ‘melody.’ The lived history of our current time makes for a melancholic kind of score. Each morning, jolted back from hopeful dreams to our shared pandemic experience, my heart merging into the wide aching heart of humanity. So much depends on messages from friends and family, in various stages of coping or not; each day weighted relative to these high or low notes.
Too often, the chorus of the world harmonizes to pain: habitats lost to flood and fires, human lives lost to virus and famine. I approach time cautiously now, its vast continuum billowing into space, uncertain as an opera with no clear ending. The relentless momentum of time has us moving but seemingly not gaining momentum. It feels as if time steals days, sometimes entire weeks, lives. As we struggle to quantify our losses, we ask questions like, “How long will this go on? When will it end?” The writer Octavia Butler spoke of the importance of recognizing the points in time when all we can do is “prepare to pick up the pieces when it’s all over.”
A year ago last June, I retired from teaching elementary English Language Learners. Time is circular in education. The same décor was rotated in my classroom every year. Pumpkins and turkeys, snowflakes and hearts, bunnies and flowers made their annual appearance on the walls. Testing occurred on schedule every fall, winter, and spring. Monthly calendars were put up and the date was always written on the board. I never had to think about what day or time it was — I knew it. The end of the year came with celebrations and goodbyes, and we would marvel at how fast the year had flown.
But time is different for me now. Our youngest son died by suicide last August 12 and I now measure time by that date. My life before and my life after. Grief can create a state of mind where time means nothing. A year has gone by and I have no recollection of it passing. I know I need to take time for friends and family, for self-care, and for reflection and writing. It is my path forward from time standing still.
As a teacher, I was time-driven. Today, if you ask me the date, I will in all likelihood have no idea.
For me, life is partly linear. From the moment I was born or before, things kept happening in sequence, moving forward away from the past. And I physically, emotionally, and relationally changed. On the other hand, I work with nature a lot, and every year I pay attention to things that happen. The trees start leafing in the spring, tiny leaves grow bigger and bigger, start perfect, then get munched on by bugs. The seasons change. They return similarly every year. The Earth moves around the sun, and the moon moves around the Earth. Each day repeats. So cycles are about things in nature repeating themselves. And I am part of nature.
But life is also not just cyclical; it is a spiral. Situations happen at various times that seem like a repetition of the past, but the way I handle them might have changed, and who I have become and am becoming has changed.
I am stuck in time sometimes, as memories of things that have gone, both good and bad, pull on me. Sometimes they pull me back to an unhappy past. I don’t want to be there. I can’t be there. And they influence me, as does information from generations before me. I still go forward.
At this moment, I am staying in the present and noticing everything and everyone deeply. Time almost stops profoundly in the body and mind. Just being, and noticing what is good and beautiful. Time’s up.
Time is circular. Living in a place of defined seasons, I am presented with new opportunities and challenges regularly. In the summer growing season I am engaged in food harvesting and preservation. I love the shades of green and the warming sun. The colors in the area gardens are a peaceful blessing of the neighborhood.
Fall is a reminder of the miracle of nature’s cycles with its changing colors and cooling temperatures. I am a retired teacher. The beginning of each school year was as exciting for me as it was for students who were once again in a familiar setting with friends, new classes, and teachers. All of us were filled with anticipation. Noisy hallways with happy voices and smiling eager faces energized me.
The first frost reminds us to prepare gardens and yards for winter. The first snowfall brings out the shovels and blowers to be ready for the season change. Skiers rejoice and skaters are impatient for the local rink to be flooded. Wardrobes reflect readiness for colder temperatures and students want snow days. Winter holidays are awaited with varying degrees of joy and stress.
Spring may sneak up on us before we are ready for it. Tulips and daffodils peeking through the remaining snow. Spring rains arrive to lure the green back to grass and trees. For many, this season is a favorite with its growth and promise.
Time is precious, whether it’s circular, linear, or generational. The time I spend with my six grandchildren may be lived in calendar years, but my experiences with them circle back to memories of rearing my children. What a surprise to learn how much the present informs the past, deepening memories and connections. My life experiences have revealed that history, and therefore time, does repeat itself, but with infinite variations. It is the nuances of time that now delight and mystify me.