Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Of Earthquakes, Squashed Fingernails, and the Passage of Time

I am practically numb with the news. The deceased. The buried, still to be dug out. The fight for food and water. The sense of hopelessness for Haiti. Horror for Chile. I feel for these people, deeply, and yet, even as sadness and disbelief hog the marquee of my emotions, that other side of my brain grapples with the more existential side of it. The small opening act that gets less attention in the news: What does it mean?

Maybe it doesn't mean anything. I sometimes think that assigning meaning is the task of idiots. (Case in point: Pat Robertson's assertion that the earthquake in Haiti was God's payback for that country's pact with the devil.) And maybe meaning isn't even the right word at all. Maybe what I'm looking for is a kind of sense. Or something to take away from all this. Something instructive. And what I get, while the link isn't at all linear, has something to do with time.

Human time, geologic time, light time. Time.

We tend to think in lifetimes—our own. Or, more often, in the spans of weeks and days. To Do lists. Short term plans. Before I go to bed tonight. When the kids are out of high school. Before I die. Etc. And in our minds, it's all peculiarly concrete and measurable. Familiar.

But the fact of the matter is that we exist also in completely other time frameworks.

It's likely no consolation to the humans of the planet who are suffering loss right now, that Earth is living its own time, just as we are. That it needs to stretch and shrug, grow and shrink, address that itch on its back. It's probably no consolation that fault lines are going to toss us aside every 60 or 500 or 300,000 years, and that the Earth is going to count those years according to its own needs, not our careful human calculations. It's no consolation, no, but it is true.

(We read this morning in the newspaper, that the Chile earthquake was powerful enough to shift the Earth's axis by 3" and that because of this shift, we will now enjoy an almost infinitessimally smaller amount of daylight each day. So much for human timetables. Just like that, the Universe has demonstrated that our measurements are no longer valid. Wrong, in other words. Meaningless. Next?)

And what this all does, strangely, is make me relax a little my own concept of time. I have lived much of my life in a hurry to pack in as much as possible. I have tried to control and "make happen" and reach goals. This has not always been a bad thing, and I don't intend to say "What does it matter in the big picture?" even though it seems like that is where my argument is going. What I mean to say is that there's a proper time and place for such clocks to tick loudly. And there's a time and place for them to fall silent, because they just don't measure up, nor do they serve us particularly well.

Let me explain. I've begun to think that we humans have two times, perhaps three. The times of our minds (this is the To Do list time), and the times of our bodies and our psyches. My Italian husband always said to me, "Life is long." I thought he was crazy. (Didn't he perceive, like everyone else, that life is simply too short, i.e. ticking along at a rapid clip?) But now, I am beginning to understand what he meant. Even as we rush around, some things simply take time. They take the time they take. And no amount of disciplined action-taking will change that.

Four months ago, I smashed my finger in the door of my daughters' room. Blood began to spread under the nail. It throbbed for days. Then it turned black. Then the black spot began to grow out from the cuticle. For much longer than I thought, my nail continued to grow out black. A couple weeks ago, the top layer of nail came out of the cuticle separated from the new nail growing underneath. The "black spot," which was of course, dried blood, slowly disappeared as the water with every bath, hand-washing or dish-cleaning, did its invisible, gentle job of washing it away. Now, I have this unsightly layer of fingernail which looks like a dirty piano key. Thick, yellowish. Unattached at the bottom, still attached at the top. There's nothing I can do about it, and nothing I want to do about it. It would hurt! So I leave it, and look at it. Day after day after day. We're not talking great loss here. We're talking a single fingernail. But it's teaching me a whopper of a lesson: It's going to take as long as it's going to take.

That's a finger. But then there's my heart. In 2006 my father died. This is the sort of earthquake we all suffer, and there could be no more apt geographical metaphor. The plates shifted. My grounding, which I so trusted, fell away. Nothing was solid. And here I am 4 years later, still putting things right, or trying to rebuild with lighter more flexible materials the structure of my heart. The pain is still there, but it has morphed. And it has changed me. Time is passing. It will continue to pass. It will take as long as it takes.

Marriage. (That subject again.) My marriage is a miracle to me. It has grown and evolved according to its own clock. It has a sense of time that eludes me. It seems to have a timeless faith in itself that keeps it going, even when we have run out of patience or nice things to say. Darkness, light. Another day / month / year.

We have to trust in these times. We have to surrender to them. We are in their grasp and their flow. They will confuse us, serve us well, outlive us.

And so, as I've written this, I've overcooked my lunch, unaware of the time. Geologic time is no good for steaming vegetables.

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