Then & Now
Thoughts on time by Savannah Lamb
During my junior year of college, I studied in Paris for about seven months. My journey back to the United States was rocky: my flight was rescheduled at the last minute, and I said goodbye to my pajama’ed host mother on the empty sidewalk at 3 o’clock in the morning. I pushed my suitcase slowly through the terminal, sweating into my fake fur coat. I only had eight euros in my bank account, so I started to cry when they told me it was a fifty euro surcharge for an overweight bag. Luckily, my tears helped persuade them to waive the charge. Delirious from sleep deprivation, I finally curled up in my window seat on the plane. I was on my way back to New England snowstorms and hazelnut coffee in the school library. My headphones were on, and I couldn’t get past Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bookends Theme”. It was the 30 second version, which hurts more because it’s over so soon. Preserve your memories…they’re all that’s left you.
The last line haunted me, and unfortunately for the woman sitting next to me, I started to cry again. Images came to me while I listened to the song on repeat: playing on the beach as a kid in Maine, sugar cookies in Sunday school, riding in the car with my father. Some were happy, some were sad, some were even banal. I remembered the plane ride across the ocean in August, which seemed like a lifetime ago. When we had begun the descent in the early morning, I had seen the long shadow of a solitary tree in the middle of yellow countryside.
I took a personal essay course my senior year and used this return flight as the opening for a long piece on family and memory. The first question my classmates had in workshop was, “Why are you crying on the plane in the first paragraph?” I laughed. Maybe my now-comical airplane breakdown was borne solely out of exhaustion and stress, and didn’t truly constitute anything to write about. But still… I was compelled to write about that plane ride back from Paris because I didn’t know why I was crying. Several years later, several years older, I finally know why.
Paris was the first time I travelled outside of the country and the first time I lived anywhere but my parents’ house. I left knowing that I wouldn’t be back for years, and if I did ever go back, it would be in an entirely different capacity. In my naïveté, I hadn’t felt until that moment that my life was divided into parts which did not blend together. This was the first time I felt a definite then and now. These moments that had flashed in my memory were lost, and that sense of loss was overwhelming. I had always been someone who obsessively recorded every day of my life in order to make sense of it, but after that plane ride, writing down everything suddenly wasn’t good enough. I had to rethink the whole concept of time.
I reread Paula Gunn Allen’s The Sacred Hoop (1986). Anthropological in nature but with a poetic momentum, this book explores Native American religion, mythology, and traditions. My grandmother was connected to her Cherokee heritage, so I had a natural interest in this text. Allen writes, on the clash between Native American and Western thought, that a “difference between these two ways of perceiving reality lies in the tendency of the American Indian to view space as spherical and time as cyclical, whereas the non-Indian tends to view space as linear and time as sequential” (59). The first time I read this sentence, freshman-me thought, Oh that’s interesting, and then she probably went outside to smoke a half a cigarette with her friends and eat cereal in the dining hall. This time, however, I revisited The Sacred Hoop with a hungry state of eagerness:
The traditional tribal concept of time is of timelessness, as the concept of space is of multidimensionality. In the ceremonial world the tribes inhabit, time and space are mythic…Achronology is the favored structuring device of American Indian novelists…events are structured in a way that emphasizes the motion inherent in the interplay of person and event. In them the protagonist wanders through a series of events that might have happened years before or that might not have happened to him or her personally, but that nevertheless have immediate bearing on the situation and the protagonist’s understanding of it…Achronicity is the kind of time in which the individual and the universe are “tight.” The sense of time that the term refers to is not ignorant of the future any more than it is unconscious of the past. It is a sense of time that connects pain and praise through timely movement, knitting person and surroundings into one. (147-150)
When I first read about this concept of cyclical time, it must have clashed with my natural inclination to archive my life chronologically. As I filled more journals, I got older, and this had satisfied me. But now I sought answers to the feelings I had on the plane. In fact, as I reread about the achronicity referenced in The Sacred Hoop, I remembered more of the painful and delightful sentimentality on the plane - a connection to my family; I myself was wandering through a series of events situated simultaneously in the past and the future, a brief escape from identity.
The protagonist wanders through a series of events that might have happened years before or that might not have happened to him or her personally. Other people’s stories become your own, and more so when they were inherently a part of you to begin with. One memory always sparks another; I started to write about my grandmother’s memorial. My grandmother Thursa died on a snowy February morning when I was sixteen. She had been a social worker, a docent at the Kern County museum, a single mother of six children, and a grandmother to many more. We had her memorial in Bakersfield at the museum in the dry June heat. My family took to the stage one by one to read eloquent eulogies they had prepared. Never one to cry in public—despite what this essay’s opening may suggest—I didn’t think I would be publicly emotional. I listened with a poker face, respectful.
Then I felt something wet in my lap. Tears had soaked through my dress. I was crying and didn’t know it. More people went up to the podium to speak about my grandmother: eighty years of a life in bits and pieces. All of these anecdotes made time irrelevant.
“Why were you crying?” I asked myself the question again. Of course I was upset about my grandma’s passing, but why did it rush in all at once?
It is overwhelming to have a place in a family tree. History stretched much farther back than I could reasonably comprehend. I felt outside of my body, watching from above, everyone seated together, crying and laughing. What I thought I felt was a communal empathy; it’s as if I was experiencing all of the lives of my cousins and my aunts and uncles and all their tragedies and their loves. Just like on the airplane, I lost my identity, if just for a moment. After the memorial, I shook it off in embarrassment. I didn’t think about it much until I revisited The Sacred Hoop. The book encouraged me to revisit my family’s history, it’s relation to me, and it’s significance inside and outside of the time spectrum.
In Adrienne Rich’s “Split at the Root: An Essay on Jewish Identity” (1982), the narrator feels like she cannot escape her connection to her parents and her family, and she works it out through the process of contemplation. This essay is about inhabiting multiple identities, facing unanswered questions, and trying to come to terms with the insufficiency of linear time:
For about fifteen minutes I have been sitting chin in hand in front of the typewriter, staring out at the snow. Trying to be honest with myself, trying to figure out why writing this seems to be so dangerous an act, filled with fear and shame, and why it seems so necessary…These are stories I have never tried to tell before. Why now? Why, I asked myself sometime last year, does this question of Jewish identity float so impalpably, so ungraspably around me, a cloud I can't quite see the outlines of, which feels to me to be without definition? (640)
I love how “Split at the Root” is filled with anxiety and tension. Rich writes about an in-betweenness that one could apply both to her experience and to the act of the writing itself. It can be much messier than fiction, because the parts don’t always fit together. And yet, the very act of this confusion makes the personal essay so necessary.
I never came to a conclusion on cyclical time or how it related to my experience flying back from Paris. Instead, I eased back into the anxieties of linear time, which become even worse with a work schedule. I continued to log my activities and feelings obsessively in my journal as an adult. The anxiety to justify and account for time is alive in this act. Joan Didion criticizes her intentions in writing everything down in “On Keeping A Notebook” (1961):
Why did I write it down? In order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all? It is easy to deceive oneself on all those scores. The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, the the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself…Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss. (132-133)
During the summer after I graduated from college, I was a teaching assistant at a camp for gifted teenagers in North Carolina, where I co-taught a class on critical theory. I hadn’t interacted with precocious fourteen-year-olds since I was one myself, so it was a surreal experience. I was often delighted and inspired by my students’ insights, but one afternoon stands out to me.
For the last hour of class, the professor and I would show a video to give everyone a break from the intense workload. We rented the VHS tapes of Joseph Campbell’s “The Power of Myth” from the library. To our pleasant surprise, the kids sat in total mesmerization as Campbell talked about myth, man and eternity. The next day, we asked what they would like to do for the last hour of class, and they said they’d like to watch more Joseph Campbell. So we watched more and more of “The Power of Myth”. My professor and I tried not to jinx the calming effect it had on them, but we had to wonder. Eventually, the professor and I asked the students why they liked Joseph Campbell, and their answers were unexpected, but not entirely enlightening. They all agreed that they liked his voice and how he came across as a genuinely nice person. They couldn’t explain exactly why they liked watching the video interviews, but all agreed they did love him.
“There’s a wonderful formula that the Buddhists have for the Boddhisattva,” Campbell says in the interview with Bill Moyers:
The Bodhisattva, the one whose being, satra. is illumination, bodhi, who realizes his identity with eternity, and at the same time his participation in time. And the attitude is not to withdraw from the world when you realize how horrible it is, but to realize that this horror is simply the foreground of a wonder, and come back and participate in it. “All life is sorrowful,” is the first Buddhist saying, and it is. It wouldn’t be life if there were not temporality involved, which is sorrow, loss, loss, loss.
Loss, loss, loss. “That’s a pessimistic note,” Moyers responds, putting it lightly.
“Well, I mean you got to say yes to it and say it’s great this way,” Campbell nearly interrupts:
I mean, this is the way God intended it…And Joyce’s wonderful line, you know, “History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.” And the way to awake from it is not to be afraid and to recognize, as I did in my conversation with that Hindu guru or teacher that I told you of, that all of this as it is, is as it has to be, and it is a manifestation of the eternal presence in the world. The end of things always is painful; pain is part of there being a world at all.
Campbell remains as charming to me now as when I first watched this video. It was a hot, sunny afternoon with the shades drawn and I was pleasantly tired at the end of another school day. We were all in awe: Campbell puts it bluntly at first - temporality is “loss, loss, loss” - but brings it to light by tying in the necessity of positivity, of saying yes, yes, yes. We shouldn’t “withdraw from the world when [we] realize how horrible it is,” but instead accept that these elements of life as we know it cannot exist without each other. Campbell encourages us not to be afraid, and we take it to heart. All temporality is loss, meaning that once we experience a moment - from the sad, to the happy, to the mundane - it has already passed, and is therefore lost, existing only in memory. That day during our after-dinner group discussion, I asked my students about Campbell’s take on time. They related to Campbell’s insights in a profound way, which struck me as precocious, but in hindsight of course they did. Regardless of how old someone is, the act of memory is painful. It has the most personal and unique texture of experience for a person, and also the most universal. Memory is what we have in common - once we have experienced time, we have experienced grief. And here, in this classroom, a bunch of kids and I shared the experience of being alive, f forming our own personal histories and trying to make sense of our place in the universe. Of all the moments remembered in this essay, this was my happiest.
Works discussed and cited:
Joan Didion: “On Keeping A Notebook.” in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008
Paula Gunn Allen: The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Beacon, 1986
“Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth - ‘The Message of the Myth’.” Interview by Bill Moyers. BillMoyers.com. Public Affairs Television and Alvin H. Permutter. 30 May 1988. Television, Transcript
Adrienne Rich: “Split At The Root.” The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present. New York: Doubleday, 1994