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Thursday, March 10, 2011

An Island of Time

For years I've dreamed that one day I could get myself into a position to do nothing but read, reflect, and write. That one day I'd manage to slough off, just for a year or two, the endless rounds of work and getting and spending and the thousands of distractions that conspire to yank you out of purposefully exploring an inner life. I thought if I could manage that somehow, all the stuff I've done and all the roles I've played (on stage and off) over decades of workaday life would somehow coalesce and resolve into something like an integrated self. And once coalesced, like the colours of the rainbow, it might become a white light to see more clearly with.

Somehow (and it took some doing), I have actually managed carve out a little island of time, a year or two at best, before returning to a structured working life again. Those close to me know that getting here has not been easy. I chucked my good job like a bad suit of clothes, cannonballed into the lake of under-employment, and dog-paddled for 18 months doing part-time teaching, voice-overs, some preaching and some acting. Then I got on a plane, and here I am, at distance from my much-beloved wife and daughters and my good Australian friends.

To call ministry a 'late-life career change' is accurate but superficial, as it involves a bit more than learning a new skill set. An inner journey cannot be taught, but must be learned, and it rightly requires a lot of reflective time. Hence the temporary disengagement from routine, alone and reflective on this island of time.

"Sounds great; lucky sod" I hear my working friends think.

But let me tell you--I'm not so sure this was such a great idea any more.

It's not the lack of accustomed comforts, nor even the visceral ache or being apart from those you love, nor the navigation of strange new vocational waters with incomplete maps. The really big shocks and challenges are entirely existential and to do with time itself. Here are just a few that leap presently to mind :

1. You realize how prodigal you've been with the time allotted in your one, finite little human life. "Wise men grieve most for the loss of time" said John Donne. I haven't done the mental arithmetic, but I'd venture that out of 54 years on earth, I may have spent nine months of it drifting in traffic jams and slow queues. Enough time for a whole human being to gestate. I don't even want to contemplate what might turn out to be years watching tv, or doing things I've actively loathed.

2. Time moves faster than you think. Call me old-fashioned, but one of my all-time favorite plays is still Thornton Wilder's Our Town. In the final act, the deceased heroine Emily Webb, looks back at the place she spent her life and has this epiphany, which I still find moving:

"I can’t. I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another…I didn’t realize....Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it– every, every minute?"

To which the Stage Manager replies: "Saints and poets. They do, some."

Like stepping off one of those moving sidewalks after a long spell, your feet hit the solid earth and pwang!--your body has to catch up with itself for a split second, and you realize how fast you were travelling, and how used to it you became. No wonder most of us are tired most of the time.

As Kurt Vonnegut would say: "Where's the fire, son?"

3. Time only moves forward. Just because you (well, me) happen to have more past than future, doesn't mean you get visiting rights to what's been. Memory-soaked places in our past we call "old haunts", but it's a little misleading, because what haunts them is you. The place has moved on but you have not somehow, and swirling around and occupying and pulsing through what you thought, for a time, was yours, actually belongs to others now. The house you raised a child in is being tended and dreamed in by others. A bridge where you fell helplessly, totally in love is choked with scurrying office workers. The past becomes another country, and you don't speak its language or know its customs. The river looks the same, but you can't step into it twice and have it be the same river.

I don't pretend these are great revelations. We are already aware of them, however dimly. But the felt truth of them makes you want to plunge back into the current of the everyday and swim along with everyone else, abandoning the island of time to the splendid isolation of itself.

Or just maybe, you're able to swim with this gift of awareness in mind, more sensible of each stroke, each rippling wave, each plash of fellow-paddlers, each gull-cry above the broad and fathomless water, carrying as it does all the living and the dead, sweeping it all fast and forward into who knows what.

And maybe, just maybe, my own voyage--the only one in which I have any agency--can be directed and matter in some small but affirming way:

One ship drives East,
and another drives West,
With the self-same winds that blow;
Tis the set of the sails, and not the gales,
Which tells us the way to go.

Like the winds of the sea are the ways of fate,
As we voyage along through life;
Tis the set of the soul that decides its goal,
And not the calm or the strife.
--Ella Wheeler Wilcox


1 comment:

  1. Rob - this is beautiful, and resonates with me strangely ... thank you!