Perception of TimePosted: October 23, 2017
It begins in January. I climb on a pony – or ostrich or tiger – listening to the calliope and waiting for the bell. When it rings, the carousel slowly gears up, with rasping effort, to turn. At the start, it turns very slowly, as if it’s pulling out of the grip of the past year. It gathers speed gradually through April until, at last, by summertime, it slips free from the past and acquires a momentum that carries it forward with heightened determination. September arrives, and the acceleration intensifies. I must grasp the pole, even as I lean out to resist the pull. I give in to it and gallop forward, circling faster and faster. Suddenly I sense the momentum dissipating. It is the end of December and the carousel slows to a stop, allowing me time to buy a ticket for another ride. This is how I experience the passage of a year.
Though many researchers have explored the notion that time is perceived to pass more rapidly as we age, that phenomenon has escaped me entirely. The metaphor of my perception of time has remained the same for over 40 years, and its paces haven’t varied. My moods tend to match the turning of the carousel, with the fall being my happiest, most energetic time of year. Why that should be is unclear, but perhaps it dates from my school-going years: I always looked forward to going back to school, from first grade to the beginning of each year of law school. It was the prelude to new possibilities.
When I was in elementary school, I remember the annual ritual of shopping for new clothes with my mother. On the first day of class, I would wear my favorite new outfit, feeling very spiffy. Even that year when the temperature was still in the 90’s, I wore my new red wool pleated skirt and navy blue sweater with a white trimmed collar. It didn’t matter that I was over-dressed for the hot day — I was excited about the newness of the school year and my clothes matched my mood.
More observant Jews might also note that autumn is the sacred time of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, followed by Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Perhaps there is some primeval association in my soul, but I don’t recognize it. The September exhilaration I experience is more tamped down by the High Holy Days. I sense that I’ve been found wanting on the spiritual plane. And, in recent years, the grief evoked by the Yizkor services has become more intense, denting my high autumnal spirit with the remembrance of losses. So, no, I don’t think the Holy Days of the Jewish calendar account for my perception of September’s velocity.
I don’t simply perceive time in an experiential sense, I also visualize it. There is ample research into charts, graphs and symbols that enable a student of most any discipline to grasp change over a specified time period. They may cover millennia, eras, centuries or seconds. Considerable thought has gone into designing a look that conveys the evolution, growth and maturation of our universe, civilizations and bodies. It is challenging to compress time periods that vastly exceed our individual lifetimes into a visual without obliterating the sense of the tempo of change. Many such charts invite us to leap over 100 and 1000 year stretches to understand an historical or geographic phenomenon.
But time is lived hour by hour, day by day, week by week. And this is how I visualize it: I can see the weeks of a year, unfolding accordion-style. The closest weeks are fully open, and the days are individuated. I can infer the degree of their proximity by the clarity of lettering and the detail of hours. The furthest reaches of the calendar are still folded tightly but, as we move forward in time, the closest days drop out of the picture, and the later ones unfold. I can tune into this visualization at any time of the year; although it is grounded in the calendar, it is continuous. It is the foreseeable future.
Both my experience and visualization of time offer comfort. The recurrence of the carousel cycles, and the continuity of the accordion book, reassure me in difficult moments that I will get through them, that time is my most reliable friend. When I was a homesick teenager at a summer boarding school, I could see when I was going home. When a person dear to me died, I understood I would not be stuck in that excruciating moment forever. The carousel would keep turning, pausing and accelerating. The days would unfold spontaneously.
On joyful days, the experience and visualization of time hold out the excitement of the next milestone or occasion — or the exaltation of pure possibility. Their parameters outline the future, giving me confidence that I’m on track, even though the details – people, places, things — that will fill the seasons and the weeks remain to be discovered. I am in motion, moving time and again to a good place before moving forward. I am charmed anew by the exuberance of the carousel’s calliope.
“There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception,” wrote Aldous Huxley. Perhaps the carousel and the accordion book allow me to pass from the known to the unknown without qualms. Perhaps they substitute for faith.