Caught in Time’s Current

Our human quarrel with the clock

• 4,238 words

“Time is a great teacher, but unfortunately it kills all its pupils”
—Hector Berlioz

I measure rain by the bucket. I don’t mean in the sense of the old saying “It’s raining buckets,” but literally. Whenever it rains, I put a galvanized bucket under the downspout of an eavestrough that drains the small roof over my back stairs. I use the rainwater for my indoor plants. Half a bucket is a decent rain. A full bucket is a downpour, a real drenching. Over the past few days I could have filled the bucket a dozen times.

The first week of April, right on cue, brought not just showers but a deluge that went on for days. Rain drummed on my roof at night. Rain poured down the trunk of the maple tree on my front lawn and made little piles of foam where it met the soil. When I drove to the grocery store, the rain rinsed my winter-dingy van cleaner than a car wash. During one downpour, the street in front of my house brimmed with water to the curb tops. It became a shallow canal that rushed westward. When wind blew rain against my windows I couldn’t tell glass from water—they looked as if they were melting. Through them I could see a watery world that wobbled and wiggled. Robins feasted on drowning worms and wet, bedraggled squirrels sat glumly on tree branches. Every evening, the news showed pictures of marooned cars and basements with chairs bobbing in thigh-deep water.

One wet afternoon, I drove downtown to meet my publisher. Rain had soaked everything. Billboard advertisements were peeling off—a fashion model’s forehead had folded over her face. Dark fingers of damp concrete streaked the sides of apartment buildings. In my car, the dashboard clock was too misty to read the time. I tried to wipe it off but couldn’t—the condensation was trapped inside. My chronometer had become a tiny clockwork terrarium. Above me, even the clouds pressed closer, as if the weight of the rain had pulled them down from the sky. They were so low that the tops of skyscrapers disappeared into them—including my publisher’s building. I parked in a humid underground parking lot, grabbed my umbrella, and walked outside.

Water world. Cars sprayed by like motorboats, arcing canopies of water over sidewalks. Umbrellas bobbed everywhere, like glistening tents. They crashed into each other above the crowded sidewalks. The air was warm, though, and there was a secret, vernal thrill lurking in the lush humidity. It was a spring rain that promised things. When I got to my publisher’s, I shook out my umbrella in the lobby and took an elevator up into the clouds.

Looking out of the windows on the twentieth floor was like looking out of an airplane descending through overcast. There was nothing to see but a featureless, marine-grey tone with a hint of blue-green—a soothing, aquatic view. It was good to be inside, under bright lights, and dry. On the wall opposite the elevators was a large, stainless-steel clock and I was surprised to see that I was on time, despite my misty automobile timepiece and the many small distractions that kept me anchored in the present. Outside, the downpour seemed to have washed both past and future away—but here, in the office tower, time ruled again.

My publisher took me to an office with large, plate-glass windows that held back an ocean of fog. The noise and drama of the city was smothered in it; all was ethereal and calm. Our meeting went well, and afterward she walked me to the elevator. Through the windows I noticed that the clouds were at last beginning to lift. The elevator doors closed, and I went back down into the rain. As I was driving home, casting my mind forward, thinking about what I could make for dinner, a flash lit up the whole sky and turned it a deep, electric green. Lightning. The first storm of the year. Thunder was booming when I got home and gusts bent the new daffodils in my garden. Jupiter was busy, his chariot thundering over the clouds.

the god of time

Time is a modern invention. As Lewis Mumford wrote in Technics and Civilization, “The clock, not the steam-engine, is the key-machine of the modern industrial age: even today no other machine is so ubiquitous.” We take time for granted, living inside the minutes, months, and years as if they were rooms in our parents’ home, familiar and unchanging. But there was also a time before clocks, personified in mythology—an era when the most remarkable aspect of time was not that it could be measured accurately, but that it flowed, implacably, in a single direction instead of lingering forever in eternity. This is the tyranny of time, a moving sidewalk we can’t step off. But the gods understood that this quality of time was both a blessing—giving us the cyclical bounty of the seasons—and a tragedy, reminding us of our mortality.

According to Roman mythology, Jupiter was the son of Saturn. Jupiter was known to the Greeks as Zeus and they refer to his father as Cronos. Although classical scholars differ in their interpretations, down through the ages, Cronos, or Saturn, has become popularized as the god of time. Both Romans and Greeks understood that Jupiter/Zeus ruled all the gods. In his rages—which were frequent—he would sometimes hurl lightning bolts to earth. His hair-trigger temper and sense of regal entitlement were traits he inherited from his father. Cronos was a temperamental patriarch, not unlike a Mafia don—the boss you don’t want to cross.

Cronos was born to the first two gods, Uranus and Gaia, who represent heaven and earth respectively. Uranus, a tyrant, was deathly afraid of being usurped by his children. To ensure his rule, he confined Cronos and his siblings in Gaia’s womb. Gaia, indignant at not being allowed to bring her children out into the world, subverted her husband’s wishes by secretly slipping a sharp-edged sickle to her son Cronos. The next time Uranus “came close,” as one legend delicately put it, Cronos swung the sickle and castrated him. The blood that spilled from Uranus’s wound then formed the Giants and the Furies, while his penis, which had been thrown into the sea, took on a life of its own and eventually transformed into Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty.

Was it Cronos’s patricide that also marked the end of a universe ruled by eternity, and the violent beginning of a world governed by time? And with his sickle, Cronos ruptured the idyllic eternity where all beings are immortal—a temporal Garden of Eden—until time gushed forth, like the blood from Uranus’s wound. I see this as the beginning of the implacable flight of time from the past into the future—the arrow of time, forever seeking its target in the future. For Plutarch, the arrow metaphor was more fluid: “There is Eternity, whence flowed Time, as from a river, into the world.”

Cronos in turn married and had five children. Because it had been foretold that he would be overthrown by one of his children, just as he had overthrown his father, he swallowed each child at birth. However, his wife Rhea, like Gaia before her, outwitted her husband by hiding one newborn son, Jupiter, and giving Cronos a stone to swallow instead. The deception worked, and Jupiter escaped the wrath of his father.

Some have interpreted Cronos eating his children as an allegory about time, which, like a parent, brings things into being, but which also outlives, and ultimately destroys them. As Ovid observed in his Metamorphoses at the beginning of the first millennium AD, “Time is…the devourer of all things.” Writers and artists have flirted with this cannibalistic theme througout the ages, though none as graphically as Francisco Goya.

There is a painting by Goya, completed in 1823, that hangs in the Prado museum in Madrid. Entitled Saturn Devouring One of His Sons, it is one of fourteen of his works, known as the “black paintings,” with which Goya decorated the interior of his house in Madrid. The painting is quite literal and macabre. Against a nightmarish black background, a naked, bug-eyed figure is eating one of his small sons, holding the bloody, headless corpse in his strong hands while tearing off an arm with his mouth. For some reason Goya chose to adorn his dining room with this disturbing work. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could have worked up an appetite sitting opposite this grisly portrait.

But, on another level, Goya’s interpretation makes sense. As Aldous Huxley wrote in Seasons, “Blood of the world, time staunchless flows;/The wound is mortal and is mine.” Like Uranus, we bleed time from the wound of mortality. Although Goya never titled the painting himself, it has come to be seen as a bloody, allegorical work portraying the power and ruthlessness of Cronos: Time consuming his children. That which Time brings into being and nourishes, Time also, ultimately destroys. Echoing Plutarch, the English philosopher Bertrand Russell took a more optimistic view of this ancient myth. As he wrote in A Free Man’s Worship and Other Essays, “A truer image of the world, I think, is obtained by picturing things as entering into the stream of time from an eternal world outside, than from a view which regards time as the devouring tyrant of all that is.”

Perhaps Russell was anticipating the meditative tranquility of the modern physicists’ notion of a “timescape” in which the past, present, and future commingle. But time’s arrow still rules our daily life, and the past seems to press against the back of every second.

Every day, I negotiate between consuming the present—drinking my coffee, savouring it—and being consumed by time. Time may not swallow me, but it gnaws away. It says, “In five more minutes, you will be late for your class, your students are waiting for you.” We flirt and bicker and hide from time like this all day long. “At my back I always hear/Time’s winged chariot hurrying near”—in the slam of your car door the moment before you realize the engine is on and the keys are in the ignition; in the moment after you mistakenly press “send all” on a piece of very private email. The deed has already slipped into the past. History owns it now.

Cronos is often conflated with Chronos, the Greek personification of time—more of an idea than a deity. This was probably the source of such time-related words as “chronology,” “chronicle,” and “synchronous.” In fact, all the instruments we use to measure time preserve this name, such as “chronometers,” the clocks that ocean-going vessels used to navigate the seas before gps was invented. It seems clear to me that the aged, sickle-wielding figure of Saturn has also persisted, turning up in editorial cartoons, and in New Year’s imagery—as the slightly pathetic figure of Father Time.

father time

He has a long white beard and always carries the tools of his trade—a scythe and hourglass. The scythe represents the harvest of the bounty of time (and, by association, death), while the hourglass stands for the ceaseless flow of time (and the measure of how little we have). This association of Father Time’s scythe with death is echoed by another figure, the Grim Reaper, who also carries a scythe. In fact the Reaper, who sometimes carries an hourglass too, resembles a skeletal version of the more benevolent Father Time, whose scythe, reflecting his Roman origins as a god of agriculture, is said to represent the waxing and waning of the seasons and the regenerative cycle of crops. Some link the shape of the scythe to the crescent moon. Others say that the scythe represents the flint sickle that Cronos used to castrate his father.

Father Time’s old age symbolizes wisdom and the unfathomable depths of time. He is an antique figure, but a respected one. In the modern era, though, he seems to have become, strangely, a slightly buffoonish anachronism. At some point an editorial cartoonist decided to use the image of Father Time as a depiction of the “old year,” and since then it has caught on. In New Year’s Day cartoons, the outgoing year slumps away into the past, usurped and humiliated by a baby in diapers, who represents the coming year. Once again, one of Time’s offspring vanquishes him. Any veneration that the classical image of Father Time once received has been tarnished by this modern association.

But there are further ramifications of the original Greek myth. If Cronos initiated a new epoch in our relationship to time, what was the nature of this new dimension—and why does time flow only one way?

the flow of time

My next-door neighbour, an older Portuguese man, has a weather vane that he’s nailed to a pole in his yard. He and his wife have lived here for years. He tends his fruit trees and vegetable garden according to the seasons—he is rooted to the earth and the cycles of the year. Weather is important to him, as it is to all farmers, and the weather vane, shaped like an arrow, gives him warning by pointing out the direction of the wind. An east wind almost always portends rain. All last week the arrow pointed east. I like to think of his weather vane as the stationary arrow of time present, pointing into the future as the wind of time flows past it on its way into history. I imagine it without its pole, hovering in the air like an arrow in mid-flight.

But time is a wind that blows from a direction not marked by compasses or wind vanes, neither up nor down. In fact, according to Paul Davies, a theoretical physicist and author, our perception of time as flowing like a river is mistaken. Time simply is. He explains that contemporary physicists see the universe as a four-dimensional “timescape,” where all time—past, present, and future—exists at once. But even Davies has to admit that the physicists who study time see a clear bias in it, which they refer to as a “conspicuous asymmetry between past and future directions along the time axis.” In other words, objects travelling through time don’t seem to be able to move from the future toward the past. In a sadder, more ordinary sense, what’s done is done.

This “asymmetry” is most clearly revealed by the second law of thermodynamics, which predicts that disorder increases in a finite universe—a broken wineglass will not reassemble itself; a parking ticket, once written out, cannot be revoked. (Indeed, the parking cop may be the perfect modern embodiment of time’s bureaucratic linearity.) But the inmate on death row does not live in an atemporal “timescape”; for him the clock ticks implacably onward. And for all of us, the wind of time blows only one way.

Other scientists and philosophers have written about the flow of time as a liquid. Igor D. Novikov, the Russian physicist, called his book The River of Time, harking back to Heraclitus’s famous dictum you can never step in the same river twice. Time flows on like water, like the temporary river my street became a few days ago. But if we look at time as the physicists do, it makes more sense to think of time as an ocean. We and everything else in the universe float, or bob, in this fluid medium, which, because it contains all time, must be eternal. The present, past, and future are merely currents in this ocean.

Literature offers many examples of this metaphor. In her novel Marya, Joyce Carol Oates wrote, “Time is the element in which we exist…. We are either borne along by it or drowned in it.” Tim Winton, an Australian novelist, wrote an extraordin-ary physical description of time in his recent book of stories called The Turning: “Time doesn’t click on and on at the stroke. It comes and goes in waves and folds like water; it flutters and sifts like dust, rises, billows, falls back on itself. When a wave breaks, the water is not moving. The swell has travelled great distances but only the energy is moving, not the water. Perhaps time moves through us and not us through it…the past is in us, and not behind us. Things are never over.”

the inner timescape

Things are never over. Could it be that we each exist in our own private timescape, in which the remembered past and the imagined future surge through us? Sometimes they flow silently, unseen and unfelt. Other times, we become aware of this buried current animating our lives.

One morning two days ago, there was a break in the rain—a warm, sunny morning. I sat out on my patio to have a coffee after breakfast. It was a meditative moment and as I looked out over my yard my mind’s eye turned inward. When it did it seemed to ricochet all over time, past, present, and future. Sipping my coffee and looking at the bamboo leaves reminded me of a vacation I had years ago, the way the coconut palms shone like green vinyl in the bright sunlight. Then the phone rang and I was right back in the present moment; it was a friend, she was making plans for a dinner party on the weekend, could I attend? I went inside and looked at my calendar and realized yes, I would be free that night. Without missing a beat I had gone from past to present to future and back again. I was free, at least in my mind, to go anywhere within my personal timescape at will.

It is our ability to time-travel like this, within our minds, that makes us the creatures we are. Without this ability there would be no art, no dreams, no cities or buildings. Everything we have accomplished began as an imagined set in a hoped-for future. Yet at the same time we are the inheritors of a grand history, and an even grander prehistory. These have provided us with the resources and the prototypes to build our “now” upon. History is the podium of the present. These thoughts crystallized for me yesterday afternoon, the first warm, sunny afternoon of the year.

a ghost creek

It was as if the spirits of the rain were fleeing the earth, smoked out by the sun. The wet lawns and pavement and gardens and houses steamed with vapour in the hot April sunlight. I came out to see the spectacle. Eddies of mist curled languorously up roofs and into the sky, shreds of fog were caught in tree branches like wispy cotton. Across the street I saw my neighbour George, standing in front of his house staring at his front yard. I often saw him in front of his white clapboard house, tending his perfect lawn or clipping his juniper bushes. During a conversation a year before, he told me that he had lived his whole life within the same three blocks. He was born more than eighty years ago one street over and had lived in various apartments and houses here for almost a century.

I called out hello, and George waved and walked across the street toward me. He was wearing a blue nylon jacket and a baseball cap. With his close-cropped white hair and all-weather tan, he looked like the groundskeeper for an expensive golf course. We watched the mist rise and talked about the recent rains. George asked me if my basement was wet and I answered no, fortunately, it was completely dry. He said that the house next to his had a wet basement and the house two doors down from me also had a wet basement. Over the years, George continued, he had learned about other wet basements and he realized that they were all connected in a line. A meandering line.

“Must be the path of an old creek they filled in to build this neighbourhood,” he concluded.

We talked some more and then he went back to meditating on his lawn and I walked around my house into the backyard. It was mid-afternoon and my mist-enshrouded lawn glowed emerald in the sunlight. I looked down the row of neighbours’ yards to the east and noticed that the buds on the trees were beginning to swell. Then I imagined what it might have looked like 120 years ago, before there were any houses here. I imagined the small creek swollen with rainwater, the green bulrushes and willows and cedar growing along its banks. A great blue heron stilting the shallows.

A river is more like a living thing than a cliff or a valley. It moves and changes and adapts. And from what George told me, it seems that even a river that has been filled in for a hundred years still has a soul—a slim, insistent thread of linked water molecules that continue to flow toward the lake. Here in the present, that lost, unnamed stream is more like a ghost creek that lingers underground. It is like time past, silently flowing through our lives even when we can’t detect it. The only evidence of its existence is a string of wet basements. My house must have been close to the bank of that extinct creek.

I began to think about how to resurrect the creek. I could hand-deliver flyers that would convince my neighbours to join in my project, the world’s first reconstitution of a lost creek. I went through my arguments. I decided I would target the neighbours with wet basements first. If we gave the river a course, I would argue—if, instead of fighting it we acknowledged it—perhaps we could dry out their basements. Then I would explain my plan to them.

We would let the creek run through a special series of underground conduits, an interconnected system of glass pipes and sealed basement aquariums. Once the flow had been re-established, we could re-stock it with a limited but viable ecology of small fish and underwater plants. It would be a fine diversion, on a midwinter’s night, to watch minnow-sized sticklebacks building their little stone nests in a basement aquarium under artificial light or to watch a dragonfly larva drift with the slow current through one side of the basement and out the other.

A crimson cardinal landed in my magnolia tree and startled me out of my reverie with its melodious, broken-whistle spring call. It had happened again. I had been adrift in time, in an idle daydream. This lost creek will probably never run again. It struck me as a dubious engineering accomplishment, to stop rivers that have flowed for thousands of years, in order to fill them in and erase them forever. I thought about my plan to reconstitute the ghost creek and realized that the plan itself, the idea of it, was already acquiring history, and moving into the past. Soon, I thought, it will become the idea I once had.

How quickly the present becomes the past.

Even my thoughts have a past, even my thoughts cleave to time’s arrow. Or do they? Isn’t the ghost creek alive in my imagination? There is a second world, the past animated by memory, that lives in my mind. With my inner eye, I can see every brick of my house, the shape of every piece of orna-mental limestone in my garden, the leathery green leaves of my rhododendrons. I can walk to the virtual garage, open the virtual door, and get into my car. I can revisit the garage as it looked after last year’s blizzard, the snow piled on the roof, the delicate etchings of frost on the inside of the windows.

I can move in and out of the flow of time at will. And this is how I, we, keep from being marooned in the present, locked into time’s one-way flow. Our memory and imagination allow us to reconstitute the past, to resurrect it—to point time’s arrow in any direction we please. The only place in the universe that is immune to time is our memory, and our imagination. That is how we escape being devoured by time. We can see the world from almost any viewpoint—we can imagine what it is like to be an eagle or a dolphin or a bat or a butterfly. We can even become time itself. As Jorge Luis Borges wrote in his essay “A New Refutation of Time,” “Time is the substance from which I am made. Time is a river which carries me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger that devours me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire.” Our mortal triumph is our ability to escape time’s arrow. We are chrononauts who can swim through time in any direction, which makes us unlike anything else on the planet.