Reflection 39: The Time of Our Lives

December 19, 2008

 

Copyright © 2008

 

The day stretches ahead of me. All that time. How fill the hours?

 

Had breakfast, washed dishes, did laundry, made a start at my solstice card list, and it’s snowing. What next? Winter solstice on the 21st, the true New Year’s Day. A group of us usually hike up Cadillac Mountain Road, weather permitting. That’s a ways off. First, John and Seth are coming from Boothbay to talk about eelgrass in the bay. I’ve made my eelgrass PowerPoint, but haven’t run through it. Got to do that. Carole’s coming tonight and I want to buy carrots and make rice. Oh, and transfer funds from savings to checking to cover my credit card payment. And blog about consciousness of time and space. And check NOAA weather.

 

For now, that’s today’s to-do list. In its own way, each item is important. What’s most important? I’ll go to the bank after the post office gets the mail up—usually by 10:30. That gives me an hour and a half. First, check the weather. Make blog notes. Shop when I go to the bank. Keep my solstice card list handy to work on between times. Do the PowerPoint later. Try to get to the blog.

 

O.K., have at it.

 

Not so fast. I check my blog and find a comment from Laura, which I respond to. Then I check my stats, and find two links to porn sites. Am I linked to them or are they to me? How do I get rid of links like that? I e-mail WordPress support to find out. Then I run out of printer ink. And so it goes (“it” being this given day in my life). Planning is one thing, doing another. Things just come up and need to be dealt with. With everything changing, I find it hard to know my own mind.

 

One thing about time, it always runs out. If I start over, it runs out again. What is this flow we call time? As if it were so many grains of sand in an hourglass. When we run out of it, we flip the timer. Until that last hour when we can’t. The metaphor of “the arrow of time” makes it sound like some sort of trajectory, but whether meant in a thermodynamic, cosmological, or other sense, it is a misnomer. It is not time that flows over us so much as change itself. Time is an Earth-bound measure of change. Earth-bound because found only in the human mind, and, as far as we know, humans are bound to their double-planet, Earth-moon system. Time, arrow and all, is in our heads.

 

I think time and space together are the essence of consciousness. We are conscious at this time, in this place. In our current situation. We may be recalling past events or anticipating future ones, but we are doing so at this current moment of consciousness, here and now, the one, ever-changing moment we are allowed.

 

Rather than being principles of consciousness, time and space are derivatives of consciousness. I’d say change is the founding principle on which consciousness rests. Either the world (my situation) is changing in awareness, I am changing, or both are changing at the same time. Time is the signature of myself the observer (the world is changing before me); space is the signature of myself the actor (I am changing the world). When I am both observer and actor (in the ongoing feedback loop in my brain that is consciousness itself), time and space inform me as a participant (in that loop).

 

(Note to self: look at locations in the brain where incoming sensory phenomena are given meaning (interpreted) as a basis for appropriate action—there would be the neural substrate of this consciousness that I am.)

 

Time and space flow from the interaction between sensory awareness and past experiences as made available by recall. Fitting the two together is the effort after meaning we know as human consciousness. Which enables us to act appropriately (or not) in our current situation.

 

In my little booklet Eartheart (Addison Gallery of American Art, 1973—long out of print), I included an image based on the text, “Time is an arbitrarily designated standard of change against which other changes can be compared or measured.” The apparent motion of the sun relative to our Earthly observing station has long served as the standard by which we gauge other changes. Obelisks and sundials translate solar motions into moving shadows, which can be cast on calibrated pathways—giving us the current time of day. Rotating hands on clocks and watches mimic solar movements in different degrees of fineness. Digital timepieces are programmed to step to the same beat.

 

But time is not contained in such instruments. Contrary to Einstein’s famous thought experiments, a mechanical clock in space without an observer is nothing more than an assemblage of springs and gears. The seat of time is in our heads. Where it serves as a standard for calibrating changes we apprehend in the world. Time gives meaning to such changes by referring them to the apparent motions of the sun, moon, and stars. That is, to Earth’s rotation on its axis once each day as divided into practical units found useful in scheduling and measuring human affairs. 

 

I can look in The Old farmer’s Almanac and find out when the sun is predicted to set in my locale. Then I can drive up Cadillac Mountain (when the road is open) to Blue Hill Overlook and watch the sunset from there at that time. A surprising number of visitors do just that when they come to Acadia National Park each summer. Then as soon as the sun drops below the horizon (or the horizon rises to cover the sun), people seem to think the event is over so they drive off to dinner. But the best part of the sunset experience is ahead as the clouds change in turn from gold to orange to red to deep crimson to blue to black.

 

That progression of colors reflects the essence of time in human consciousness. In them time is not just a series of numbers on a clock—which is merely one way of calibrating human awareness of changes in our environment—but it is the sequence of changing phenomena in our minds that is the point. We watch sunsets to have such experiences. Acquired through experience, time is a tool for enabling us to be in the right place at the right time.

 

Or by a different time scale, we can climb Cadillac Mountain on the winter solstice to see the sun, on its trek along the horizon, at its southernmost limit, which serves as the experiential turning point between the old year and the new. With the sun at its lowest arc in the sky (because Earth’s northern hemisphere is turned farthest away from it on this day), days are short and nights long. But exactly at that time, hope wells up in consciousness because from then till the beginning of summer there’s only one way to go and that’s up as sunrise inches its way northward along the horizon toward—first colder—then warmer days ahead.

 

Winter may be a time of hardship and scarcity, but it is the road we must take if we want to make it to spring and summer beyond. Much as to reach those promised tomorrows, we must give today our best shot. Which is why time is our greatest invention and most valuable asset. It is possibility itself. Possibility for careful attention. Possibility for discovering meaning, for effective and rewarding action, for reflecting on the outcome, and then for trying again.

 

The second most important question we can ask ourselves is: What’s happening in my world today? The most important question is: What am I going to do to help things along? Hour by hour, day by day, we mind our situations, then act out the stories of our lives.

¦

 

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