Cheeses, antiques, geological formations, star systems, all things that benefit from age, the passage of time. Yet for we specific biological beings, not so much. Cellular disruption occurs from the moment we become a unit, a cluster of split cells. Our DNA flips off and on in response to various environmental factors, and we face the onslaught of oxygen breakdown (oxidation), the very stuff of life, our atmosphere. Since I have been in my forties, I have realized mortality in new ways. Not just the death of a parent, not just the usual life experiences that add depth and breadth to understanding have come my way. I have actually pondered this thing, this run of time. Not as eloquently or masterfully as many before me, to be sure, those who add comfort through their poetry and song.
Consider: If from this day forward I am in the second half of my life- if I live to be over 88- then I have 16,060 sets of 24 hour cycles left. That may sound like quite a bit at first, equaling 385,440 hours. If one is incapacitated, oppressed, or incarcerated, it may seem inordinately long (Nien Chengs book Life and Death I Shanghai is a good meditation on time in confinement). But if you, like many of us, measure your life in days, 16,060 seem too little. Each year is a paltry 365 days. Financial advisors would say if we put away $2 for each day, we would have 730; if we put away 5 per day, we would have 1,825 (thats approx. 150 per month); and over time if invested, we would have a nice little nest egg. Sadly, many of us cant do that right now. With recent economic issues (inflation- fast rising food and energy costs especially- and housing negative values, unemployment, under-employment, etc.) pressing on most citizens in the world, saving money is difficult. I know we lose sleep and gain acid reflux from the stresses of thinking about what has been lost in retirement accounts and the value of our home, as well as Husbands stagnating salary (higher education jobs have never kept up with inflation, and we did the numbers long ago and realized that he is expected to put into his job the equal of 5-7% of his salary. That, once taken from the take home pay and benefits numbers– we wont use or discuss the computed hourly wage– makes him the equal of our UPS deliveryman, and less than our garbage collectors. Oh yeah, its a myth that college professors children get to go to college for free. We wont be able to send ours).
If I free myself for a moment from those numbers, I am back to the hours, the days (a fine film that ponders quality of life issues by the way, The Hours). It seems so small, so trivial. I am spending this time overlapping with many other people, people I do not know, but who share this gross time, as well as people I love. Imagine a large computer screen covered with small dots. Each dot is someone known by name at this moment, both dead and alive. Over time, dots are replaced by other names as some people fade from memories, from history. While they existed, they helped make up the gross movements, the impact of humans on time, place, and matter. Yet most of us will fade. Ptolemy (Claudius Ptolemaeus) is remembered by name, but his servants and friends are not. Eventually, even his name will fade from the screen. We become the bricks and mortar of history, each overlapping the next, unrecognizable as individuals. I think the focus of religions on individuality, of god/s knowing each person by name is driven by this collective knowledge, this consciousness of mortality as the loss of individuality. It is a last desperate bid, hope, for self after the living is done.
Each day I am usually aware of at a macro level, when I am falling asleep. I am aware of having wasted it to some degree; feeling guilty over not having taught my children enough, of not getting enough done, of not having let go and laughed enough, of not loving the people who love me enough, of not having listened well enough, of not having been a better citizen, of not being more healthy, and of being too self-involved. I am also grateful to have been able to observe the crazy things we call culture, and public life. I am grateful to have smelled food cooking, feel the autumn air, and see the leaves in different colors. I am grateful for the warm, quick hugs of my small boys, and the lingering embraces of my Husband that can make me feel calm and safe (really- it slows my heart rate and lowers my blood pressure. I find it an amazing effect). I also know these things are fleeting, and exist only in our shared memories, which will fade someday as well.
I have a Jewish friend who impressed upon me the importance of remembering, and of witnessing in her faith. She noted the importance of remembering names, and events, as ways of keeping not only the gross reality of her religion alive, but individuals too. I told her that made the Old Testament so much more relevant to me, as a document of remembering names. So much of it is taken up with a boring list of who was, and who was born of whom. The Mormons have engaged many Jewish persons in this remembering process, as part of their dedicated genealogical studies. The vast Mormon databases of who was and who was born of whom is open to anyone, and is quite useful I am told.
I want to fill a jar with 16,060 dried, small black beans. Each day I want to remove one, a symbol of what is passing, to remind me to step back and love my life a little better. The clocks on the walls of every room are not enough, the tickers of moments on the top of my computer, my cell phone, my auto dash board that constantly flip numbers. I want to more tangibly remind myself to witness, to forgive, and to be aware of time as it passes, of my self and others as we pass and fade into the background of history.
Horton alone heard We are here! but someday our noises will fade, the lights will dim, and all the dots will go black. Space spins on, most of the larger mysteries not knowable to us, in a framework of time and matter we cant begin to grasp. The sliding scale of reality can go into the microcosms of organisms that exist only for seconds, then spiral out into the vastness of time (A film was made about these ideas, Powers of Ten, 1977, by Ray and Charles Eames; look it up on UTube to see it for free).
Ill use my tiny beans to remind me, I am here! for as long as I can think it. Descartes was right about one thing; we recognize our own existence as long as we are living it. Whether or not we can call it reality is another discussion.
Quality and Quantity will always be debatable in the consideration of this thing called living, and time.
For the most part, the food is terrible and the portions so small.
In sum, the alternative is much less, significantly less palatable than what I know. At least for now, for me. Goodbye David Foster Wallace. This time will be much less a place worth sharing without you, the 16,060 days I might have left.
Addendum: I have read today that adding Jewish persons to the Mormon genealogical database is prefaced by baptizing those who have died first. There is an active movement against this practice. What seemed like such a good cross religious effort now seems like just more religious hocus pocus. What a shame.