|Print | Back||January 1, 2009|
In The VillageTime real, arbitrary
by Orson Scott Card
So it's 2009, and I'm not all that impressed so far. Just another day. It has weather. There's some news. But there's always weather and there's always news.
When I was a kid, the minutes crawled by. So much time that I had no idea how to fill it. "There's nothing to do."
That didn't happen to me very often, because there was always a book. Or plastic American bricks (this was before Legos got to the U.S.), or my HO scale train set, or brothers and sisters who thought Careers or Monopoly or Risk were a good idea.
The point is that there were so many minutes in each day.
Now, except when I'm standing by the microwave waiting for something to get hot, I never experience minutes at all. I look up and an hour has gone by. Or a day.
Kids have no idea of years. Years seem infinite. While to me, minutes seem infinitesimal.
Kids mark time in terms of the future. Next year I'll be in second grade. Or I'll start college. The passage from grade to grade is what distinguishes years. "Oh, that happened in fifth grade."
We adults don't have grades. Oh, a bit of that lingers. "I remember when I was in grad school (beauty school, medical school, law school)" will mark a few events in memory. But most things recede into a kind of mush.
My wife kept a journal for the first few years of our marriage. Not a private confess-your-inmost-thoughts journal, just a this-is-what-we-did-today journal.
Now we read that old journal and there are two events reported on the same day, or in the same week. One of them seems to have happened Not That Long Ago, while the other feels like Ancient History. They migrated apart in our memories.
We gave up the journal long ago. But she hangs on to the calendars that mark our appointments and events, so we have a record of our times.
And my wife and youngest daughter -- the one who still lives at home -- they think in calendars. In fact, our youngest was born with calendar-hunger. When she was barely talking, she once rather shocked my wife by saying, "What am I getting up for tomorrow?"
It sounded like what someone in the depths of despair might say. But no, when she explained it, it turned out our youngest was only asking what events were planned. She had to know what the next day would bring.
And by the time she was three, she needed to have a weekly calendar placed on the fridge (very low). She and my wife would sit down every Sunday and put stickers on each day. "This is the day we're going shopping." "This is your appointment with the doctor." "This is the day I'm cleaning the fridge and you can help."
Not that we had a sticker that actually showed each activity -- my wife would name the activity and our daughter would choose a sticker to represent it. Sometimes the association existed only in her mind, but she never forgot what any of the stickers meant.
I don't have that need for a calendar. To me, the calendar is a map. In fact, everything is a map. The year is like a race track oval: December is down at the lower left, March is the lower right, June is the upper right, and August the upper left.
I know, that doesn't work out, geometrically speaking. Summer is short. Autumn has a lot of months crammed into it. But that's how I experience the year. Summer stretches out like a vast territory; autumn is all crammed together so the days trip and tumble over each other and the whole thing is gone before you know it.
I'm just now catching my breath from this fall.
When I want to remember when something happened, I have to think of a place. Where were we living when it happened? If I can tie it to a house (or condo, or apartment, or at least a city) then I can get a rough time frame.
This especially worked when we were first married, and moved all the time.
One day, when our firstborn was coming up to his seventh birthday, he came and asked my wife for a box.
"What kind of box? What do you need it for?"
"To pack my toys in."
"Why are you packing your toys?"
"For the move."
"It's almost my birthday, and we had my last birthday in this house."
It turns out that at age seven, he had never had two birthdays in the same house. To him, life was just one move after another.
By sheer happenstance, that changed. We had already lived in Greensboro, North Carolina, for more than two years -- we still live there, twenty-six years later. The condo we were in when this happened was our home for seven years; the house we moved to when he was in eighth grade has been our home ever since.
Which is great for a feeling of stability -- but terrible for my memory. Sixteen years in the same house: now everything that has happened in that time is lumped together in the same pigeonhole.
So I have to go by "how much did I weigh when that happened?" It's the only remaining variable that is vaguely geographic. Was I a continent at that time, or a mere island?
Absolutely nothing in my memory is tied to years. New Year's Day is no help to me at all. It's not a watershed. I make no resolutions. And when I want to remember when something happened, the year number is the last datum I come up with -- I deduce it from the real memories.
Which makes me wonder sometimes: What will it be like in eternity?
I hope I'll have a more reliable and precise memory. But borderline telestial people like me might not get the fully equipped model. If I think it's a muddle now, just keeping our decades in Greensboro sorted into years, how will I keep track of forever?
Yeah, I know. That falls into the category of "least of my worries."
In eighth grade, when I lived on Dover Street in Mesa, Arizona (just across from Hawthorne Elementary) -- which was (let me do the arithmetic) 1964 or so -- I read Duane Crowther's book Prophecy: Key to the Future.
Crowther had a rather precise calendar for how the future was going to play out. Since the Earth was created in 4004 B.C. (right, like we know how long a "begat" is), and humanity was going to last exactly six thousand years before the millennium, it stood to reason that Christ was goingto return to earth in 1996. Probably on April 6th.
I remember being puzzled at the time -- how can we know with such exactness, when Christ himself said, "I come as a thief in the night" and "No man knows the day and the hour"?
But as my eleventh-grade (Brigham Young High School, Provo, Utah) seminary teacher, Keith Montague, explained, "That doesn't mean we can't figure out the week and the month." Like Crowther, he believed in the "first week of April 1996" target date for the start of the millennium.
A lot of things have happened since then. For instance, Crowther's book has been revised, so it no longer offers so much precision. Which is good, since 1996 came and went and all that happened was Clinton was reelected. And so was Yeltsin in Russia. And a lot of other heads of state in a lot of other places.
And the Cowboys won the Super Bowl. (No, I did not remember. I had to look it up.) Oh, and the element Ununbium was discovered. (No, I won't actually care about that until they make cars out of it.)
Oh, here's an interesting one. In June 1996, because of Iraq's noncooperation with WMD inspections, the Clinton administration tried to get U.N. support for military action against Iraq, and failed. Ouch. Haven't I been hearing for the past eight years that military action against Iraq was all George W. Bush's idea? I guess I'm not the only one with memory problems.
What definitely did not happen was the start of the Millennium. Christ is not yet reigning on earth.
I guess the Lord doesn't work on our timetable. Or we're really lousy at decoding his. (Quick, readers of Revelation: How many weeks or centuries is "time, and times, and half a time"?)
Maybe, from God's eternal perspective, our years are pretty much a meaningless wad of time. We live through our lives in excruciating detail, day after day, year after year -- but to him, it's a quick jaunt to Earth for our final exam and then we're home.
No doubt some people are so full of their experiences in mortality that they'll never stop talking about it. But I bet most people will just get on with their eternal lives -- after all, we've already been alive forever, and presumably we'll remember the whole thing after we die and we'll finally get some perspective about things.
Or maybe it's like most soldiers' experiences in war: never forgotten, but rarely talked about except, now and then, with someone who also went through it.
Or more like a mission: You're good for a few months of talks and testimonies, and then you're just another RM who isn't married yet. You know, a menace to the Church.
My point -- and I have one, but what's your hurry? How many precious minutes is it taking you to read this column? -- is that while time is real, unidirectional, and had no beginning and will have no end, the ways we mark time are pretty arbitrary.
Before and after are pretty final, once they happen. But, without reading any ridiculous overprecision into the statement, a day to the Lord is as a thousand years to man.
Just as a day to a child is like a year to an adult.
While just half a minute of being an electron would wear me out and bore me silly. And light waves? Forget it. What's the point of moving through space that fast if you can't experience anything along the way?
We tell it to our kids, when some mild disaster happens -- a tenth-grade crush ends in heartbreak, an examination is failed, an audition doesn't lead to getting the part. "In a few years, I promise you, this won't matter. You'll laugh about it, or remember it fondly, or wonder why you were so upset."
Naturally, our kids don't believe us and think we're rather heartless for saying it. But we know from experience that it's true.
When the shoe's on the other foot, though, we can't hear it ourselves. What breaks our adult hearts is real. Our disappointments and disasters are the end of the world.
And in a way, they are, or at least they can be. We can get ourselves into so much trouble, make mistakes and commit sins that affect us forever.
But God asks us to see things from his view, or at least try to: All these things will give you experience. They'll do you good.
Have you no heart? we answer. Don't you understand how this feels?
Yes, he says. I do. And in time, you'll get past how it feels and understand what it is.
How long will it take? How many years?
Years? We don't really think in years here, kid. Let's just say that "after a while" you'll see it in perspective.
Meanwhile, concentrate on the things that matter. The things that last. Repenting of your sins. Treating the people around you with the pure love of Christ.
Get on with the job you have today.
Here's a hymn for the new year:
Men and Women, Join Together
copyright © 2009 by Orson Scott Card
Men and women, join together
In the name of God, to build
Homes for his beloved children,
With the love of heaven filled.
Trouble comes like stormy weather,
Unexpected, hard to bear:
Mother, Father, hold your children,
Give them comfort in your care.
Teach that law is not a tether
But a lamp that lets them see.
By its light, your growing children
Walk in safety, wise and free.
Man and wife, forgive each other,
Grow together, grace on grace;
Set the pattern for your children;
Ready them to take your place.
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