The Nature of Time

vintage clock

When he flew home from Vietnam, my first husband, Bill, brought with him a carved wooden hand with two fingers extended in the peace sign, photographs and memories of men in his platoon, and his short-timer calendar.

Most soldiers with fewer than three months left in Viet Nam kept such calendars. They were painted on helmets, sketched in notebooks, drawn on paper. All were illustrated; some were funny; many were salacious, a few were works of art. Every calendar had numbered spaces counting down to wake-up on the soldier’s last day in country.

As the final months crawled by, short-timers colored or marked off a space a day.

A fellow soldier drew Bill’s calendar: a psychedelic design decorated with joints, peace symbols and jungle trails. My husband had colored in every space. Here and there around the edges, he also scribbled addresses, phone numbers, and reminders. A random note caught and held my attention: “Time stands still. I’ll never make it home.”

When asked, he said: “Time moved like mud those last few weeks,” and nothing more.

Now I’m embarked on my final season, I think about his calendar, his comment, and the nature of time.

I wonder if time fears its own passing; if it drags its feet in an attempt to slow itself down. I wonder if it ages, develops wrinkles and aches, rues the fast pace of the passing years. Does time lose track of itself when lost in memories as I do? Does it remember the freedom it enjoyed as a child, the possibilities it sensed as a youth, and the rewards of being needed and useful as an adult?

Calendar

I tell myself if time wanted to postpone the inevitable result of its relentless passing, it wouldn’t spin out of control, crazed with speed, as it has since I turned sixty-five. It wouldn’t fold in on itself, causing months to fly by as quickly as days once did, and days to flash by in minutes.

I know that time doesn’t age as we do; but it does seem to possess a contrary personality that compels it to act in opposition to our lives.

To children, the weeks before Christmas crawl more slowly than a slug; teenagers, yearning for the endless years to pass, think they will never be old enough to drive. Meanwhile, adults are amazed that their offspring are in high school already; and grandparents look into the face of old age, incredulous that it arrived so quickly. At the same time, a soldier colors in a calendar and despairs.

Time passes for all of us, seeming to adjust its pace for each of us; and I find myself at the center of a whirlwind.

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62 thoughts on “The Nature of Time

    • Thank you, Becca. I wonder how your mother and father view time now. They are still working and so involved with their children and grandchildren, I don’t know it time has started to speed by for them or not.

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  1. OMGoodness, you have expressed my feelings completely. I have even been grieving the passing of time since I was 60. I can’t believe how it compresses, and I feel my end is nearer than I would like. I can’t seem to accomplish enough to justify the time gone. I do go on–but you did hit a note that resonates with me these days.

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  2. So very true. Thank you for writing this and putting it up today. I am struggling now with being the eldest and in charge of putting my parent’s farm up for sale and all of the other “affairs in order” chores that they have handed me. It’s not an easy time, but I suppose I am grateful that I can do these things for them as they ask. I wonder if my father had such a calendar in Japan? I’ll be sure to ask him while I can

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    • I think being the oldest usually carries high expectations and lots of responsibility. I can’t imagine any one more equal to your parents’ tasks than you must be, Mom, though at times you must feel overwhelmed as you juggle your many roles. I appreciate your spirit of gratitude, and I’m sure your parents do as well.

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    • Ah, so you understand how time as we age can seem slippery and elusive. It’s a comfort to hear from people who have had the same experience, Kay. My grandchildren look at me like I’m daft when I try to describe the compression of time to them.

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  3. A beautifully thought out post. These thoughts seem to be universal to all of us. In my ninth decade, time flies much too swiftly. There is still so much to think about, to write, to do. As one ages, we move slower making it even more frustrating. But as long as we are still vertical keep going forward.

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    • Your ninth decade: I’m impressed. I love that you still have so much to think about, write and do. My movement slow down has begun, and I’m amazed when my body doesn’t spring up out of a chair like it did five years ago. But I’m vertical, so I’ll take your advice and keep going forward.

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  4. I have often wondered this myself, you have put my thoughts into words that I couldn’t. Thank you for a beautiful piece

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  5. Just as the time whizzes past in these (mostly) healthy senior years, I wonder if it drags again for the very old. Those who are alone or in pain must feel time slow to a crawl and without a countdown to tell them precisely when time is up. But then do we really want to know? This certainly stirred up a lot of thoughts. Thanks?

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    • What an interesting thought, Lorie, that time might move slowly again for the very old. It makes sense. My mother-in-law just turned 99; she’s never talked to me about the movement of time, or I to her. She’s very open and frank, so I think the next time I visit her, I’ll ask. Thanks for prying my mind open a bit more than it went on its own.

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  6. Dear Janet- a lovely piece, if Bill is still here, and you are in touch tell him welcome home- so many of the boys did not, and still suffer that crap war. Oft in my writing, I have noted at the most special, most sad, most profound times for my character- time waits. It comforts me to believe this. As the battered body grieves for what it can no longer do, I give thanks for mind and heart, and offer it up to friends who did not get to be this old. This is powerful, very heartfelt writing, thank you.

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    • Bill died several years ago, Sheila, and I still feel his loss. (We remained good friends after our divorce.) You would have liked him: he was bright, funny, off beat, and an original thinker. He was also an avid reader; I think he would have enjoyed Godfrey. It is comforting to think time waits. My thoughts are often with friends who have died. So sad how much they have missed. I’m glad you enjoyed this piece.

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  7. this is indeed a mystery and I too find that the days fly by so fast since I retired, friends ask me how I am finding retirement and I laugh and say I love it , so much to do, to explore and not enough hours in the day. Mind you on cold wet days I treasure being able to stay in bed and read the news on my ipad instead of having to trek outside to the letter box for the paper. you always write thought provoking material and I enjoy it. Thanks

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    • Oh, the wonders of staying in on cold, wet days — on of the great pleasures of being retired. I love sitting in my pajamas and sipping coffee with a good book while snow plows roar by my house. I’m glad you enjoy my blog. Thanks for reading it.

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  8. I find the days go at a reasonable pace, but the months fly by. When I’m in the back country, time stands still for a while. I think because I’m looking around, noticing more. I spoke to a hummingbird today. I think that was a good thing to do. I like my life now. I like knowing the things I thought I knew–but didn’t. I remember those shot-timer calendars. I remember a couple of poems that were written on the walls of the head. One stuck with me all these years: “Roses are red, violets are blue, I’m a US service man, Who the f– are you?”

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    • What a fine bit of poetry to have stuck in your head, Rob. I must admit I have a few similar ditties taught to my by my old friend, Ernie, who found a career in the navy. I watched a hummingbird dance in a sprinkler today and told him what a fine dancer he was; again, a good thing to do. I also identified with “I like knowing the things I thought I knew–but didn’t.”

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      • Hummingbirds rule! I wear a red bandanna when I’m out, hoping to attract them, and hoping they don’t give me a heart attack when they buzz me. 🙂

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  9. I think it is a dangerous thing to contemplate time, especially the time we have left. It is the old half full, half empty question. I’m just glad to have a glass with water in it. There’s a John Denver song that has some significant meaning for living life. It is entitled “Sweet Surrender.” One line in the lyric says, “My life is worth the living, and I don’t need to see the end.”

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    • I laughed aloud at “I’m just glad to have a glass with water in it,” Troy, and wished I had thought of it. Then I was struck by the wisdom and truth of John Denver’s line; it’s worthy of remembering. If I were a crafter, I’d embroider it on a pillow or embed it in stained glass or something.

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  10. Ah time. It does indeed seem to go faster with each day. I really enjoyed your story about Bill. He will always have a special place in my heart. It’s hard to believe that so much time has passed since he left this world.

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  11. A beautiful description of time passing. I’m feeling ever more often that whirlwind and lamenting how much time I wasted back when time seemed to “move like mud”. Loved the story and description of the calendars in Vietnam.

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    • I think you’ve hit upon something. Perhaps time moves so fast now because we’re busy, whereas when we were younger we tended to waste time because we didn’t have the interests and responsibilities we do now, so it seemed to crawl. If you ever have a free minute, google short timer calendar images and enjoy their variety and creativity.

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  12. Your description of the short timer calendar is vivid and so appropriate to the topic. I remember writing a bad poem about time when I was in the third grade: “Time goes slow when you want it to go fast. Time goes fast when you want it to last.” Thanks for the lovely post. -Valerie

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  13. I agree with you totally, Janet, about time changing tempo. The days are certainly much shorter for me in my retirement, than they were in my youth. It makes life exciting though, and hope to make the most of it whilst I have it! 🙂

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  14. I find at my stage of life (mid-life I guess) when I notice time either slowing or speeding by there is something going on inside of me that I must address. And, when I do, time just is and that feels wonderful.
    When I have a lot of time on my hands, it easily slips through my fingers. I think this is because I am not conscious about how I am using it, just allowing it to pass…and it always does pass by.
    I am always struck by this quote from Thich Nhat Hanh: “People sacrifice the present for the future. But life is available only in the present. That is why we should walk in such a way that every step can bring us to the here and the now. ”
    I find myself, when time is compressing, saying out loud “I need time to slow down…I have enough time to do what i need to do in this moment, slow please and allow me to finish what I need to finish” and you know what…it works! Not only do I find a gap in the time continuum but I am calm, What an incredible feeling!
    Great writing Janet, thought provoking and touching. Beautiful! Oh and I wonder, do you wear a watch? I never have…found myself always check it! It is liberating to find other ways to tell time. Just a thought.

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    • You have created a useful, practical attitude toward time, Carrie. Why does that not surprise me? I’m going to try the phrase “slow please and allow me to finish;” it does sound calming. No, I don’t wear a watch, and I’ve never started the habit of checking the time on my cell phone for the same reasons you mention. Thanks for the thought-provoking comment.

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      • I was sitting in my pink hospital gown waiting for a radiology consult when I took off my watch and put it in my purse. I told myself “time will never have the same meaning again”. Removing your watch is very liberating.

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      • I find it interesting that two of the wisest people I know — a new friend, Carrie, and a forever friend, Mary — have also given up watches in order to exist more in the moment. I took mine off the day I retired. I still wear a pretty one Joel gave me as a gift, but the battery has been dead for years, which is rather embarrassing when someone notices it and asks me for the time.

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  15. That’s absolutely breath-taking and heartbreaking in the very same minute. One just can be silent and very, very glad that Bill came back home and was able to “materialize” the unspeakable.

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  16. Janet, I remember learning Bill was a Vietnam veteran seven years after I met him: he never spoke of that time. My mind is a jumble and tumble of thoughts and memories as I read and re-read this almost haunting post.. You’ve put into words feelings I haven’t been able to sort or express. Time, and it’s passing, is such a great mystery.

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    • I was surprised by the many wise responses to this post, Mary, and the different ways people handle the passing of time. Ernie was the first one who called my attention to the way time seems to speed up as you age. I remember not really understanding what he was saying. I understand now. “Haunting” I like your use of that a word in relation to my writing. Thank you.

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  17. Hi! I’ve been following your website for some time now and finally got the courage to go ahead
    and give you a shout out from Porter Texas!
    Just wanted to mention keep up the great work!

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    • Hello! Thanks for following my blog and leaving a comment. Responses like yours are my reward for blogging. I’m going to a family reunion in Lubbock this fall, Porter is in the Houston area somewhere, isn’t it?

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  18. I turn 60 on Tuesday and although I seriously wish I had a body and memory of a 25 year old, I am so blessed to have the knowledge and wisdom that comes with age and experience….I’m fatter, grayer, and much more forgetful, but I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life because I’ve finally stopped trying to please “the world” and now only please “me”…Thanks, again, for another well-stated post, Janet.

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    • You sound like the sort of sixty year old I’d like to have a cup of coffee with now and then, because I think people who quit worrying about the opinions of others and become truly themselves are the most fun to know. Too bad I didn’t learn that lesson sooner in life. It might have made junior high more enjoyable.

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      • Ditto! I started a “Tuesday Tea Group” (that meets on Thursdays and sometimes Wednesdays) after I retired from teaching spec. ed. a number of years ago and I have a strong feeling that you’d “fit right in”…..I’m the youngest in the bunch and definitely not the “sharpest” of the group….my ladies keep me up to date on current affairs, books, environmental issues, etc. and I love them dearly. We don’t always agree with each other, but damn do we have some great discussions! They make me think, they make me laugh and ultimately they make me a better person. If you ever make it to the SF/Bay Area, you’re cordially invited to come as my guest. PS Junior high and senior high were BOTH not great experiences for me-wasn’t until I went to college that I “fit in”…was always a little “different”, don’t ‘cha know? :)p

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      • What a wonderful comment and delightful sounding group of ladies. I don’t have a group to interact with as you do, but I have several individual friends — some forever friends and some fairly recent — who do for me what your ladies do for you. Count on it, if I ever come to your area again (my favorite metro area in the world from the 23 years I spent in Carson City and driving over the mountain to San Francisco when I needed a city fix) I’ll look you up and hope it’s a Thursday or Wednesday that your Tuesday group is meeting.

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  19. Once again you’ve touched on a subject of interest to me. I’m almost obsessed with the passage of time, and I always have been. Even when I was young I wanted time (and moments) to last forever. I’ve heard that time seems to slow when we’re learning new things and creating new experiences – which is why it seems so slow to very young people? – and so I work hard at filling my life with a variety of events and adventures!

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    • I’ve heard that same theory as an explanation of why time seems slower when we are younger; we are experiencing so many more new things. It makes sense, doesn’t it? I like your philosophy of searching out new events and adventures, and share it, but had never thought of it that way.

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  20. I always find my time flowing endlessly and quickly. It seems to be the most constant part of my life. Always chasing down another task or project or event. I need to stop and ponder for a time.

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