In the woods, I watched a sycamore leaf fall from the high branches of a creek side tree and drift down through the cushioning air to the ground below. How much time passed from the instant the leaf let go until it settled at the tree’s base? In the mind’s eye the leaf hung suspended in air long enough to witness its slow descent in tiny durations of mathematical increment, whereas it couldn’t have taken longer than a second or two by clock time.
This variability of duration is the common human experience of time, which is felt as distinctly other than clock or calendar time. A friend of mine hit a patch of black ice on a mountain roadway some years ago, and in the few seconds it took the car to flip upside down and plunge over a cliff onto the rocks below, his entire life passed through his mind. Events that had taken a lifetime to accrue were telescoped into the few scant seconds it took for the car to drop onto the rocks below where he found himself suspended upside down by his seat belt, miraculously unharmed and able to rescue himself.
My brother, Rowland, died of Myasthenia Gravis in March 2005 at age seventy-five. Had Rowland not died, he would have been eighty-four years old the year of this writing, which means he’s been dead for nine years. How long is nine years? Measured by the events of family, friends, nation, and world that have occurred since Rowland’s death, the duration of his absence is strung out like suspended entries in a diary. Were it not for the disease that so suddenly overtook him, he would have been present when grandchildren graduated; he would have answered the phone when I called to wish him happy birthday; he would have argued politics with me; he would have insisted on picking up the check when we went out for breakfast at Ernie’s. When I measure the duration of Rowland’s absence in terms of actual occurrence, time is inseparable from event. Experienced that way Rowland’s not being here and doing things with me seems painfully prolonged, and it’s hard for me to grasp that he’s been dead such a long time. But at other times, it seems as if Rowland died just yesterday, his death an injury still raw with fresh hurt. I look at the current calendar date and see that it’s the month of November 2014, and yet it’s as if I’ve just this moment turned away from Rowland’s death bed, having said the last goodbye.
What’s clear to me is that the human experience of duration, whether the duration of a leaf fall, the time it takes to plunge into a creek bed, or the duration since the death of a brother, stretches or compresses in ways having little necessary correspondence to any mechanically agreed upon means of measuring time. We simply don’t experience time as so many clocked minutes or hours, and in fact often have to check our watch or cell phone to know how much measurable time has elapsed during a particular activity. This is true even of the duration of time measured by the earth’s revolutions and the passing of seasons. While these natural elements of experience can be shown to correspond to mechanically measurable durations, anyone can testify to the fact that the seasons and years don’t pass through human experience with anything remotely like standardized durations. Human time consists of our experience of passing events, not the clocked measurements of them.
Human time is therefore inseparable from self, and self is simply time being. What I refer to as “I” is an instrument of continual change wherein time is determined in variable increments of leaf fall, suspended duration in face of imminent death, and expanded and contracted hours of grief and loss over a brother’s death.
When time is no longer perceived as an external separate from self, self flows from movement to movement in the most natural manner. The duration of a leaf’s fall is the nature of leaf itself: it’s present being consisting of its downward drift. Once settled on the ground, its being consists of a settled leaf. There is no leaf other than this leaf of the moment. When I realize this interchange of duration and event to be the nature of my being as well, I can give myself to the present circumstance without reserve. A loosened leaf falls into the care of air and light and cushioning earth, just as a loosened mind falls into the care of the moment’s circumstance.
In the woods, leaves are falling to the forest floor. I sit a mile from the woods at the keyboard of my computer typing these words that you now read. We, all of us –woods, leaves, typist, reader- occupy the duration of the moment. Together we drift down from branches overhead, together we engage the same printed page. This is the movement of the single and only self of which we are one.