“But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near”
-Andrew Marvell, “To His Coy Mistress”
I’ve been thinking a lot about time and task lately. Partly it’s because for the past few weeks I’ve been having trouble managing my time to get my tasks done. I suspect this is a common problem for people who work from home, especially writers, artists, and musicians. We spend our days (or nights) trying to fit our assignments, or tasks, around appointments, classes, and events that are scheduled at a particular time. The spigot of creativity and word flow gets turned off, and when it is turned back on, the gush has been reduced to a trickle. There are times when I hear “Time’s winged chariot,” and I want to be seduced like Marvell’s mistress and surrender to the moment. Forget work. I want to read a novel.
Since ancient times, humans have been fascinated by time. We have tried to measure it through calendars (Go Mayas!), massive structures, such as Stonehenge, and small objects, such as hourglasses.
We try to capture time in photographs, videos, or words written in a blog post. But time cannot be captured; it is fleeting. It cannot be saved in a bottle, as singer-songwriter Jim Croce wished it could be. Time is like the bubbles produced by the child’s wand. We glimpse them for a moment as they hover and glimmer in the air, but they break and disappear when we try to catch them. They cannot be pinned down.
Sometimes time floats by like those bubbles. At other times it rushes by propelled by unseen currents. We see it pass. We see it in the aging faces of our parents, in the accomplishments of our children, in the physical changes in our own bodies, and we long to go back to revisit, to understand what happened.
Writers from H.G. Wells to Audrey Niffenegger have imagined worlds in which people could travel through time to see the past, or the future. The novelist Connie Willis has written stories and novels that center around the time traveling adventures of historians and their students at Oxford University. As a historian, I have often wished I could go back in time to see if what I thought happened actually did. However, my own time machine would have to be equipped with indoor plumbing, coffee, and chocolate, among other things. I think it’s important to be upfront about my demands, even with the gods of time.
In the preindustrial world, daily life was not so tied to clocks. Before factories and railroads, there was no need for time to be measured so precisely. Still, there was a seasonal and daily rhythm to life, and there were tasks to be done. Crops had to be planted and harvested according to the season. People and animals had to be fed, cows had to be milked, and children had to be cared for. There were court days and feast days and market days. All of this, I imagine, made it just as difficult then, if not more so, for creative minds to find the time to produce works of art, literature, and music. And yet, they did.
I’ve been thinking about time, too, because I’m reading a novel called The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker (no review yet, since I haven’t finished the book). The premise is intriguing: the rotation of the Earth has slowed down. As a result the length of a day is no longer twenty-four hours. Daylight and darkness no longer fit “clock time.” Some people choose to live in “real time,” but most people attempt to remain on clock time, sleeping while it is light, going to school or work when it is dark, and watching the sunrise at noon.
None of this knowledge and reflection helps me to manage my own schedule. Time’s winged chariot still whooshes by, and I still have deadlines. Yes, it’s true. We can’t stop time, but we can pause to think about it.