Tuesday, October 05, 2010

How Do We Measure Our Days?

Editor's note: This column was originally published in 2004.

Around and around and around we go. In two months, I will have completed 50 trips around the sun.

That’s how we measure our years, by Earth’s elliptical revolutions around the sun. If only our days and weeks proceeded at such a natural pace.

Living by the clock is unnatural.

Farmers live by the seasons, by phases of the moon, by sunrise and sunset, by humidity and precipitation. When the sun shines in late spring, it’s time to make hay. When it shines in the fall, it’s time to cut corn.

Fishermen live by the tides, wind and sun. Growing up on the Great South Bay in New York, my grandmother and I planned our clamming expeditions for warm mornings when the tide was out. Crabbing we did at night during the full moon at low tide.

How long do farmers take to make hay? As long as it takes to finish baling the field.

How long did we spend clamming? As long as it took to fill a bushel basket.

When I was a kid, summer lasted forever. I awoke when the sun shone in my bedroom window, ate breakfast when I was hungry, played with my friends when I was ready for the world, buried my nose in a book when I wasn’t. No clock told me when to do what, although my mother sometimes did.

The lives of farmers, clammers and kids are in tune with the rest of creation, not in opposition to it. Albert Einstein said, “every frame of reference, every moving body, has its own time.”

Because we live by “get to work at 8, eat lunch at noon, return home at 5, eat dinner by 6 so we can get to whatever class or meeting by 7,” we are always conscious of the clock. Time is the enemy we must beat.

No matter how we try to control time, it eludes us. When we attempt to save time, make time or use time; whether we lose time, pass the time or waste time; are in time, on time, out of time, behind time or ahead of time; have no time or plenty of time ... we still end up with the same amount of time.

That’s what fascinates me about the age we live in. Since the end of the 19th century, man has been inventing everything imaginable to save time: telegraphs, automobiles, airplanes, telephones, assembly lines and computers. Each new computer is milliseconds faster than the one before it.

Speed is our god. But no matter how fast we drive or work or play or compute, we still don’t have surplus time.

“People consume the benefit of speed by spending it on distance,” writes philosopher John Whitelegg.

Time just is. It does not move. We are the ones who are moving, aging, working, racing, resting.

Why not just go with the flow?

In Judaism, holy days are not observed by the clock, but by the seasons of the moon, by sunrise and sunset, by planting and harvest times.

And the Sabbath, which God provided to remind people they are eternal beings outside of time, signals its beginning and end by the setting of the sun. The manner in which Christians observe a Sabbath totally misses God’s point.

“And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy,” says Genesis 2:3. Nothing else in all creation does God endow with the quality of holiness. Holy means “other.”

If you think about it, any given moment of our lives is unique, never to be repeated. It’s not like money, where, if we waste a dollar, we know we’ll get another one. Each moment is precious.

Abraham Heschel, the Jewish theologian/philosopher, calls the Sabbath a great cathedral, the holy of holies, the inner sanctuary. “Time is the heart of existence,” he says.

We approach living in rhythm with creation when we’re on vacation. Real vacation, not the kind where you schedule hang gliding on Monday, golf on Tuesday, canoeing on Wednesday, horseback riding on Thursday and shopping on Friday.

Real vacation is where you wake up when you’re done sleeping. You stare at the ocean and listen to the waves wash in and out, or stare at the mountains and listen to the creek trickle over the rocks.

When you get hungry, you buy seafood from the guy on the dock or put on a shirt for a restaurant buffet. You watch the sun set from the beach or the porch. You go to bed when you can’t stay awake any longer.

When you go on vacation, vacate the clock. Leave the planner home. Get out of time. You just might remember that you are a creature of heaven and earth, on a big ride around the sun.

No comments: