time

Life in Reverse

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It was happening again. A cosmic hiccup. A moment in time, repeated.

The world moved around her, but in reverse. How many times had Stacy been through the same series of events? She might have been through a single iteration, or she might have been through a thousand. Forward. Then backward.

Water rose from the shag carpet like Jell-O, streamed back into a glass that reflected sharp needles of light as it fell upward, arcing through the air and finally righting itself on Mary Anne’s serving tray. The woman back-stepped from pale and mortified to warm and boisterous.

In an insane corner of her mind, the part of her that was convinced she’d done this long enough for the sun to burn out, Stacy wondered if God had found some particular event in the world so funny that he’d had to hit the rewind button to watch it again.

Then she wondered if this was Hell.

Mark’s shoulder disconnected from Mary Anne’s, just as his foot parted ways from the table leg that had tripped him. His head came up like an Olympic swimmer rising from the water. All of this in a world without sound.

How could that be? Shouldn’t she hear everything, but backwards? Did it have to do with waves of sound traveling backward instead of forward, toward instead of away from the source? Maybe, though she suspected that wasn’t quite right.

During all of this she was frozen, like the ice sculpture mounted beside the chocolate fountain, dripping backwards as it spontaneously refroze. Like the T-1000 in the Second Terminator movie, she thought, and a mad giggle would have escaped her lips if she could have opened them.

Lucy stepped back into her field of vision, approached her in a strange backwards walk as she undismissed herself from Stacy’s company. She had no idea how far back time would go before things righted themselves, but a sense of certainty was mounting that the stage was nearly set for the next iteration. She thought of the movie Groundhog Day. Was there a lesson in this? If so, why couldn’t she remember any of her previous experiences? She suspected, much to her horror, that this was pure accident, that the universe wasn’t so neat and orderly after all. That, more than anything else, scared her.

If this was immortality, she wanted to die.

Lucy’s mouth opened. The arm she’d withdrawn from Stacy’s shoulder returned. And that was when she felt it, a tug, an instant of hopeless disorientation as the universe stopped, tilted, began to spin in the opposite direction once more. In one infinitesimal moment she felt she was on the precipice of something, that she existed outside space and time, that she was nearly a god. Then memory drained from her head like water down a sink.

“Stacy,” said Lucy, a hand on her shoulder. “It was so good of you to come. Let me see if I can find Steve so he can say hello.” She left Stacy, gone in search of her boyfriend.

Then there was a shocked cry, a mortified apology and the dull thud of a glass landing on the carpet. Stacy’s eyes went to the wet spot, and she could swear that just beyond that darkened halo of shag carpet there was some cosmic secret, a hidden trap that was about to spring.

Another tug, then a pull. The muscles in Stacy’s body froze, and a knowledge that wasn’t quite memory returned to her. It was happening again.

A moment in time, repeated.

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Going Home

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Jack stood facing the Pacific, dwarfed by the vastness of the ocean. He was nothing before that endless expanse of blue. The vastness of the ocean made him ponder the vastness of the cosmos, transcendental, eternal. A tailwind kicked up behind him, billowing his shirt and jacket. He hugged himself and shivered.

He wanted to go home. He’d been away for too long, had almost forgotten what his other life was like. He’d married. Had kids. Grown old. He looked down at his hands, gnarled with age.

A wave rolled in, frothing at the edge. It reached as far as it could, grazed the surface of Jack’s feet, then retreated, leaving behind a briny footprint.

His children were grown now and had families of their own. They hardly visited anymore. Would they miss him when he was gone? He supposed they might. He knew all too well that you never appreciated something until it was taken away.

No matter. They had all they needed to be self sufficient. For a season they would mourn, and then they would go on to enjoy long, happy lives.

He peered at the sea with the rabid hunger of someone who hasn’t eaten for months. The water called to him, sang his name in its maddening siren voice. The surf curled around his toes, tickling, teasing.

Jack had had enough of time. He would return to the sea, allow the water to take him, diffuse him, spread him around until he was as vast and timeless as it was. Someday he would emerge and venture back onto dry land—he thought the world might be very different by then, just as it had been on his last return—but he didn’t want to think about that now.

He stepped forward, pulled his head back in ecstasy as the ocean embraced him like a prodigal son, and he disappeared beneath the surface.

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What is Time?

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For the first few years of childhood, we exist in a bubble. Inside this bubble, the world is in stasis. We know our place in the universe, and consequently the universe doesn’t seem to be all that scary a place. Then something curious happens.

The world begins to change.

At first, it only seems to change in small ways. We notice the cycles in the sky. We begin to track the passing of the seasons. But the things that really matter, the people we love and the security we find in the bosom of the familiar, they remain fixed, and so we regard these discoveries with only a passing curiosity. Then something uncomfortable happens.

The world changes some more.

The warm inviting cocoon that we were born into begins to break down. We graduate from school. Get a job. The people we love move on. Important landmarks are torn down to make way for shopping malls and apartments. One by one, everything we loved is either rewritten or lost forever.

Before too long, we’re surrounded by a hostile alien world. We start to feel the ravages of age, creeping up on us like deadly vines, and we realize it’s only a matter of time before this cruel existence of ours comes to an unpredictable end. We gaze about, exiles in our own backyard, and we can’t help but wonder, “What is time?”

Time is currency.

Each of us has a fixed balance, deposited at the moment of conception, and everything we do is accompanied by a corresponding withdrawal. Like money, we can choose to spend it wisely, doing worthwhile activities that enrich ourselves and others, or we can fritter it away on wasted hours, sitting around on the couch or laying in bed because we have nothing better to do. We would do well to make the most of what we have, lest we spend our deathbed hours as beggars, scrounging in the gutter for chronological crumbs in our haste to make up for a lifetime of regret.

Time is a veil.

A cosmic curtain, time keeps the past, the present and the future neatly partitioned, allowing us to experience life in manageable bite-sized chunks. Usually this veil is opaque. But every so often, especially as we advance in age, it begins to stretch and pull like taffy, made thin and partially transparent so that in moments of intense reflection, we feel that if only we peer a bit closer, we might yet sight those spectres of the past we’d thought lost years ago.

Time is an ocean.

A vast expanse of cause and effect stretching all the way back to the Big Bang, we navigate its treacherous waters like sailors, attempting to stay afloat for as long as possible while we map the uncharted regions of the future.

Time is motion.

Like a river it flows, sweeping us away in its implacable current, making vagrants of us all. Those who stop and turn back to mourn the increasingly hazy past are dragged by their feet kicking and screaming, torn away from everything and everyone they ever loved.

Time is a fire.

It blazes across the universe, burning everything in its path, reducing the cosmos to ash. Not a one of us escapes its ageless and insatiable maw. It strips us to our souls, consuming the rest in a brilliant infernal flash. As Delmore Schwartz puts it in Calmly We Walk Through This April’s Day, “time is the fire in which we burn.”

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