By L&T Columnist Rachel Coleman
The red turtle sits on the small bookcase next to my desk. I admire its ruby eyes every day, marvel at the cleverness of its white-and-gold, wrought-iron body, fashioned so that the tail and neck appear to move independently. The top of its body is no shell, but a tiny, oval cushion covered in red velvet. In all, the turtle stretches out to a length of no more than four inches.
It’s the sort of thing that some might dismiss as a knick-knack, but I love it. A “just because” gift from a friend who moved out of the area in September, the turtle cheers me when I miss her. A common symbol of perseverance, patience and the long view of life, the turtle’s presence — and my friend’s absence — reminds me that time’s passage is more a matter of how we choose to spend it than something we can measure.
Not everyone registers this fact. Beliefs about time belie actual experience, though most of us never notice. We say things, we live a certain way, we count hours and practice impatience. Most of the time, we’re fairly ignorant about how we find our way through life.
People advise us not to waste time, as if time comes in pre-portioned packages that must be made to last the duration — like rations. I actually don’t believe this. For starters, nobody knows how long we have. I didn’t get to choose the date, time or location of my birth. I am not aware of when my death will occur. I don’t even know what might happen to me today, once I finish writing this column and pull out my red pen to search the newspaper for typos.
Yet the folksy brand of common sense advises me to use every minute wisely, rather than “wasting” time. I understand the desire to discourage laziness and promote wise planning. There’s real merit in being mindful about how I spend each day, and I am amazed at the progress that accumulates when I do just a little bit of something on a daily basis.
Even so, I’m not sure it’s possible to waste time. When I look back over my life, I see many occasions where a split-second delay, or a few minutes longer in the checkout line, changed the trajectory of lives. That slight hitch in timing might have spared my life, a fact I register when I pass the debris of a highway accident. Those moments of conversation could have saved a life teetering on the edge of despair, or brought joy to a person deeply weary. The mind-bending element in such thinking? It’s impossible to know when a minute matters. I can’t predict what use a smile might be, or when a strong word of correction, issued calmly, makes a tremendous difference in the life of a teenager.
Like the turtle, I’m moving one step at a time. My eyes might sparkle and scan, but in the larger sense I am blind to the vista that marks the horizon of this vast world. Some call it plodding. Others see it as futile. There are days when I wish I knew the storyline, the blueprint. The future.
Then again, what is the future? As each second passes, I move from what was the past, then the present, to the future I anticipated just a few minutes ago. I sit down to write a column, hoping it goes well, hoping the words flow. Hoping it won’t be cheesy and sentimental. Before I reach the end of the first sentence, I’ve moved from looking forward to a future — albeit a modest, daily-deadline sort of literary future – to the past, with a few hundred keystrokes. Since I’m writing on a computer, the keystrokes are recorded, making the entire exercise a historical record. Am I in the present, the future or the past? What do we call it when I scroll back to the top of the page and re-read what I composed?
Some wise folks advise me to live in the moment. This might sound New Agey, slightly Buddhist, at the very least a sort of sensation-based existence. Hedonistic. I think the point of such advice, though, is to forsake worry. I’m probably only halfway through my life — though, as I wrote before, who knows? — and when I look back, I realize that I spent a good part of those 45 years trying to change things that cannot be changed, worrying about things that never actually occurred, and wrenching the natural order out of whack by indulging in anxiety and discontent.
“If only,” I think, and then I fill in the possibilities. If only this person or that person would behave differently. If only I had known. If only the phone call had come a little earlier. If only we called some other place home. If only things had turned out differently. If only I could make things better. If only I had more money. If only I had more time.
When I became friends with Rebecca, I had no idea what lay ahead. During the time we were part of one another’s everyday lives, she had two more children. I got multiple sclerosis. She learned to play piano. I learned to walk again. She discovered the simple, ancient beauty of Orthodox Christianity. I watched, wondered, and savored the writings of the early church fathers, to whom she’d introduced me.
She taught my children Spanish. I encouraged her oldest child to explore speech and drama classes. We gardened, swapping tips and samples. We cooked, relishing one another’s specialties. It’s impossible to tally how much time we actually spent together, or what portion of our lives the friendship occupies.
And it’s hard to say what’s happening when I admire my red velvet turtle and reminisce about how it came to be mine. Who knows what lies ahead? A trip to Tulsa, where Rebecca lives now? Letters? Packages, like the one she sent me last week, another “just because?”
Time will tell.