We are all limited by time. As it slowly passes through the hourglass, we seem not to notice its steady, relentless flow. We start out with the hourglass full, but it drains into the lower basin, uncontrollable, irreclaimable, each grain a passing moment that can never be retrieved.
When the glass is full, we are full of youth, vigor and dreams: dreams of fame, of fortune, of glory, as surely we are special on this planet, a special soul in search of a destiny that will have an impact on the world.
As time passes, we watch our youth decay into middle age, though we still think there is plenty of time left. The sand flows, and with it our vigor, our health, and our dreams of reshaping the world. We watch those who came before us as the last of their sand passes through the glass. We see them, yet they do not seem to be ourselves, because we cannot yet see ourselves in them. We hear stories of those long come and gone, but the stories are of their achievements, their victories, their triumphs. The stories of their decay and demise are seldom told, perhaps because they are so common. It is the uncommon we choose to remember and tell.
The common part is not so pretty. Time never gives an inch. Our youth, already decayed into middle age rapidly yields to an old age that is not so graceful, not so joyful, not so easy, as things we used to do with ease become harder, more tedious, more frustrating. Our eyes and our hands no longer work like they used to. There are pains where there once were none. We get a sudden, surprising, and complete understanding when we recall our fathers saying, “I just can’t seem to do that anymore.” In an instant, we have become our fathers, but for only an instant, for we transition into our grandfathers before we hardly had a chance to catch our breath.
We endure the pain of seeing those we love decay into oblivion, alive now only in a different realm, or in our memory, a family collective memory that fades with each passing generation until it seems that not only are we no longer, but it’s as if we never were. Such is the lot of mankind. We are born to trouble and travail. In the midst of the pain there is joy; were it not so, then the pain is all we would have, and that is just not so, at least not so for most of us. Some are born into pain which only increases throughout their life. Our joys must be savored.
I learned of the passing of someone who was once an important part of my life. I had lost touch over the years, so they were out of sight and out of mind other than the occasional memory, and not all of them pleasant, though most were. The unpleasant memories are those that reeked with the dismay of one’s own grapple with time and its toll: from middle-age crisis, to the mourning for what was lost to time and the futile effort to retrieve it. The sand never returns to the upper chamber.
I watched a memorial video of that one that began with photos as I remember him…strong and vigorous. I had not seen him in thirty-five years and witnessed through the photographs the toll that time takes on us before it completely takes us. My memories were all of vitality and vigor and the video showed that vitality and vigor as it decayed into old age and death. This is where we will all find ourselves eventually, and not even eventually, for we are in its midst right now.
If this seems morose, well, it is. But it is our lot to endure. Right now, for some reason, I am mourning the demise three years ago of someone who was once important to me, someone who, in his youth, thought that he would paint the earth with a wide brush only to learn that our brushes become smaller and smaller, until we lose them and the ones that remain become so bristle-bare they can no longer hold enough paint to mark the canvas, then our masterpiece is finished.
We still have an impact, though. If not on the world at large, then certainly a large impact on those within our arm’s reach. It is they who love us, cherish us, rejoice with us in victory, nurse us in sickness, and bury us in the same earth as our fathers who came before us, much the same as we did with our fathers, and our fathers did with their fathers, and back on into an endless widening tree, until those who lived lives similar to ours, in similar places, are lost to us as the earth covers their memory and time erases their every trace, except for those traces that live on in those left behind: those we influenced, those we helped, those we loved and loved us back. Those are the things that carry us forward to new generations, as the love and joy we inherited from others are passed on to others, and our spark, though infinitely divided and diminished, still remains.
For a while, I was me. Then I became my father. Now, I am my grandfather. It happens far faster than we can imagine in our youth. For a four year old, the forever-seeming length of time until the next Christmas is twenty percent of their life. For a seventy year old, Christmas seems to be a semi-monthly occurrence. A year is still a year, but our perception of the passage of time is different. We see it flowing rapidly, all the more so because of the dwindling sand in the hourglass.
If there is pain in this, it is pain that every mortal human faces. None of us are immune. We may put on a good show, but in our dark times, in dark places, the terror of it all confronts us in the most lonesome way. I reckon this is one reason why a lonesome song resonates with us all, for the emotions we all feel but suppress are loosed and once loosed are no longer contained. There is a freedom in that which uplifts our soul. If there can be joy in a sad song, this must be the reason; our own sadness is partially released and spreads through the ether like a balm, like the fresh negative-ion breeze after a furious late-July afternoon thunderstorm which dissipates the heat, clears the air and feels good in our lungs. Then, our memories are clearer, less clouded by pain. Un-homogenized, like cream rising on fat milk, the good memories come to the top to be scooped off and savored; the bad memories we recognize as merely bad memories, and they disappear like yesterday’s clabber thrown to the chickens.
Occasionally, the only way to deal with the passage of time is to stop doing all the things we use to fill it and simply be in its midst. Only then does time seem to slow down, since our stopping allows us to see each grain as it falls through the neck of the glass. While there have always been useless distractions to shield us from acknowledging the passage of time, we seem to have many more of them these days. Think about this the next time you spend half-an-hour looking for the remote only to scroll through 175 channels of television futility and settle down to spend an hour or two watching the thing that at best you dislike the least. Get a book, a difficult book that others have long recognized actually has something to say, one that is perhaps difficult to read because of the complexity of the human nature it deals with, one that requires an investment of time to comprehend and discover that it will stay with you much, much longer than the poor writing and canned laughter of a situational comedy. Two hours petting your dog is a far better investment of time. If you have a cat….well, cats need love, too.
There is some comfort in acknowledging this situation that is common to all men. Maybe the comfort comes in being just a little bit kinder, a little bit more patient, a little bit more forgiving to those about us, knowing that these are the things that will survive us, the things we want to survive us. It is the memories of our meanness we hope will die and be buried with us.
Kindness does not always mean saying yes. Sometimes the greatest kindnesses done to us are by those who loved us enough to say no. Some of those “nos” are vivid in my memory. It is those who demand the best of us that ultimately win our respect, our hearts, our minds. It is those with a spine we cherish the most, though even a great tree bends in the wind.
So, what are you thinking of today?
Me? I am anticipating the sunrise with great joy and expectation, and glad at the thought of being a part of it. What will the day hold? No one knows for sure….no one. But we expect to make the most of it before it quickly fades into tomorrow, else we spend the biggest part of tomorrow thinking of all the things we should have done yesterday, which is perhaps the greatest tragedy of all.
Godspeed, old friend.
©2018 Mississippi Chris Sharp