Time. Ever present, pervasive and persuasive. It surrounds us, envelops us in a blanket of mortality. Constantly reminding us of our existence, reminding us of a future we may experience, things we should have done, things we shouldn’t have done. It is often viewed as an enemy; how am I going to find the time to that? If only I had the time. The irony of these statements is simple; time is our friend, it is what ties the experience of humanity together.
I studied archaeology at University. I chose this subject as it seemed compatible with writing. I remember saying to a historian friend that archaeologists take the facts and turn them into stories; historians take stories and turn them into fact. As it happened it actually affected my work more than I believed it would; instead of being a friend to my work, it became a mistress or lover; controlling and demanding, a force to be reckoned with. I began to look at humanity in a totally different light, I felt I was stood outside a house, looking in at people, able to observe unnoticed, invisible and elusive. I certainly believe it pushed me into observing the interactions of our species with fresh eyes, informed and sometimes pained. I believe it was Freud who said a psychoanalyst is an archaeologist of the mind. Perhaps the greatest effect it had on my writing was how my view of time changed.
I have always been different to the vast majority of my friends, colleagues and casual acquaintances. I never felt the urge to make any money and this made me feel like a failure, someone who should be shunned for heretical views. I could happily sit, pretending to read a book or paper but really reading the nuances of those surrounding me. Hours could pass, notebooks would fill with short observation – “The girl at table 12 has clearly had her hair cut short for the first time in many years; as she talks to her friend she tucks non existent strands behind her ears, sometimes reaching with both hands to pull hair from her forehead. Each time she notices she is doing this she looks surprised and rubs a hand across her head. I wonder why she cut it all off?” or “There’s a man across from me filling in a crossword with his left hand, his writing is appalling and I can only assume he is right-handed and for some reason can’t remove the coffee from his primary hand… Each letter requires supreme concentration.” (This same note, incidentally, contains a later added line – “When the crossword man left he also left his paper, I picked it up to see if there were any clues he had left unsolved – every word fit perfectly but none had any correlation to their respective hint. What I had assumed was at first a physical challenge clearly had deeper meaning, it has made me look at a crossword in a totally different light”.)
I would later be asked what I had done that afternoon. My reply that I had sat with a refillable coffee for four hours watching and recording would often be met with a blank look or even a derisory comment. This time to me was well spent, crucial to my understanding of what makes us human, only now, years later, have I realised just how important it actually was. Each page in my notebook was date and time stamped. With each snippet, each thin slice of activity I recorded I can remember that entire day. Even now I could tell you what that girl was wearing, how tall the crossword man had been. I didn’t record this but the notes serve as mental stimuli; a reminder of a time gone by and otherwise lost. Days where there are no notes are lost to me and this brings me back to the topic at hand. If a day is unremembered, what evidence is there to prove it’s existence?
This is a paradox of archaeology. In order to place ourselves in the position of distant ancestors, we must first realise the differences. We cannot infer present meaning on the past but to a certain extent this is unavoidable. The archaeologist uses material culture and aspects of human universality to give the past meaning; items are given a meaning in our time but we are constantly aware they may have carried totally different perspectives and inferences in the past. So, to realise the meaning of the past we have to understand the present and also recognise the differences between the two. We must also understand that things are meaningless until thought about; this epistemological argument perhaps exceeds an ontological viewpoint and it could be debated that time no longer exists without direct arrival at a point of inference, a beacon of reference?
So, if time is to exist, it must be thought about. But people try not to. Instead of looking at our place in a world which will continue with or without us, in general we try to section our existence, break it into fragments without utilising the whole. When you are used to examining a period of time, such as the Mesolithic for example, a lifetime seems compact, condensed. This obvious statement needs some embellishment. Break apart an epoch into lifetimes – they are many and obviously diverse but what happens with our present, western society? We break apart our lifetimes into shards, fragments of time we look forward to, ignoring the present to an almost laughable background chatter. I have a friend who I love dearly, but if I hear her saying “only 36 weeks until my holiday” once more… This is the prime example of a money driven and experience avoiding society such as ours; we perversely look forward to that two week break for so long that, when it finally arrives, can it ever justify the months spent thinking about it to the exclusion of experience?
I am not some starry eyed utopia believing idiot, I know full well that our entire modern culture is dependent on this belief. Utopia of course can only ever exist in a future, it has never been reached – how could it? If the general populace suddenly began to look deeper into their raison d’etre, society would falter and perhaps fail. We break apart everything into tiny segments, look at text speech for example. We no longer try and stand back to see the big picture, our canvas of our time; is it because we fear time and our full stop punctuation point within it? We hear the phrase “plan for the future” on adverts trying to sell insurance, pensions. We seldom hear it spoken of with regard to what should be – plan for your future, look at your fragment of time and work out what you can do with it. Do not be satisfied with yourself unless you know you can die tomorrow knowing you have used every moment you have. This is a common theme with those who experience a profound event in their lives, whether this be the death of someone close to them, or somehow surviving something terrible themselves. Many of these individuals begin to realise they have not lived, merely existed up until that moment. They have viewed mortality and want to utilise their lifespan exponentially. They learn languages, go back to studying, travel, write, help others enrich their lives. These people are living. I often find myself mentioning to friends and colleagues that if they really want to do something, they will find a way. There are no barriers beyond that of death that cannot be overcome somehow.
Where does time fit into this? Is it a matter of breaking it apart into constituent pieces? Is it perhaps something more? If we recognise that time can flow in different ways, perhaps we can learn to use it with more conviction and force. Have you ever noticed how time can move slowly or quickly depending on you circumstances? When, for example, you watch as someone crosses the road in front of a van, every moment becomes etched on your memory, you replay the scene in it’s entirety, every little detail is there. Time slows down, or does it? Is it actually that we are using time differently, living faster in a frame. Another, perhaps more cheerful, example? That girl that you are convinced you are in love with, when you talk to her you find yourself holding your breath, your heart rate seems increased, somehow noticing the length of her eyelashes, or every fleck of colour in her extraordinary eyes. It is all in the detail again. This is the crux of my argument; in these extraordinary moments our brain records the little details that colour the picture with a full spectrum, not the greys of fuzzy memory but with a vibrancy that imprints on our consciousness. So, what about the periods of ‘normality’? As I have mentioned above, these can be coloured in, a helpful hint of a moment can serve to train the mind to fill in the minutiae. A day unrecorded becomes hazy, it slowly dissipates into a general feeling that something happened, but what cannot really be recalled…
I have recently noticed something I have never utilised before. I have been recording recent events in my journal and only had a few scattered observations to flesh out. I couldn’t remember every date until I looked at my phone message inbox. Each text sparked a remembrance and when I remembered I had been constantly emailing too my memory came flooding back. Now that I have begun tweeting, this should further enhance memory. I have in the past used letters to the same effect but, for some now unfathomable reason, I had never thought to use modern media to the same extent. For the same reason I keep a large box with tickets from gigs, museum and art galleries, trains, ferries, bar mats, pressed flowers and leaves, twigs, pine cones, pieces of ribbon, a girl’s hair; essentially scrapbook material. These all have a memory attached, but, and this is the crucial point, without a record of this memory for others to read, they are next to useless.
This is where blogging, journaling, keeping a diary or filling in boxes on a calendar all become essential. They serve as a medium to tell my story, to inform you, the reader, of what it is that my shard of time has been used for, how I have utilised what I have. If experience is what makes us human, it is our story telling that binds us into humanity as a whole. Oral cultures realise this, they attach meaning to what a westerner’s eyes would be an inanimate object but his is simply a catalyst for explanation of experience. I intend to write a piece on the importance of oral dissemination of information at another juncture but, needless to say, the spoken word adds another level of colour to time and our place within it. A poem read aloud becomes something more than a monochromatic scrawl. Words are powerful tools and, correctly or incorrectly used, they make us a powerful force. Magic exists in words but the spells ingredients only exist through interaction with time.