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Passing Time

It’s hard to think about time without thinking about swimming. Not the kind where kids crazily paddle themselves down rope-lined lanes while their parents scream encouragement from the edge of the pool. I’m thinking of the swimming I did that summer in 1964 when I would hit the water exactly right after a nearly perfect pike one and a half forward somersault from the 3-meter board. I would make it all the way to the bottom of the deep end and then turn to push myself to the top. In what always felt like slow-motion, I would glide up, the applause getting louder as I got closer to the surface.

Early on that summer, as I opened my eyes in that cool aqua pool, I began to see a tiny glint of something in front of me. It was probably only the late afternoon sun, but it felt like a window. The clapping, the pat on the back from my coach, the competition with other divers whom I considered to be really good—all of it was a first for me. The dives that summer were baptisms into a world in which I might be recognized separately from my depressed mother, my alcoholic brothers, and my distant father. It was still an unopened box of a thousand tiny puzzle pieces, but my timeline began then.

It’s like being given a ton of money and having no idea what to do with it short of putting it in a low-yield bank account.

Now, nearly 60 years later, I’m looking at time refracted. There are years, relationships, jobs, houses, hours, moments, long summers, trips that seemed too short, and conversations that were definitely too long. A mass of time blended together; a million tiny moments that tick by individually. At this end of things, it’s hard to know where to look—difficult to figure out how to see the totality of my life. Lost is the underlying, rarely spoken theme of my 20s and 30s—"who cares? I’ve got years ahead of me.” Prevalent is a fast-forward version of me finding my way. The tiny ripple of that diving team summer wasn’t consciously in my mind when I finally got the courage to come out, or to apply for my first teaching job, or buy a house, or get married. Still, every point of my journey is somehow tied to the part of me I began to discover in that pool.

These days, it's the shortage of remaining time that strikes me most, mixed with the absolute certainty I feel about not wanting to miss a moment. And at my core, I wish for time marked by a quieter brain, a holiday for the watcher at the gates. It’s a tall, heavy order and is only made weightier by my recent retirement from a 40-year teaching career. Suddenly, I have nothing but time, something I've long wished for. If I were to re-read every journal I’ve ever written, I would find in each at least one list of goals, at the top of which was always—“More Open Time.” And yet, now that I have it, I realize how sadly unprepared I am to navigate it. It’s hard to separate all that I want from it even as I’m fully aware that I’m making much too big a deal of it.

Even if I just try to “notice” time, it causes me stress. I love not having to set an alarm. I hate it if I feel too lazy after sleeping in to go for a run. A full, unscheduled day sounds amazing. Halfway through one of them, I start to get grumpy if I don’t have much to show for my time. It’s like being given a ton of money and having no idea what to do with it short of putting it in a low-yield bank account. My real goal now is to just let my days unfold, with my attention on curiosity and discovery. Time is a long-held, sometimes bossy construct for me, but it's bending and arching gracefully now in new direction—as am I.


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