Time (in a Bottle)

Every so often something opens up a time warp and I find myself awkwardly split between the past and the present. So yesterday I was sitting, or rather lying back, in the dentist’s chair getting my teeth cleaned when a song came over the Muzak: Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle.” I groaned out loud, telling the hygienist that I found the song depressing, but I knew even then that the word “depressing” doesn’t really describe it because it’s so much more than that: it’s genuinely sad; tragic, even, both because of the artist’s early death and for what it says about the human condition. Here are the lyrics:

If I could save time in a bottle
The first thing that I’d like to do
Is to save every day
‘Til eternity passes away
Just to spend them with you

If I could make days last forever
If words could make wishes come true
I’d save every day like a treasure and then,
Again, I would spend them with you

But there never seems to be enough time
To do the things you want to do
Once you find them
I’ve looked around enough to know
That you’re the one I want to go
Through time with

If I had a box just for wishes
And dreams that had never come true
The box would be empty
Except for the memory
Of how they were answered by you

But there never seems to be enough time
To do the things you want to do
Once you find them
I’ve looked around enough to know
That you’re the one I want to go
Through time with

Songwriter: Jim Croce
Time in a Bottle lyrics © BMG Rights Management US, LLC

I thought back to the time when I first heard that song. It was featured significantly in a TV movie from 1973 called “She Lives,” a movie about cancer and young love, like “Love Story” and “The Fault in Our Stars” and so many others I’ve forgotten. I remember that one because of the feeling of tenderness and wistfulness it elicited at a time when I was the same age as the young lovers.

I went home and forgot about it until it was time to go to bed, at which point a demonic little impulse prompted me to find the song online and listen to it again. Next I read what Wikipedia had to say, and when the article mentioned “She Lives” I thought, “I’ll bet that movie is on YouTube,” and so I looked it up and ended by watching the whole thing. What surprised me was how well I remembered details of the dialogue after more than 40 years, even though I can’t remember precisely where I was when I saw it.

“Time in a Bottle” tells of the impossible desire to save what is most precious, one’s love for a particular mortal being, from the relentless march of chronological time. There is the consolation of going through whatever time one has with one’s love, but the tug is always there. My time in a bottle is a fragile memory captured from a distant time, of a young person I used to be, who lives in me still. I can watch that movie and see it from an adult’s perspective, or I can suddenly be just as I was when I first saw it as if no time has passed at all. I can even do both at once. The trouble is, I would rather not be caught up in a wistful dream of temps perdu. It’s like an incubus taking away all one’s energy for the task at hand. And now that I think of it, the couple from the film are dreadfully tedious in their absorption in each other, and the film itself is sweetly insipid. Even the song can grate on the ear with endless repetition.

Time for bed.

Growing up as the Donna Reed Show

Okay, I admit it: I’m the kind of tedious baby boomer who reminisces about the 50s and that part of the 60s that came before the real 60s, or as my parents thought, the time just before everything went to hell. Women in those days did their housework in poplin dresses with which they wore stockings and utilitarian shoes, their hair done and their makeup on. My mother’s hands were always full, of laundry, sewing, the vacuum cleaner, or dishes. She always had a fragrance about her, which I called a “mummy smell”: something along the lines of Jergens hand lotion, light and sweet.

I played on the dining room floor under the table, with coloring books and dolls and picture books. I vaguely recall a playpen prior to that, and a crib for nap time. I seem to have memories of very early childhood, of being held in my mother’s arms at the kitchen table, where she would spoon baby food into my mouth and coo at me. I tried talking to her, but she didn’t understand me very well, which was mildly frustrating. In the evenings after the dinner dishes were done she would bathe me in the kitchen sink.

At some point before dinner my father would come home, calling out a cheerful hello as he came through the front door. I ran down the hall to him and he would pick me up and swing me in his arms. He wore a suit and tie, with a grey fedora and grey wool coat. His shoes were always shiny and his shirts neatly ironed. He told me he was “the boss of the bank,” which strictly speaking wasn’t true, although he was the treasurer, close enough. We lived in a two-story white house with black shutters,  a full front porch, a bay window, and an enormous yard with a barn in back for the blue-and-white car.

I have two older brothers, but they didn’t live with us; they were “at school.” Mark was seven years and Tommy four years older than I. Three or four times a year they would be home for visits that typically lasted two weeks, and we would be a family together. In between times we would drive up once a month or so to their school in Rhinebeck, New York. Both our visits and theirs were the high points of my young life. I loved my big brothers and saw them as living an exciting, grown-up life away, bringing welcome noise and laughter into our quiet home. We spent the entire visit playing together, going on excursions in the car, and hiking in the woods looking for snakes and turtles, which we would keep for a day or two and then set free again. Mark was very knowledgeable about the different varieties, garter snakes and grass snakes, box turtles and painted turtles. The fact that some of these creatures could be deadly was a source of fascination—over and over, he would ask our father, “Can I pick up a snapping turtle?” and Dad would answer, “Sure, just as soon as you figure out which of your fingers you don’t need any more.” “No!” Mark would say with a big laugh, and not long afterward would ask all over again.

Tommy was quieter, pacing around the dining room with his hands in loose fists to either side of his head. Once in awhile he would come out with some brief remark, and then return to his pacing. He played with blocks and simple white plastic bricks, or else drew rows and rows of tiny, square-shaped objects on sheets of paper, always in pencil. He would vocalize aimlessly in keening sounds, sometimes singing a little. Outside he liked the swing set in the back, where he would sing loudly as he pumped higher and higher.

Why couldn’t Mark and Tommy live with us all the time I once asked, and my mother simply groaned and shook her head. I didn’t get it. I could vaguely remember a time when Tommy was still with us, at a school across town. Earlier still they had gone to the same school I would attend. On my first day of kindergarten, the teacher called my name and then said, “I had your brothers,” through lips that were pursed just a little, and maybe by then I had some idea why. My brothers were “a handful,” especially Tommy, although according to my mother Mark had been an even bigger handful at one time. That was before he was sent to his first school away from home, a place called Strawberry Hill, where the teachers used a clever strategy to get him to stop screeching: every day my brother loved going along to meet the mail truck, but he could only go if he didn’t screech that day. For awhile he responded by screeching until he was hoarse, but eventually he learned to stop doing it.

These stories were nothing more to me than ordinary family lore, along with the fact that while the boys were home, none of my other friends came around. It was understood that the time with them and the time without them were separate, and I got used to never so much as talking about my brothers with people from our life apart from them, not with people my age or with grownups. I did not break this rule for many, many years.

Fibromyalgia

Now we arrive at a place of loss. I have always been tightly wound, anxious; and sleep has been a struggle since I can’t remember when. I am also a master procrastinator. In high school I recollect nights at my desk, trying to finish hateful tasks (math homework, research papers) that were due the following day. In college I pulled all-nighters, and in grad school I found myself owing papers that had been due in classes a year or two earlier. I don’t know what combination of fantasy and denial prompted me to pursue an academic career, but that’s what I did, and so I made a lifetime of late nights, conference papers finished in airplanes, and hair-pulling over deadlines. Now in retirement I let dishes pile up and necessary paperwork fill my desk.

Not much is known about the cause of fibromyalgia, but it seems to be connected with inadequate, troubled sleep. As a young adult I took on the identity of an insomniac and wallowed in it, envying people for whom sleep was uncomplicated. I was the Princess and the Pea, the kind of person whose sleep could be disrupted by anything at all. In October, 2004 I received the fibromyalgia diagnosis. My first response was anger at myself for having brought on such a condition; next I cried, briefly; and finally I felt relief. Here was the answer, then, the permission I needed from an outside source to take things easy. No more overwork, no more late nights.

Only it wasn’t that simple. I had my diagnosis, but I was still able to function in my job, in spite of the severe headaches that had driven me to the doctor in the first place. I could cheerfully ditch some of the projects and committee work I had taken on, but what followed over the next few years was a cycle that would repeat over and over: a period of pain and fatigue, which would prompt a shedding of responsibilities, followed by a period of relative ease during which I would gradually take on more work, leading to another crisis that would force me to back off again. From what I gather, this is a common pattern for people like me.

I wasn’t happy, but I was buoyed by false hopes that at some point I would find that precious work-life balance everyone keeps running on about. It never happened. What happened instead was an intensification of my symptoms that eventually drove me into an early retirement. There is no way of knowing the precise cause, but I have a story that works as well as any, that my body reacted to the trauma of a full hip replacement, which occurred at the precise moment my mother descended into dementia. All are stories for another time.

Dreams of my Mother

I dreamed about her last night, my mother. It was a pleasant, warm, sunny day, and I was going to someone’s funeral, at a nice venue. There were a lot of women there, well-dressed, older. We entered a pretty room where tables were set up for lunch. My mother was with me, saying, “I’d like you to arrange my funeral here, Jane.” “But mother,” I replied, “I already had two funerals for you, a funeral and a committal service,” and thought, no, I can’t go through all that again. And it occurred to me that people don’t typically attend their own funeral services in the flesh.

Now we are sitting at a round table, more or less across from each other, with other women we might have known. I look at her closely, studying her face, her hair, her smile. I know every inch of her face, down to the small beauty spot on her nose. How wonderful that we can be together again! Yes, I think, dreaming is a way I can still be with her, even though she’s gone. I leave my seat and walk over to her, burying my face in her hair, breathing in her scent. My lips brush the soft, papery skin of her cheek, all just as I’d remembered.

On the morning of her death day a hospice worker arrived to give her a sponge bath in her bed. I saw the curve of her thigh, so beautiful, and said, “She did a lot of dancing on those legs.” Later, just before she was prepared to be wheeled out of the room by the funeral director, I uncovered her foot for one last look. Her feet were narrow, and the second toe was longer than her big toe, making it hard for her to find shoes that would fit. I touched the toe and smiled.

Conversions

I used to be Christian, and now consider myself Buddhist. Both terms are umbrellas for a dizzying array of people, traditions, practices, texts, and beliefs. I began my Christian life in a Congregational church, where I went to Sunday school, sang in choirs, and sat through services as a child and later as an adult. I rebelled as an adolescent and did these things under protest for awhile, then stopped doing them in college, and then resumed several years after graduating.

My first conversion occurred in my 30s, to Episcopalianism. My exposure to that denomination began with my husband’s job as a church musician, but the roots of my eventual move to a liturgical church lay in my love for all things medieval. In graduate school I took a course on monasticism and began to identify more and more with a life of prayer, both privately and in community. I suppose I could have gone all the way and become a Roman Catholic, but I was unwilling to alienate my poor mother, who had grown up as the only Protestant in a Catholic neighborhood in the 1920s and 30s and regarded Catholicism with suspicion. I myself was happier with the “middle way” promised by the Episcopal church.

Over the next decades I had an on-again off-again relationship with church. Sometimes I was gung-ho, other times I pulled back. I had trouble reconciling myself with doctrine, although as a teacher of medieval, Renaissance, and Reformation history I came to know a lot about it. The bulk of my teaching career was at a Lutheran college, where Christian faith was important in the lives of many of the students. I enjoyed the give-and-take of discussions with them, and felt a comfortable congruence between my own affinities and my workplace.

Eventually, however, I turned to Buddhism. It was a gradual change, beginning with exposure to the general idea of Buddhism as represented by its most famous teachers, such as Thic Nhat Hahn. There was a Buddhist meditation center in my town, but it took me awhile to get up the nerve to pay them a visit. I’m not sure why it seemed so daunting at first. Perhaps I saw people who became Buddhists as exotic, or as having a level of awareness and commitment beyond the ordinary. After all, being a Christian in the U.S. is almost a sort of default, whereas becoming a Buddhist requires the effort of swimming against the tide. Such were my barely-formed thoughts at the time.

The form of Buddhism I profess is Theravadan Buddhism, as interpreted through the insight meditation tradition taught in the West. Soon enough, I realized that this phenomenon like everything else is a reflection of its time and place. Much of the population in sanghas and retreat centers across the West falls into the white middle class, although western Buddhist leaders are making efforts to bring in people of color or of modest economic backgrounds. To carry my self-labeling further, I practice Burmese insight as handed down by Mahasi Sayadaw. Don’t worry if none of this makes sense; there will be plenty of opportunity for elaboration.

How the Light Gets In

 

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

–Leonard Cohen

It’s a truism that the very things we would wish away—our flaws, our misfortunes, our tragedies, even—are the very means of our growth, or (dare I say it) our enlightenment. It makes perfect sense that light gets in through the cracks, yet a bald statement of fact means little. How a truism becomes reality is through lived experience. This blog is an assortment of some of mine.

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