You clutch for the slip-stream, the realness to find.
-- Incredible String Band, “The Mad Hatter’s Song”
My grandmother’s funeral was the first I ever attended, and it made quite an impression on me. I was 16. I remember my father’s awkward attempts to comfort my grandfather, who was then in his 80s and had lost his wife of more than 50 years. “Where did it all go to?” he asked, looking forlorn. Where did it all go to? At age 16, I could only image how the years must have weighed on someone so impossibly old. I figured an hour or two might slip by unnoticed, even a day or a week. But how could you lose track of half a century?
Now that I have entered my eighth decade, a grandfather myself, I am beginning to understand. Time seems to move simultaneously on multiple tracks. There is calendar time that advances by slow accumulation of hours, days, weeks and years. Then there are those odd disjunctures of chronology in which distant points of calendar time suddenly seem like yesterday. A certain smell or taste, perhaps a snatch of song, will evoke a long-forgotten incident with startling immediacy. For the narrator of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, the taste of a small cake soaked in limeflower tea unlocked a torrent of memories: “No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place…at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory…”
However disjointed our subjective experience of time, we have no doubt it actually proceeds on a smooth track from past to future, not even pausing for that ephemeral moment we think of as right now. But is the unspooling of time anything more than the unspooling of memory? The question my grandfather posed turns out to be quite prescient: Where did it all go to? Where does time go after it has passed? Is there some cosmic storage closet where the past gets folded away? Certainly we can go rummaging around for remnants of the past, but the only way we can ever experience them is in the present. The only way we can experience anything is in the present. That ephemeral moment that happens right now is the only thing that is tangibly real, not that we can ever quite lay hold of it. Even so, everything else is merely a thought, whether a memory of something that already happened or the anticipation of something happening in the future. Small wonder then that time always seems to be playing tricks on us, since time seems to be nothing more than a trick of memory.