on time, 2:

I am still reading ‘The Order of Time‘ by Carlo Rovelli.

From where do we get the word ‘time’? From a word origin *da ‘to divide’. It seems that perhaps from the very beginning we have done it – to divide things up somehow, to find a pattern, a rhythm. There is circular time (as in ‘tide’); and there is a global linear time, which we think we inhabit, but which at a closer look seems also to be something which we have made up (especially in the nineteenth century, for the sake of having convenient railway timetables).

As it happens, the reference to railways made perfect sense to me. Linear time has always reminded me of the railway lines that went past each side of my childhood home. I grew up near a village which had proudly grown up around a railway junction, developing itself with progress and ‘the march of time’. We lived half a mile outside of the village, on the far side of the railway junction between the divided lines. We saw and heard the trains from both sides: from the front along the embankment, crossing over the river at the bottom of the field, and from the back across the main road and down the lane to the level crossing, their tracks always running one way or another – onwards and West to the sea, backwards and East, as far as London Paddington.

If I have understood Rovelli right, using the equations of physics, we may be sure of the existence of interactions and events. But time, no. It is no longer needed, according to the author, as a variable in the equations that teach us about the underlying structures of the universe. Time is a perspective caused by entropy. A partial view of things. Time is the way we have of encountering events, unique confluences of points touching and then dividing. Being something that exists from a point of view, from the inside; being so subjective, it seems that there can be no true measure of time.

And so, as the author says, studying time keeps leading us back to ourselves. We exist in the present, each one in our own present moment, holding our own past and futures within ourselves.

So, from the inside, what are the things that travel across time? Well there are memories, and with them are emotions. Memory is the trace of the past in ourselves. I have been told that to make a memory we need both an emotion and a place or a sensation, to latch it on to. And maybe here is a clue about time. Emotions do not travel through time as a train might run along a railway, orderly and linear. They surge up like a tidal wave, battering us, taking our feet out from underneath us. Loss, grief. Love. This is how one can meet a person who one has not seen for a decade, and suddenly be overwhelmed with the fierce and protective love of the six year old self.

Or in another metaphor, time is a cloth, and there can be a fold; two times touching through the fabric. Our emotions pierce the present from another time, pinning and sewing the crumpled fabric into layers. Anger too. Rage, which is a kind of love after all, can travel into our bodies from before we are born it seems, down through the generations. Cloth sewn onto cloth.

Dreams, it seems, take no notice of linear time at all. Although having said that, my anxious dreams will often be railway dreams: running for trains, missing traings, catching trains, jumping in through the doors, struggling with piles of luggage. And this is fear, travelling through time, the luggage that is always getting in the way, bumping against my legs and holding me back from crossing thresholds.

I still have not finished my book, where doubtless there is more to learn and clearer understanding to be found. But perhaps, for now, all of this may help me to understand how growth can be non-linear, and why presence to one another is so important, so transformational – just the pure value of making it count for something when we coincide.

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