Now, and Then

Posted on August 5, 2011


When I was a young boy, I wanted to travel back in time. People in comic books did it with no more effort than it took me to walk to the candy store for a box of Milk Duds. Time travel seemed like it would be fun, and the possibility of doing so was never in doubt. Surely the creators of Superman had researched the matter, and discovered that in order to visit the past, all you had to do was fly around the Earth really fast against its rotation. This made complete sense to my nine-year-old brain, and I even believed that as I circled the planet at high speed and went back in time, the years would appear in the sky as large numerals, just as they did in the comic books.

There were certain inherent problems with this method, of course. First, I didn’t seem to have the ability to fly. I proved this to myself one day by leaping from my second-story bedroom window onto the concrete driveway below.

Second, the idea was based on the premise that past events still existed as light waves, and all we had to do was chase after those waves. Once we caught up to them, we’d be back in time. More problems. In order to catch up with light waves, you had to move faster than light. The universe, apparently, had passed some law against this. But even if we could catch the light waves, what about the sound? Light moves at 186,000 miles per second. Sound travels through the air at about eleven hundred feet per second. Conversations with people in the past, then, would require a good memory and a lot of patience — kind of like watching someone being interviewed from the South Pole.

Then in 1966, a television show called The Time Tunnel appeared, and I was sure we were on the verge of something. All we had to do was build a big funnel painted with a black and white spiral, and then attach some wires to it and something that would make smoke. On the show, two scientists named Tony and Doug ran into the tunnel and ended up on the Titanic just before it sank. They tried to warn the captain, but naturally he wouldn’t listen. No one in movies ever believes anybody when they say a volcano is going to erupt or a ship is about to go down. It’s maddening to watch, like when the people on Gilligan’s Island failed to get saved week after week just because they happened to always be looking the wrong way when the rescue plane was flying by. In the case of the Time Tunnel, though, the captain should have known better; all he had to do was look at Tony and Doug’s shirt collars to realize they were from the future.

Much later, I learned that time isn’t a thing, like an ironing board or a bag of walnuts. It has little to do with clocks, which are our way of at least appearing to divide up time into measurable pieces, any more than heat is accurately represented by our crude and arbitrary thermometers. I was surprised to discover that people have been trying to define time for thousands of years, and still, no one knows what it is. A river that flows past us? A road we’re traveling along? Does time always move at the same speed, and does that question even have any meaning?

It’s this elusive nature of time that keeps alive the hope that we’ll someday figure out how to manipulate it, maybe even travel into the past and future, just as we now travel to Shreveport or Sri Lanka. But that takes us back, once again, to the inescapable truth: we don’t know what we’re talking about. We use terms like past, present, and future with ease and familiarity, as though we had a strong sense of what they are. People advise us to live in the moment. “The past is gone,” they’ll say, “and the future isn’t here yet. All we have is the present.” But by the time they finish that sentence, the future has already become the past. Where did the present go? Did we miss it?

A tiny part of my friend's letter.

Yesterday, I received a letter in the mail from a blogging friend who lives halfway around the world. I don’t mean an email. I mean a four-page letter, handwritten on actual paper and sent in an envelope with postage stamps on the front. It was her idea, an effort to get closer to written words by forming them with her hand, which was in contact with the pen, which in turn was in contact with the paper. Things happen when you do this. You’re forced to slow down and concentrate on what you want to say, and even on how to form the individual letters and words. Make a mistake and you either have to start over or live with the unattractive results of crossing out.

Her letter was filled with apologies, all unnecessary. She was sorry for her messy penmanship (actually, it’s beautiful). She felt bad about her rambling thoughts (I found myself hoping I could match her clarity). And in the middle of the first page, she told me that she’d just gotten some terrible news. A forty-two-year-old colleague of her husband’s — the father of a three-year-old daughter — had suffered a sudden and fatal heart attack. Right there, in the space between two paragraphs, she grieved for a lost friend and then decided to voice her innermost fears about her husband’s own health. She talked about mortality, our use of time, and the meaning of life. Between other paragraphs she ran a few errands, did some laundry, and fed the fish. And she told me about those, too.

Then she ended the letter, folded it up, and dropped it into a mailbox somewhere in her part of the world, and somewhere in time. When her correspondence arrived, fourteen days had gone by. Surely during that interval, she had run more errands, washed more clothes, and given the fish more food. Her wounded heart, still aching for her friend and still beating back thoughts of dread, would have begun the healing process.

When she wrote the letter, it was a reflection of her present, and my future. But two weeks later, reading her words then brought the original events out of her past and into my present. For me, it was all happening now. My immediate impulse was to send her an email, to tell her in an instant that I’d gotten the letter and that I was sorry for her loss and her pain. And that made me think about what it must have been like long ago, in the days of the first trans-Atlantic voyages and in the preceding and following centuries, when people sent letters to far-away places. The writer had to keep in mind that the words would remain unseen for weeks or even months. The reader had to remember that time had passed since the ink had dried on the page, and tears had long ago been wiped away. And so I’ll force myself to act within the constraints of that nearly-forgotten means of communication, the direct attachment of idea and emotion to pen and paper.

It is a form of time travel, I suppose, this act of writing, mailing, and reading letters. And a satisfying one in many ways, because it’s intimate, and permanent. Still, the idea of a time tunnel has its appeal. I have no delusions that I’d be any more persuasive than Tony and Doug were, and the Titanic would surely end up on the ocean floor. But maybe someone could have reached that forty-two-year-old man soon enough to prolong his life.

Time, whatever it is, must exist. I no longer read comic books, or jump from bedroom windows, or wait for Superman to save the day. Gilligan and his companions have been rescued. A little girl will never know her father. A friend writes another letter, feeds her fish, and perhaps sheds more tears. And nothing moves at the speed of light, except light itself — and our thoughts and hopes and dreams.