I’m 54 years old but I won’t be for long. The middle-aged bell is tolling and it tolls for me – am I really half a century old? We all know that Time and Tide Wait for No Man, as St Marher so very nearly said many centuries ago (round about 1225.) St Marher is credited with coming up with this medieval gem, when what he actually said was:
‘And te tide and te time þat tu iboren were, schal beon iblescet’
(and the time and the tide that you were born shall be blessed) :-
which, besides not rolling off the tongue in quite the same way, doesn’t mean the same thing at all. But apparently the saintly Marher got the whole time and tide thing going before Geoffrey Chaucer hit the nail on the head a century later giving us this more recognisable version:
‘For though we sleep or wake, or roam, or ride, time forever flees away; it will tarry for no person.’
Yes we’re all obsessed with Time. We pass time, spend time, kill time, waste time, take time off, hit hard times and always run out of our allotted time, here on earth. I’ve got 13 clocks in my house – I counted them (I must get another one as that’s probably very unlucky.) There’s the 1930’s mechanical clock on the mantelpiece. There are the digital clocks on the telly, the laptop, the iPad, on two computers, the microwave, three mobile phones and the oven. Then there’s the kitchen clock on the wall and the alarm clock in the bedroom. And I constantly glance at almost all of them, even though I’m in no particular hurry and have no particular place to go.
Time, as Einstein pointed out, is relative and I don’t need to verify any equations to know that he was right. It seems like just a couple of years ago that I was 40, waking up on that particular birthday with a feeling of dread. My diary entry for the day reads like something from a Gothic novel, including the sentiment ‘I’m very old now.’ Oh get a grip woman, you were just 40 years old for goodness sake and here you are fourteen years later, strangely feeling younger than you did then.
I know that various kinds of stuff happened during the years between 40 and 54 but they’ve mostly been erased from the memory banks (thank goodness for my riveting personal diary installments) – like my final year uni exams and graduation day. I seriously cannot remember a thing about those two events, which is pretty scary. I’ve tried conjuring up images from those times. Tried to see myself sitting exams and walking across the graduation stage to collect the certificate and I just can’t do it. One of the most, supposedly, important days of my life has been successfully filched from the grey matter by Time. There’s no photographic evidence either to help jog my non-existent memories – 1982 being before we felt societal pressure to upload our every movement to anonymous servers somewhere in North Carolina.
Similarly my wedding day is a forgotten blur. If I didn’t have a shaky video of myself going in and out of the church, I’d seriously question if I’m actually married.
There are 5113.39 days contained within the 14 years between 40 and 54 and I can clearly remember about 75 of them. What on earth happened to those thousands of other days? Where did they go? I know I lived through them because I’m still here to tell the forgotten tale, but it’s as though I’ve been travelling on a train that only occasionally stopped at a place I can remember, and that train seems to be travelling faster and faster.
Time is linear (apparently this is debatable) but it doesn’t seem to be. When I look back, as I frequently do being prone to nostalgia, the past doesn’t come at me in a nicely ordered series of well-remembered events. Rather the life-enhancing events, and the cataclysmic ones, seem to randomly stand out in astonishing clarity against a backdrop of stuff that mostly took place in the shadows.
After my first son was born he was whisked away for a post-birth procedure and then whisked back in again, a scrunched up little thing with his eyes firmly shut – and suddenly he opened them. I remember the shock of those slate grey eyes, feeling like I was looking into the face of something alien from whichever planet babies come from (yes I do know where babies come from.) 27 years later and that son walks into the room and I can barely remember him at any other age; and yet the memory of the first time he opened his eyes is clear and present.
I’ve always been obsessed by Time. The way it sometimes speeds up, or slows down (like when I’m covered in toxic hair dye for 20 long minutes, at the hairdressers, praying that I won’t go into anaphylactic shock.) The way it sometimes stands absolutely still and leaves a memory imprinted on the mind that will never fade. The way you can never hold on to the moment; or this moment; or that moment, the one that just went – forget it, we’ll be here all day.
I’ve kept a diary for 42 years. Just a mundane account of an ordinary life, only missing the university years, which probably accounts for the permanent memory loss of that time. If you want to remember your miniscule time on this planet then keeping a diary is probably the most important thing you can do, because Time will fly, and you will forget almost everything, because Time is a master thief, leaving no evidence behind.
It’s why, however old a person gets, their time on earth just never seems to be enough, because most of those years disappeared without trace, sucked into the Space-Time continuum or into a Time Wormhole thingy – wherever stuff that you can’t remember goes. An old person (even older than me) will often be heard reminiscing about times gone by as though it all happened just yesterday. I may be 80/90/100 these ridiculously old people will say but I feel like I’m still 18 – as though those 70 odd years in between NEVER HAPPENED.
And that’s exactly what Time does to you. When I was 23 I used to think people in their 30’s were OLD and PAST IT (seriously I really thought this, I have diary-based evidence.) And then suddenly I was 40, and now suddenly I’m 54 and, with equal suddenness, I’ll soon be into my eighties (if I’m lucky.) Old age is starting to look like it’s not that old after all.
Some oddball scientists believe that Time may not be linear and may not exist. You can’t blame them because nobody knows what Time is. We measure it via seconds, minutes and hours but that’s only imposing a perceived order on something which is intangible. Most normal scientists however believe that Time does exist and that the evidence of our senses is enough to tell us that events always move forward. That the image of that fruit cake must have followed on from all that sticky gunge in the mixing bowl (I’ve been watching too much Bake Off) and it’s mostly NEVER the other way around, unless you have the baking skills of a wardrobe. They believe that Time travels forwards in one direction like an arrow – never upwards, backwards or sideways.
Attempts are being made to apply quantum theory to Time; to break it down to its tiniest components, one of which is a femtosecond. (Warning: layperson’s (me) sciencey stuff coming up.) A femtosecond is one millionth of one billionth of a second. We can’t visualise a femtosecond, being as there’s no ‘femtosecond’ hand on your average wrist watch, and if there were it’d be useless because you wouldn’t be able to see it. To get an idea of how impossibly teeny-tiny a femtosecond is you could say that a femtosecond is to a second what a second is to the time spent sitting in the doctor’s waiting room, waiting to be called for an appointment at 2.00 pm, 32 million years into the future (which is sometimes the only time you can get an appointment.)
By quantifying Time the boffins presumably one day hope to discover if there is a finite split-second out there, which can’t be split any further, implying that there could be an infinitesimal gap between those seconds, meaning that Time passes in discrete quantum steps rather than flowing smoothly like a river (what?) i.e. (more rubbishy, layperson science stuff coming up) – that presumably there would be gaps of absolute nothingness in between all those ever so tiny, they’re almost invisible seconds. That maybe Time moves along like those cartoon flip books, femtosecond after femtosecond, creating the illusion of seamless reality.
And I’m thinking that if Time is full of these invisible holes then that’s probably where all those lost days go and all those lost memories. That maybe Time is a gigantic sieve and the routine boring stuff mostly falls through, leaving behind the things that really matter.
Dr Seuss summed it all up rather brilliantly:
How did it get so late so soon?
It’s night before it’s afternoon.
December is here before it’s June.
My goodness how the time has flewn.*
How did it get so late so soon?
*that’s not a typo