3. IN CLOCK TIME
It felt strange to be at home where life went on as usual. In ways I could not tell, nothing was the same.
The other day, early from school, I went up to my room and could hardly believe my eyes—the bed unmade for days, worn socks and tops all over the floor and chairs, books and papers piled high on the desk collecting dust. Disgusted with myself I started cleaning up the mess—filled a laundry bag, put the stuff in the washing machine, vacuumed the room and worked late into the night setting things straight. In the rush I must have thrown out the bundle of long cherished memories for I never saw it again.
While running up and down the stairs my head was spinning. Having had a glimpse of how much misery a life can hold I started counting my blessings. Then and there I decided to get a grip on what I had and I had it pretty good—a roof over my head, food on the table, and parents that let me be, neither cramming my head with advise nor asking prying questions. Mom, seeing me run up and down the stairs, didn't say a word. I guess she expected something like this to happen and was glad to see her daughter come to her senses.
I was already in bed when a harsh squawking voice made me look up.
"Taking charge of your life?" Mockingly asked a red parrot perched on the windowsill.
"That's right!" I said, irritated by the intrusion.
"Planning ahead?" jabbered the parrot, poking its head in every direction.
"I don't intend to wind up in the backwaters or the pits of life!" I shot back.
The parrot chuckle, "Well... That's to be seen!"
"Oh, go away!..."
Unable to sleep I was jostling thoughts, raking them from one side of the brain to the other and back, when the saying, heard somewhere, that no two events happen in the same place at the same time, ripped my eyelids wide open. The logic couldn't be simpler: if I crammed my days with activities that would help me get ahead, there would be no room no time no place for bad things to happen!
What an idea! Time was not a mindless river but a commodity like air or light, free to all for the taking. All I had to do was rely on my wits and use every minute to advantage.
In a matter of days I learned that though time in clocks and calendars was fixed in a linear progression, time itself was flexible. And though linear time was instrumental in regulating societies bent on progress, it did not apply to individuals—by changing the speed of my own physical or metal activities I could make time, lose time, make up for lost time and spend the leftover time as I pleased. No wonder people were selling their time and buying time so others would do their work for them, even killing time. In no time I was ready to invest (imagine, invest!) my time in projects that would improve my chances of getting the most life had to offer.
It was unbelievably simple—if I studied harder, I had a good shot at getting into a great college. Hearing that colleges favor well-rounded candidates I joined the basketball team, the debating team, and ran for class president. Don't you see, the means to my future were at my fingertips and who was to stop me when my parents and teachers encouraged me at every step. Riding on waves of good will I saw a glorious future unfolding.
I was at the peak of this heady excitement when, after studying for a history test, I fell asleep on my bed surrounded by books. That night I dreamt that I was in a room filled with light so bright that I could hardly see anything. Squinting, I made out pencil-thin outlines of boxes stacked high and wide, the place too crammed to take a step in any direction. But when I tried to move a box there was nothing in it but air—the boxes were empty of substance. The outlines however cast dark sharp-edged shadows that left solid impressions. Picking up shadows instead and stacking them on the side, I made way.
Noticing that the jagged shadow edges interlock like pieces of a puzzle, I started building shadow constructions, improving as I went along. Marveling at the ingenious shapes I created I also noticed that structures that leaned into each other also interlocked, creating larger and more complex wholes. When I looked back to see how I was progressing, I was startled to see Billy Goat standing on its hind legs behind me notepad in hand. Its elegant coat grey-blue, its horns and hoofs polished black, the trimmed beard mustache and lashes snow-white.
"Go on, go on! Don't waste your time staring at me, you have much to ca-a-atch up with," he said in an edgy, high-pitched voice, adjusting the heavy blinders affixed to his spectacles to curb distraction.
I looked up to see what I had to catch up with, and on the horizon saw pyramids built to house the mysteries that puzzle humans since time immemorial. Out of their shadow grew the unfinished Tower of Babel built to attract the attention of distant gods. And out of its shadow cast long and wide grew temples fit to invite the gods, and palaces with hanging gardens to contemplate the ancient longings—every shadow suggesting more elaborate longings, raising aspirations ever higher. The spectacle of sprawling cities sprouting around cathedrals with steeples that poked the sky for mysteries stacked ever higher and ever further away—all built to kindled expectations shattered in the course of living. And though from time to time a people here and there reached for light to illumine the enduring shadows, their efforts were buried in the rubble of interpretations ever rising and falling.
I turned to Billy Goat scribbling in his notebook,
"What are we looking at?"
"Civilizations built in the sha-a-adows of previous civilizations," he said, the left eye twitching as if he had a tic.
"And what notes are you taking?"
"I'm calculating what materials and how much of them were moved by people bent on improving their lot. So fa-a-a-ar it comes to eleven quadrillion tons of stone, ninety-eight trillion tons each of rubble and clay, two continents stripped of trees, three-e-e cross-continental ranges stripped of minerals, and four fifths of the earth's deposits used up to fuel these ventures. Scientists need this data to figure out how long the riches of this planet will last."
"And then what?"
Billy Goat adjusted the blinders.
"Everything will be reused, the civilizations following ours will recycle every scrap and rubble we leave behind."
As I looked, the din of hammering, chiseling, grinding, wheels groaning, machinery squeaking, shouts slicing the air grew around me. In this noisy extravaganza towering skyscrapers shot up piercing the clouds, longings unfulfilled grew taller, spread wider. To the east and the west were more pyramids and more temples with turned-up roof corners crowning misty mountaintops, gigantic ruins squatting in manicured jungles. What I saw was a world overrun by the handiwork of people who had busied themselves ever since it was discovered that shadows interlock and fit together forming more wondrous wholes. Topping the heap were shiny rockets aimed at penetrating the heavens, spaceships like insects probing ever farther into the ever deepening darkness of the universe where fantastic slow-stirring nebulae baited the mind. All it took was the will to build and so appease the growing longings. The spectacle witness to the inexhaustible human urge to accommodate the self-propagating needs, the race dominating all other human aspirations.
More disturbed than enlightened by what I saw I turned to Billy Goat. He was taking notes at a furious speed, his face convulsed by an uncontrollable tic.
"I guess, we too, are contributing to the to-be-recycled heap of our civilization?"
"We certainly are. Every generation contributes its sha-a-a-are of improvements," said the elegant goat. "Such is human nature. We are in it together."
"We?..." I wondered.
"Yes, you and I as well. My task is to validate the dreams that lead to a more controllable and more predictable future. What you see has been achieved by harnessing the human potential for the good of all. Stop wasting your time on questions that have no answers, do what is expected of every human being—share the responsibility of building a better tomorrow."
"Questions that have no answers? You mean, like what's the point of it all?"
"It's beyond me-e-e why anyone would entertain thoughts that flow like water down the drain. So much precious human potential is wa-a-asted on musings that invent problems rather than solve them, doing more harm than good. To this day I wonder what blinds so many so consistently. On the other hand, all those who devote themselves to what contributes to the good of all, work for the future of humankind. By the labors of these people civilizations are built. Only those who grasp this simple truth are truly unselfish. The rest are dreamers living off what these brave self-denying people produce. Do not fall into this trap." By now his face was distorted by convulsions.
"Is there room for personal dreams, personal aspirations, imagination?"
"And what ma-a-a-akes you think that what you see did not take imagination? Does it look to you that these ingenious builders were short of dreams or short of aspiration? They gave their lives to humanity by directing their personal aspirations to serve a common good. Look closely at what's been already accomplished and you will see what I mean."
"And what about the use of shadows?" I insisted.
Billy Goat stomped his foot. "And what is a shadow if not an indication that something is there to ca-a-ast a shadow? Let me remind you that what you call day and night are shadows cast by two planetary bodies in motion. Shadows reveal the shape of a thing and tell you whether there is space between things because a shadow falls between them. Shadows hold secrets that inspire investigation and interpretation, vital to progress. Somebody should write a book on the importance of shadows." Said Billy running out of breath.
"Does time have anything to do with this?" I asked timidly.
"Time made this possible. Time is elusive because there is no time in nature as there is no mathematics in nature. Both are constructs of the human mind invented for the purpose of communication. And yet, the invention of time enabled civilization. When it was noticed that night and day relate to the movements of the sun, that these movements are repetitive and cyclic, the solar year was divided into months and weeks and days which gave us the calendar by which people measure durations of time spans to this day. And that is only the beginning—having externalized the experience of time and rendered its equivalent tangible in calendars, those in the know could now foretell seasonal changes, fix holidays and celebrations and plan events and prepare for them ahead of time, as well as synchronize human activities for large scale projects and pre-calculate their duration. And there you have a civilized society at work. By now clocks and calendars regulate every aspect of human activity, including your personal life."
Pointing at the achievements spread before us, Billy Goat underscored the importance of his words with a sweeping gesture, "Just look where human ingenuity has ta-a-a-aken humanity by harnessing the experience of time!"
Listening to Billy's words I envisioned masses of people felling forests, quarrying stone to build temples and palaces and cities and roads and bridges, repairing or tearing down old buildings to make room for the new—all rushing into a future programmed to deliver improvement in every field of human endeavor.
" And those ant-like people...?"
Billy Goat adjusted his blinders. "Everything has a price, no exceptions here, but the benefits a-a-are immense. Never forget how fa-a-a-ar better off people are today than they were only a few generations ago. If that is not enough proof of progress, well then..." Seeing me suppress a yawn, he cleared his throat. "I talked enough."
"And to whom are we proving what?"
He threw up his forelegs. "Look at it this way: progress is the living proof to human ingenuity; progress shows that humanity is moving in a certain direction; progress generates hope of a better tomorrow. Humanity needs hope to wait for that better tomorrow, something to look forward to. But enough... I have work to do." He said, disappointment streaking his voice.
Feeling that I had let him down, I said,
"I may not understand what you are saying but having come this far to find out what options I have, I tend to question what I see..."
Looking away Billy Goat spoke reluctantly, "What I am trying to say is that the ra-a-ational outlook and the rational approach to life is the least wasteful; that the reasoning frame of mind is the most constructive the most productive and the most reliable of all possible outlooks. People are not called homo sapiens for nothing so why not harness the mind to its intended purpose? Why not channel that personal drive or aspiration toward a common good? Securing a better tomorrow is the ultimate challenge. Sooner or la-a-a-ater scientists will find the answers to what plagues humanity today."
"Intended purpose? Intended by whom to what purpose? And why should I look ahead to some promised good? Don't we do our living—eating sleeping working rejoicing and thinking in the present?" Alarmed by what I said, I stepped back.
"What kind of living do you have in mind young lady?"
"That's what I want to find out—see what options I have."
In a voice harsh and raspy he said,
"Regardless of how you spend your life there will always be painful difficulties to bear, things to complain about, things to wish for. But I've talked too much already. Finish what you have started and you will see where that will take you."
With these words Billy Goat turned away. Notebook in hand, pencil at the ready he stepped into the world of shadows.
"What about the future?" I shouted after him.
"The future is but one other event in the ma-a-a-aking! The present is only the means of getting there!" He answered, voice fading.
"Well, whatever it is, I want it all." I murmured to myself.
Compelled to continue the work where I left off—did I say compelled? Compelled by whom? By Billy Goat, society or the ticking time machine?—I was so steamed up that when I resumed building shadow constructs they grew in scope and complexity at a furious speed.
True, to see progress was gratifying. Glancing back in admiration of what I had accomplished, I was struck by a structure that looked like the real thing. It stood there like an ancient observatory made of steps going up and down, steps diminishing in every direction as if in endless mirror reflections. I walked back to check it out and the instant I touched the construct it swayed, then cracked, then started crumbling in such an other-worldly silence that I just stood there watching my fancy handiwork self-destruct. As if this elaborate simulacrum were the epicenter of an earthquake, shockwaves splintered and shattered the rest of the structures to dust.
In the frenzy of invention I had misused that precious commodity called time. The unbridled mental indulgence merely pleasured my starving mind.
Faint voices made me turn around.
Not far from where I stood, perched on an outcropping of boulders were the gray bird, the red parrot, a raven, a barn owl, and a white crane.
The sparrow was talking.
"I'll repeat, I have called this meeting not to discuss whether the girl is ready to continue this voyage, but whether we should give her a break, stop her from going ahead."
"She hasn't hit the wall yet, has she?" asked the crane, glancing at the raven.
"I'd rather see her get the full measure of every facet of time or the next one will make no sense to a girl who plunges head on into every situation," Insisted the black raven.
"So far we have seen little hesitation or fear," added the owl. "To give her a break at this point could do more harm than good."
"I'd show no mercy to anyone who got that far already, for only those who pass the test of endurance are apt to reach the end," said the crane.
"...Though all keep dreaming of it," interjected the parrot.
"Then it's settled," said the owl. "And let's not forget that she also has a second chance. As young as she is, she may not make it to the end this time, but may come back stronger later, ready to experience the full range of options without a hitch."
"Yes," agreed the little gray bird, "but the girl does not know that. And as headstrong as she is, we don't want her to crash too hard."
"There is no such thing as crashing too hard. Those willing to grow welcome every challenge and grow stronger for it," said the raven.
"So it's agreed then, we shall not spare Alya. She is to experience all the stresses dangers pressures and delights allotted to all curious and daring people," concluded the sparrow.
"Aye, aye..." resounded the birds in unison and took off each in a different direction.
The edge of something hard against my side made me turn in bed. It was a history book, the bedside light still on. Having fallen asleep fully dressed, I got up, slipped into pajamas and crawled back into bed but sleep escaped me.
What the birds were saying sounded grim and dangerous. I must have stepped onto some ancient path still familiar to birds but forgotten by people. On the other hand, what the birds said about me boosted my confidence.
While musing about the mysterious ways of life, I was chilled by the thought that the dynamics inherent to change were not under our control; that every change we ourselves introduced had to be carefully monitored and scrupulously supervised or it was apt to come to a standstill or run amuck to some disastrous failure. One other chilling thought followed. Namely, that to succeed in a society regimented by clocks every man-initiated event had to be accounted for. In this time frame every intentional human act was a link in a string of right or wrong actions registered in black or red ink in the balance sheets of gains and losses. Someone has contributed to and was responsible for the outcome. I'd better remember that.
I had taken control of my life alright. Awash with pride I fell asleep aware that I myself was responsible for the course my life was to take.