5. IN PERSONAL TIME
Home in time for supper I found a visitor seated at the table. Uncle Jack was father's cousin, the so called black sheep of the family. He sat erect in his chair, his body wiry and tense, the faded jacket hanging loosely on his shoulders. The well-trimmed mustache under his delicate nose made him look foreign.
Mom and Dad seemed delighted to see the much-talked- about drifter. We lingered at the table long after dessert, listening to his travels in faraway lands and unheard-of places.
During a pause I asked him, "How do you know where to go next?"
He smiled. "It's simple. Once you get the hang of it there's nothing to it. Let's say I'm on the coast of Africa feeling homesick, as I was. A week or so later, while having breakfast in a joint up the street, I hear a guy say that last night a ship en route to the States has docked in the harbor. I go to the harbor, find the ship's captain and tell him I want to go home but have no money for a ticket. He says if I am willing to work for it, I should show up at five next Tuesday morning. I do and off we sail and here I am."
He shrugged his shoulders. "All I had to do was to know how I was feeling at the time. Guided by the feeling, with ears cocked and eyes on the lookout, I knew that sooner or later I would hear what I needed to hear or see what I wanted to see. Before I was homesick, people would talk about ships bound for the States all the time. It had no effect on me because I'd say to myself, so what, let them come and go, it has nothing to do with me. But not this time. This time the news struck me like lightening. Don't things like this happen to you?" he said addressing the question to me.
"I think so... Last week the teacher talked about deserts. Wanting to learn more about people who live in such a harsh environment, I went to the library and there, on the librarian's desk, lay the book, The People of the Kalahari Desert. Is that what you mean?
"That's it. Of course wanting comes first—it fixates attention on things that relate to the want. By wanting I don't mean wishing for things that money can buy. That kind of wishing leads to an accumulation of material things that need to be taken care of, to slaving for the things acquired." He leaned back in his chair. "Actually, all you need is to have a yearning and observe the surroundings closely. When the yearning and events in the surroundings converge, you know it's time to take the risk which offers itself then and there. That's how you know what turn to take, where to go next."
Dad shifted uneasily in his chair. "Jack, don't you think that the heart is often misleading, especially for the young?"
Sitting up straight, Uncle Jack continued. "The yearnings I'm talking about are not rooted in the heart, which is finicky and apt to flip from moment to moment. They spring from the quick of your being, from the soul or the spirit, whatever you call it. Actually it doesn't feel like wishing, but more like a hunch, a longing, or a premonition that urges you to act. And you know that it's not frivolous when the unrest casts shadows on your daily activities. That's how you know it's time to move on, to change the surroundings and your frame of mind. If you ignore that internal urge and do nothing, it invites changes more dangerous than those your spirit urges you to make."
Uncle Jack looked at me. "A true yearning makes you act in ways that renew and strengthen your sense of self. It does not suppress the urge, does not push it aside. It infuses energy, it incites, it animates you and makes you feel alive all over.
Now I understood. Shutting out the world, as I did by spinning a cocoon, did not make me stronger. Isolation made me shrivel away from the world. It was the opposite of what my Uncle was talking about.
Eyes fixed on me Uncle Jack looked deadly serious. "Though most people tend to ignore these deep-rooted longings, they seldom go away but gnaw at the core of your being. Opportunities missed and actions not taken can haunt you for the rest of your life."
A silence settled over the table. Somewhat hesitantly, Mom asked, "And are you happy, Jack, where this kind of life has taken you?"
Playing with his fork Uncle Jack talked softly,
"Looking back on it all, I have to say no, not really. As you know I wasn't fit to hold a nine-to-five job. Not all of us are. I failed because I never asked myself where this kind of life is taking me. I had no dream to guide me—nothing to validate my wanderings. When I think that I could have combined my lust for wandering with some scholarly pursuit which would have taken me to many places with a clear purpose in mind, thoughts like that make me feel that I may have wasted my life. A scientific paper or a book would have made it all worthwhile. I traveled in search of something but I never gave thought to what I was searching for. I simply moved from place to place hoping to stumble upon that something—actually expecting a dream or vision to hit me in the face."
Looking straight at me Uncle Jack added: "You must do better than that, Alya. Start forming a vision of yourself doing something exciting in the future, it's never too early. The vision doesn't have to be all that grand and it can change many times. All it has to do is spark you and lead you from one point in life to another." A faint smile washed over his face. "That I failed to do."
Mom had been listening to Uncle Jack with a distant look in her eyes. "Not everyone is fit for that kind of life either," she said. Then, turning to me and seeing how attentively I listened, she said firmly. "It's getting late, Alya. Uncle Jack will stay with us for a week and there will be plenty of time to talk about many things."
About to leave the room, at the door I turned and asked my Uncle,
"Is it too late for you to have a vision?"
After a silence, eyes downcast still fidgeting with the fork, he looked up and said,
"Maybe that's why I came back... to find out?"
I knew what Uncle Jack was talking about—not of the world out there, not of the rationally ordered world, but about that very personal world where things make sense to you alone. Yet there was something I could not understand: why was the world of dreams and feelings and unexplainable urges baffling the rational mind? Did dreams have a logic different from the linear logic of cause and effect on which reasoning depended? If so, what was this logic? Where would one look for it? And how come no one—except Uncle Jack tonight— ever talked about it?
That night I dreamt I was walking along a path across a field, a shortcut home taken often. Halfway down the path I felt an urge to look back. Seeing nothing there I walked on. The urge however persisted, and before leaving the field I turned and looked back again. This time in the middle of the field there stood a blue door, three white steps leading up to it. I walked back, climbed the three steps and knocked. The door opened a crack and a hand holding a lollypop stuck out. I took the lollypop and the hand withdrew, the door shut tight and that was it.
Curious to see who was inside, I knocked repeatedly but since no one responded, lay my hand on the handle and the door flung open by itself. The chalk-white room behind it was empty but for a door on the opposite wall. I crossed the room and opened that other door and behind it was another empty white room smaller in size. After opening the door inside it I had to bend to enter a smaller room and to crouch into the next one smaller still. I'd better turn back, I thought, but when I looked back the door I just passed was no longer there. What was going on? Were the rooms shrinking to confine me or was I growing larger after each crossing?
The next room was so small I had to crawl into it and once inside, could hardly move a limb. A doorknob pressing against my shoulder made me reach for it and a door behind me sprung open. Pushing limb by limb through the small opening I emerged into sunshine. To my disappointment, in whichever diction I looked were rows of obstacles with bars set increasingly higher. I knew at once that the rooms and the obstacles were placed in my way to test my gumption and my endurance. Were I to fail this obstacle course, I'd have to start the whole ordeal all over. Scaling obstacles as if with wings, enjoying the freedom, the lightness of me, I ran straight into the blazing morning sun dangling before me.
I stopped in time to see inside the radiant light a radiant clock with a great number of hands pointing in all directions. Affixed to some universal joint, hands of various lengths were moving from left to right at different speeds, each hand timing the duration of an event that touched my life. Arranged concentrically like petals, the short hands were set to run for a minute a day or a week, the longer ones for months or years, the one brushing the clock's outer rim timing the span of my life.
The clock monitored every event that touched me personally and predetermined its duration. When the time allotted ran out, the clock would strike the hour, I would lose interest in that event, and around the corner change would be waiting. The glow was so intense, the hum of hands rotating so hypnotic that I was about to turn away when the hour of a new beginning chimed, ÔThat's it—go for it go for it go for it!'
A startled goose lifted its head and waddled over.
"I found the door, I did it all, I've seen the clock!" I shouted excitedly.
"You have? Then come with us!"
I walked behind her as if pulled by a magnet and by the time we reached the flock I was so small I could hardly see over her shoulder. The goose lowered her wing and climbing feathers like rungs of a ladder, I sat down on her back, legs dangling around the neck. Cackling triumphantly the flock took off.
What a delight it was to listen to the rhythm of wings in flight, to hear the rustle of feathers, feel the wind in my hair my face, see distances spreading before me, unfolding inviting waiting for me! The world was for the taking! This is how life was to be lived, this is how I was to live from now on!
Heart pounding I leaned into the wind and shouted,
"Take me down! I have no time for this!"
"Time is the password to change!" shrieked back the goose slowly beating her wings.
"Where are we going?"
"We're riding a current that brings change." Answered the goose. "Change in time will take you from point to point. Every turning point will bring you closer to where you expect to be."
"How will I know which change which turn to take?"
"A wave of sensations will tell you. Trust what suggests itself to you."
Feeling chilly I buried myself in the feathers and must have dozed off for when I looked down again we were descending onto a field of summer wheat. I thanked the goose for the ride, slipped off her back, and that instant regained my size.
Nearby white cranes were dancing. Struck by the beauty of their courtship ritual I stood still. A crane looked over and asked in an air-splicing voice,
"Can you dance?"
"Too bad, we could have taken you to heaven!"
"I am in a hurry..." I started to explain.
"Then look for what's moving—moving away from where you are." Step-by-step the crane moved closer. "Don't be fussy about the direction. You can change it," it said spreading wings and raising its head. "Hitch on to what moves in the direction you want to go and it will take you there." The crane made a slow turn, tips of wings brushing the ground.
"I must go..." I said, anxious to start living in earnest, already envisioning planning my new adventurous life.
"Planning in personal time invites frustration." The crane spread wings, hopped off the ground, hovered in the air, and wings slicing air, descended, "Toss a wish into the future. It will fall where it must and a ride in that direction will offer itself. Take that ride."
After poking its beak in different directions the crane continued,
"The road will twist and turn and detours are common and if the vehicle in motion starts slowing down or changes course, look for another to hitch onto. Every time you change the vehicle your focus will sharpen." Legs tapping to a silent beat the crane was about to leave when it said, "Change is the vehicle, change will get you where you belong." Then added, "The bigger the change the faster you get there."
Awe-struck I grasped that only now, only after seeing the clock and the distances ahead, was I ready to step onto the uncharted road paved by sensations. What the body knew without understanding made me understand that failure to trust the changes that offer themselves was wasting my life. Having no vision to fling into the future, any direction was welcome.
The sharp voice of the crane circling above stopped me
from running across the field.
"Rushing events? Impossible. In the personal time zone change is a vehicle while the inner clock merely measures the distances traveled."
" My time is ticking away, I cannot wait! " I said anxiously.
"Look around—see anything moving?"
A turtle was walking by. I straddled its back and regretted my choice of the turtle immediately—if it only would move faster... if I only had looked longer... if only—
"You in a hurry?" asked the turtle in a low misty voice familiar with distances.
"Yes, I have much to do!"
"I'm going as fast as I can. Hold on...." said the turtle in a voice vibrant with a deep trailing hum.
The hypnotic slow-rolling sound calmed me. And while the turtle took its time plodding onward, being in motion filled me with a delirious well being as if in its wisdom the sky itself had taken me under its lofty wing. If we only moved faster—
Reading my mind the turtle spoke,
"Thoughts are like winds... Let them be. They run their course and spend themselves. Do not pursue them. Nothing lasts forever. Wishing holds you back."
"You mean, doing nothing will help me stay the course?"
As if talking were useless, after a while the turtle answered, "Letting things be is not doing nothing. It's a decision that impels you to be vigilant, not anxious." His vibrant deep voice sank in me like sun-warmed pebbles. "If you take the path that suggests itself, I mean the path of least resistance, you will be not passive but in a flow that brings change. It's bigger than you." Waiting for his words to sink in he paused. "And though at times doing nothing may look slower, and sometimes it takes longer, you will waste neither time nor energy on frenzied activities and without missing a beat reach your destination. The path of least resistance is paved not by wishes but by hope sprung fresh at every turn."
The turtle stopped so abruptly that I rolled off its back. By the time I was on my feet it was nowhere to be seen.
A voice pure as a lark's engulfed me. When I looked up, the meadow lark hovering above struck a note so high so sublime that with a single-mindedness of purpose, familiar to birds in navigation. it tugged at the quick of my being.
Lungs filling to bursting I heard mom's voice,
"Wake up, Alya. It's time to get up!"
And I ebbed back to the world of words and clocks. To a world laced with unintentional misunderstanding.