‘…But for those who Love,
Time is not.’
- Henry Van Dyke, 'Time Is'
Once upon a time I stood still on a station platform. Around me, a newspaper boy chased after passers by. A beggar, more languidly, did the same. Pigeons chased after sandwich crumbs, dropped by passengers as they chased after trains. Those in turn chased after the ticking needles of bold brass clocks.
'Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late!' said the White Rabbit as it raced against the clock in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.’ Alice found the chase curious, and nineteen years ago in that Glasgow train station, so did I. I tried to close my eyes and magically stop all the clocks in the station, but was interrupted by an adult tug on my arm toward the second-class wagon. No time for games; apparently we too were chasing after time.
The expression ‘once upon a time' first appeared in Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ in the late fourteenth century. It was during that period that time was first conceived of as ‘an indefinite continuous duration,’ a ‘progress of existence’ toward some future ‘ever after.’ To wrap our minds around that concept, we set out to measure it; the first mechanical clocks were invented.
Clocks taught us that a healthy resting heartbeat is sixty beats per minute - one beat per second. Neat and orderly; just what we needed to organize our growing societies. We built a clock in the center of every town, or rather we built a town around every clock.
Our societies were initially agricultural, so our clocks were first seasonal. As we urbanized, weeks, months, and years turned into hours, minutes, and seconds. A healthy resting heartbeat was still sixty beats per minute, but everything else in our lives sped up.
We had decided time was linear, and we soon discovered what that meant. Heraclitus was right: you really could not step twice into the same river. Like a departing train, once gone time was irretrievable. Time was also indiscriminate of money, power, and influence: we were all allotted the same amount each day.
'We are but older children, dear,
Who fret to find our bedtime near.'
We moved from measuring time to chasing after it. But ‘the hurrier’ we got, ‘the behinder’ we got. We were running out of time, so we tried to control it.
The railroad systems created the first standard time, and in 1884 our governments ushered in time zones and the Greenwich prime meridian. A while later, daylight savings. Some of them even got creative: In 1956, Nepal created a time zone fifteen minutes ahead of Delhi. In 2011, Samoa skipped an entire day and went from December 29th to 31st. And just last week, North Korea went back in time, thirty minutes from Tokyo. Because it could.
We got cocky. We controlled our measure of time, and confused it with time itself. We forgot that both it, and we, were finite.
Then exactly six years, thirty-seven days, and twenty-two hours ago, a little boy I loved ran out of time. Heraclitus said time was a game played beautifully by children; perhaps my little boy played his too well. He went away, and no matter how far back I wound the clocks, he could not come back.
‘In the blink of an eye, babies appear in carriages, coffins disappear into the ground, wars are won and lost, and children transform, like butterflies, into adults.’
― Brian Selznick, 'The Invention of Hugo Cabret'
A blink of an eye, and think of all the time I wasted, chasing after it. Now, ‘even if all the clocks in the station break down, […] time won't stop. Not even if you really want it to.’
There is one place in the world where time will stop for you. Grand Central Station, New York City. Every day nine hundred commuter trains pull out of its forty-four platforms … one minute after their posted departure time. The ‘phantom minute’ is a gift to passengers running late, perhaps because they spent one minute too long hugging a loved one goodbye. I would have been grateful for one more minute with that little boy, but beyond the platforms of Grand Central Station, it seems we do not have that luxury.
Umberto Eco wrote: ‘You must not think linearly. The water in these fountains doesn’t. Nature doesn’t; nature knows nothing of time. Time is an invention of the West.’
Perhaps he was right. Perhaps time never was about duration.
Nature did produce one species of butterfly that only lives for a day: the Slender Scotch Burnet, an endangered moth local to the United Kingdom. I wonder what its day must feel like, spent and not chased. An eternity, like stopping the clocks in the Glasgow train station. I wonder what we would do with time, if we only lived for a day.