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A Different Kind of Time

Reading: Forgetfulness by Billy Collins

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

Sermon

My Mom called Friday night.  She and my Dad had been watching The Weather Channel.  She sounded a little anxious.  “Are you home yet?”  In my head the answer was “Home yet?  Of course I am.  We spoke at 1:00 this afternoon and I told you I’d be home in 20 minutes.”  That’s not what I said.  “Yes, I’m home.  I’ve been home for a long time.”  Since she spoke to me last when I was on my way, as far as my Mom was concerned I was still on my way.

Though every once in a while something sticks  like me not being home yet,  my Mom and Dad are cut off from chronological time, without short term memory.  Sometimes they think they haven’t seen me for a very long time even though I was with them only a few days ago.  It all depends on when they remember seeing me last.  My Dad remembers that I always come home around Christmas time.  He asked me the other night if I’d be coming back to see them before Christmas. “This is February,” I told him as matter-of-factly as I could.  “I’ll see you on the 18th, on Monday February 18th.  Today is Tuesday, Feb 5th and I’ll see you on the 18th. ”

Neuroscientists are still trying to figure out how we humans perceive time and use it to make sense of our world.  What they know is every second we are conscious, a circuit involving three regions of the brain checks and cross checks incoming information and builds a logical sequence of events.  Our brains create our sense of time out of these multiple memories.

While there is still a lot to learn in this “science of time”, it appears that our grasp of long spans of time helps us apportion our energies.  One scientist described this as “evolution’s way of ensuring we mete out our attention and energy efficiently, rather than expending too much too soon and falling short at the end.”  At the other end of the time spectrum is that “tiny stretch of time we call ‘now’  the most important and fragile part of our internal clocks”  roughly 2  seconds, the span of our unconscious attention. Drivers, athletes, all of us see, move and react in this tiny increment of time that is now.  (Science of Time, Los Angeles Times, Melissa Healy March 9, 2009)

When Dementia, Alzheimer’s, other brain disorders or injuries, disrupt the brain’s circuitry, the world becomes illogical, a chaotic jumble.  When we cannot remember what happened in the past, we lose our sense of time. When we cannot remember yesterday or last night or five minutes ago, we don’t know what day it is or what will happen a few moments from now.  Short term memories must be ordered and stored by the brain if we are to have a sense of what will happen next.  Otherwise all we have is this present, fleeting moment. (Memory Loss Stops Internal Clock for Alzheimer’s and Dementia Sufferers, 11/3/10, free-alzheimers-support.com)

When I am visiting with my parents we often have quite a few medical appointments as well as in-home visits for physical therapy, baths, or a checkup by the home health nurse.  Neither of my parents can track these things, even with a calendar where appointments are recorded and a clock that shows time, day and date.  So there I am  trying to manage their schedule and my own for things like grocery shopping, banking and laundry.  The days I fly back to Boston are the hardest  not only is any doctor’s appointment a mystery; they can’t remember how long I’ve been there nor when I will be back.  All they have is now.  The best way I have found to deal with the schedule is to slow down, slow way down.  Move slowly.  Speak slowly.  Repeat what is happening.  As I help them get ready, I say over and over  “you’re doing just fine; we’ve got plenty of time”  as a way of reassuring them.

In this different sense of time there is no past except the long ago and there is no future, nothing to look forward to or plan for.   Time is the current moment  a little longer than the now of those 2  seconds of our unconscious attention.  When now is fast moving, when I get anxious about being late, when memory can give no meaning to or purpose for activity, things become confusing and frustrating for all of us.  Sometimes my Dad just stops, looks at me and says simply, “There is too much going on.  There is too much going on.”  And he starts to move even more slowly, asks more questions about what we are doing and why.  Slowing down is not my best thing. . . .

The current moment is the time my parents live in . . .except that every once in a while something sticks.  Like my Mom remembering I was not home yet at the time of her first call to me on Friday.  And like this, that my Dad remembered . . . The folks who live across the street from my parents (and have for 30 years or so) are neighbors we can count on.  They have done so much for us from grocery shopping to sitting with my Dad in the emergency room.  A week and a half ago, our neighbors had a death in the family.  After being told this news, for three nights my phone conversations with my Dad included him telling that “Tom’s brother died.”  He’d talk about what he needed to do.  I’m convinced he remembered this news because it tapped into his memories about what one does at a time like this.  He wanted to go over and see Tom.  He was sorry he could not go to the funeral.  The news of this death had a place to go and be remembered.

This week’s triumph of short term memory is my Dad remembering how to hold the phone so his hearing aid recognizes it and he can understand my part of our conversations. Loss of time and loss of hearing are a bad combination!

Dementia has a cruelty to it.  Poet Holly Hughes described her mother’s decline as a “slow process of subtraction, as we lost her one brain cell, one synapse at a time.”   As the editor of Beyond Forgetting: Poetry and Prose about Alzheimer’s Disease, she posted an on line invitation for contributions.  From nearly 500 responses, she selected poems by social workers, nurses, physicians, teachers, even one insurance adjuster. Losing Solomon, a poem about his grandfather by a creative writing teacher at Arizona State, begins:

Things seem to take on a sudden shimmer
before vanishing: the polished black loafers
he wore yesterday, the reason for climb
ing
the stairs, even the names of his own children
are swallowed like spent stars against the dark
vault of memory. Today the toaster gives up
its silver purpose in his hands, becomes a radio,
an old Philco blaring a ball game from the ’40s
with Jackie Robinson squaring up to the plate.

Dementia has cruelty . . . and there is also humor, sometimes with poignancy as in these lines from “Forgetfulness”, the Billy Collins poem I read earlier:

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag . . . . .

Humor is a survival strategy for me.  I do not laugh at my parents for their sometimes odd behavior.  I smile because time and memory are so different in their world than in mine.   The days I see my Mom read the morning paper over several times, I smile at the sight.  Each time she reads it, it is new news for her. In that moment we can sometimes have a brief conversation about what she’s reading. Like when there is news about President Obama  she remembers him and tells me she likes him and the good things he does.  Who knows how or why President Obama found a place in her memory?

Beyond the science of time and memory — there is another kind of time.  The Greek word for it is “kairos” – the right or opportune moment.  I seem always to be looking for kairos moments with my parents.  I am trying to catch the opportune moment to tell them something that I must out of respect and love even though they will not remember.  I am looking for the right time to suggest we start getting ready for the appointment.  In spite of the loss of memory and the different sense of time, they need to experience events as being right at a given time. Events need to be opportune and meaningful whenever possible.  Kairos is a time they can still live in.  No clock or calendar required.

Communities – including the community we call family and the community we call First Parish of Sudbury – communities have a shared and commonly observed sense of time.   Community time is complex.   It is about clock, calendar and schedule.  We show up at 10 a.m. on Sundays for worship and religious education. It is about memories  those from long ago (like the history of this meetinghouse), those we share (like the Music Sunday or last fall’s Harvest Fair).  It is about future (like the calling of the next settled minister), the memories we have yet make.  It is about the present moment  who and how we are together here and now.   And it is about Kairos  those right and opportune times full of meaning and connection to the surrounding world.

Sometimes these different senses of time clash and conflict.  Like on a night long ago when this took place.  Folks from the Ethiopian refugee community gathered at the Community Church of New York for a very special event.  It was on the calendar for 6-9 p.m.  Guests arrived, and continued to arrive.  At way past 6:00 the event finally got underway.  As it got later and later and the Sexton was having little success in getting things back on schedule for a 9 p.m. ending, he called and asked me to intervene.

That night the Ethiopians gathered in kairos time.  Their community was the most important thing and time was defined by what was right and best for the community  to begin when everyone is there and end when all that needs to be said and done is complete.  That same night, the sexton was living in chronological time.  Guided by the time on the clock and his work schedule, the event was running late and needed to end.  Who knows? Maybe the Sexton had bad memories of a past experience working later than agreed or a sense of the future and plans after work.

Communities inhabit a time made by all these things  past, present, future; memories; clocks and schedules; the right and opportune moment.  In my family, we’re learning how to live in time defined by the present moment and how to recognize right and opportune moments though they are few and far between.  For this community, the calling of your next settled minister is a time made of all these things. In this present moment, you are preparing yourselves to be the authors of the next chapter in the life story of this congregation. Build on the long and rich history of this place.  Draw on the wisdom of shared experience. Be bold in imagining your future.  Be open to the right and opportune moments that will come.