Place of Refuge

Place of Refuge

21 March 2010

Spring Equinox


As we whirl about on the wheel of the seasons, we mark time with our bodies, and with the earth.  And this is the natural way to measure time.  By cooperating with the sun, the earth, and the moon, we can tell the hours of the day.  Women can feel larger cycles within their bodies, far better than men can.  We know when our bodies are full, and ready to reproduce, and when they are barren.  And when our bodies leave the cycle of reproduction for good, we can feel the earth as it begins to pull us back to her.  
Women are humankind's natural time piece.  One might even argue that we started developing timepieces when men stopped listening to women.  But I won't argue that, not now, at least.  I'll just say it.

But it's not so hard to tell time by the cycle of the earth.  Men can do it, too.  Learning to live in the cycle of life is about as simple as learning to sing.  Studying singing means studying your body, finding all its echoing cavities, and then opening them up and letting the voice free.  You lose yourself to your voice, and your body becomes really just a wind instrument  When you're singing properly, it's the simplest thing in the world; it's like letting a clean, fresh spring of water rush through you. 

But yes, let's get back to time.  I woke up this morning at 11:00 am, because I stayed up so late last night.  And for an hour or so I panicked, feeling I'd lost half of my day.  I blamed it on technology, but in this case, the technology I'm blaming is not made of wires and springs, rather, it is a man-made technological mandate to spring our clocks forward earlier than usual. 

Just the act of springing our clocks forward is an unnatural separation between the human body and the actual rhythms of the day.  It's bad enough we have a clock.  Of course, we do spring it forward so we can take advantage of the natural cycle of the sun and the earth and give ourselves a longer work day.  But yes, there's a problem in that, too.

 Timepieces were first developed around 3500 BC.  (No, I wasn't around then!)  They were developed to measure the length of a day. Round like the earth and the sun, they were keyed into that rhythmic cycle, and at that point in their development, there was no harm to be found in them.  A farmer came to recognize when on the dial he needed to do certain chores, when to go take a nap, when to begin preparing food.  I like to imagine that at that point in history, every moment of every day was sacred, which is why, perhaps, in English we call our first meal "break-fast" because it is literally that: it is a ritual that breaks the fasting imposed upon us by nighttime and sleep. 

Life that is bound with the cycle of the earth is inherently ritualistic.

At what point did minutes and days and changes of seasons cease to be sacred?  At what point did humanity set the clocks forward so much so that it sent us all rushing through our days, ignoring the cues that the sun itself gives us about what time it really is?  I would dare say it happened before I was born:  the first spring-powered mechanism was created somewhere between 1500 and 1510; and in 1505 a guy named Peter Henlein designed the first portable timepiece at which point, every human being who could afford one became preoccupied with an object on a chain that he stored in his pocket, and not the sun itself. The minute hand was designed in 1577; so the entire time I've been alive, humans have been intimately aware of minutes and how quickly they pass.

And oh, how well I know how short, or how long, a minute can be.  Because of the strange circumstances that frame my life, time has become an obsession with me.  I've gone through different understandings of it, and I've read quite a bit about it.  There's some very nice sources on the web, in fact.  I put links under all my pictures so you can see where I stole them from.  The links up above actually should take you to some really nice articles about timepieces and time.  A book that I really have enjoyed, because it describes so well a key period in my life, is called The Culture of Time and Space, by Stephen Kern.  He does a very nice job of showing how the technological advances of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries did more to speed up time than any other historical era.  I would also say that each new technology that either helps us get our work done faster, or helps us get from one place to another more quickly has contributed to the speeding up of time.  One of the worst offenders in this equation is the timeclock itself: it put a price tag on time, and took masses of laborers out of the natural cycle of the earth and into the artifice of the workplace.  Working hourse became interminable, and leisure hours became too short.  Trains and boats and busses and cars transported us and our goods to far-off places, but once we got there, we had to watch the time carefully.  There are, after all, only so many hours in the day.


One of the biggest technological changes that I remember in my lifetime was the development of Greenwich Mean Time in 1884.  Just try to imagine the chaos that occurred, in little pockets all over the world, as people adjusted their watches and clocks to that one central time.  Such confusion!  The idea of being late didn't really exist before that; you just got to a place when you got there.  But if you wanted to catch the Paris train that arrived in Nice at 18:10, you had to set your clock by the new times, you had to get a train schedule, and you had to be at the station in good time.  Gradually people caught on, especially once radio came along, and we realized we could listen to a broadcast of someone singing from very far away if we had a radio and a clock. 

I was in Germany then, and sitting in a bar one night when it dawned on me that if it was 6:00 pm in Munich, it was 1:00 pm in New York.  "So where is it 6:00 am?" I asked the bartender.  He laughed at me and said "China."  I felt a strange shift inside myself as I imagined developing a flying machine fast enough to get me to China in twelve hours.  Judging by the buzz of an airplane overhead, I began to think it was really possible.

One of the reasons I like Stephen Kern's book is because he describes what I began to think about then.  I began to think that as technology makes it more possible for us to measure time more precisely and to travel from place to place faster, time itself will begin to speed up until it absolutely disappears.  In other words, when we can get to China in second, then perhaps time itself has become inconsequential.  I've been feeling this speeding up of time and space happening, for over one hundred years, until today.

That's why this internet is so interesting to me.  I can write these very words and press "post," and instantaneously, somone in China can read what I have just written.  Better yet, I can Skype my friend in Singapore, and hear her voice as if she's in the same room with me.  In fact, the only thing that keeps me from being able to fully be with her is my body.  As I talk with her through my computer, our minds and spirits are absolutely together, and our bodies, well, they seem peripheral. 

As this glorious first day of Spring comes to its end, my windows are open.  I can hear birds singing and dogs barking.  The air is crisp, and the dappled clouds are reflecting the light of the setting sun.  It feels almost like late Spring, or nearly Summer, and I know somewhere, someone is thinking how time is speeding up, and Armageddon is no doubt on the horizon.  And maybe it is.

Or maybe it's just that our perception of time has come absolutely full circle.  We're living in a time when, because of our technology, every moment can give us access to the whole world.  Time is imploding on us, and this has been brought on by the evolution of the technology that allows us to talk about time itself.  Time just isn't all that relevant anymore.  It's everywhere and nowhere.  (Follow this link to something called the Human Clock; shows people all over the world having fun with time and the internet!)

Of course, many say that Christ will come (again) at the end of time.  Considering what I'm saying, when will that be?  By my equation, (and of course by the words that came to me late one night) his arrival is imminent.  

Or perhaps, quite frankly, he's here right now.

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