time passing

the problem of time

“The trace has a special relationship to the past, akin to that of photography. It is not depiction so much as forensic evidence that the thing outlined – whether literally by flour or photographically by light – was indeed there at one point in time. This is the temporality of the relic, proof (often by faith) that a person was there, that an event occurred. Performance is by nature ephemeral; it transpires, like a life, and disappears. The only way to fix it, to prove it, is to record it.” (from “The Geometry of Time: Some Notes on Francesca Woodman’s Video,” Jennifer Blessing, from catalogue of Francesca Woodman exhibition at SF MOMA, edited by Corey Keller, 2011). 

In 1865, young Lewis Payne tried to assassinate Secretary of State W. H. Seward. Alexander Gardner photographed him in his cell, where he was waiting to be hanged. The photograph is handsome, as is the boy; that is the studium. But the punctum is: he is going to die. I read at the same time: This will be and this has been; I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake. By giving me the absolute past of the pose (aorist), the photograph tells me death in the future. What pricks me is the discovery of this equivalence. In front of the photograph of my mother as a child, I tell myself: she is going to die: I shudder, like Winnicott’s psychotic patient, over a catastrophe which has already occurred. Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe. (from Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes, translated by Richard Howard, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc., 1981)

opportunity cost

The businessman tells me: You must also consider the opportunity cost. While you are doing one thing, you are not doing others. What are you not doing? What progress could you be making on another endeavor, were you not spending your time this way?

We are sitting in a coffee shop in the lobby of a hotel. Beyond the window, the street. Cars and trucks speed by.

Look, I’ll give you a simple example. Basic. A baby could understand this: You put your money in car parts. You’re making car parts. You have a team, you’ve got a little factory, you send those car parts off the line. Every day, car parts. Then this other guy is making flash drives. He’s got his team, his factory, and all the little flash drives come off the line. At the end of the year, you’ve got your car parts. He’s got his flash drives. He didn’t make any car parts, didn’t have the time or the resources or the people who know how to do it. His people make flash drives. Your people make car parts. Some investor comes along and he wants to buy your factory. Give you a ton of money for it. He asks you what have you got? Well, I’ve got car parts. Hmm, he says. I think what I’m looking for is flash drives, and BAM. You’re out. Flash drive guy’s got the deal. Flash drive guy is sitting on a whole pile of money. That is a missed opportunity. That’s what I’m saying. Do you see what I mean? That’s what I’m saying. 

I take my aunt to breakfast and we talk about my mother. Does your husband know how she was? she asks. You know, how she did things, the way she was. 

He knows about what happened, I say, if that is what you mean. He knows she was unhappy. She says: “I got so mad at your sister once when she said that. When she said your mother was unhappy. I told her, well what did she have to be happy about? A failed marriage, no job, no money, no friends to speak of. What was she supposed to be happy about?” 

I nod, say nothing. “But that was a long time ago. I have had time to think about it. I think about her so much. She’s been gone for twenty years now. And I still feel like I have to defend her.” 

I have thought about her a lot, too. She has been gone now for longer than I knew her. I think about her every day. Her unhappiness. I worry about the ways I am like her. 

She had assembled a fantasy of how her life should go - the husband she would have, the house they would live in, the car she would drive, the dresses she might wear - and everything around her disappointed her because it did not resemble the fantasy. None of us - my father, my aunt, my sister and me -  knew what this fantasy was, exactly. She did not describe it. We only knew, I think, that we were not quite right. 

The children she should have. Who we did and did not resemble. 

My fantasy has always involved a letter. Handwritten on fine paper with stamps I do not recognize. It begins “dear daughter,” or “to my dear daughter.” It tells a simple story and brings news: I have been looking for you and now I have found you. I am coming to New York and I would like to meet you. And we set a date and a place and a time. It does not matter, in my fantasy, how long it takes for my letter to reach her. The meeting is set. I buy a new dress. 

We meet in the afternoon and we have tea and hold hands. There is not much we can say. I speak no Korean and she has some English, but it is limited. In my fantasy, it is better that way. We avoid all complexities. Perhaps we take a walk in the park near her hotel. Perhaps she brings me a gift - something I used to wear or a book or a photo of her and my father, together in happier times. She is young and smiling and her hair is piled high on her head. My father is rakish. His hands thrust deep in his pockets. 

My businessman might take issue with my dwelling so long in fantasy. My resources are limited, after all. Allocation of time, of imagination: How many missed opportunities are piling up even as I sleep? 

I walk down to the river and stop there, looking out over rocks, the precipitous drop. Six minutes. I cross the bridge and follow the curve of the road up the street past the library. Three minutes. I enter the gym, scan my card walk through two sets of doors. Put my bag in a locker. Three minutes. On the bicycle: forty-five minutes. Back through the double doors and down the road and across the bridge and back up the street. Thirteen minutes.

My aunt says: “I didn’t feel like time was passing, really until after I turned seventy. That’s when I started feeling time go very quickly. And now sometimes I think: I am seventy-three years old. I forget sometimes,” she says, “that I am not forty anymore.”

Aren’t we all just passing time? 

I walked home from school as a child, bent down to pick up twigs from the sidewalk. I took them home, arranged them on a shelf. I fingered the bark. Should I instead have read a book? Or built a raft? Or learned the flute?

We drove out to the beach in winter. The hotel room had a gas fireplace, and we lit it. He took me to the bed and we stayed there until the fire burned out and night fell. I could have knit a sweater. I could have made a list of all the stars in the sky.

I sat by the bedside of my mother and watched the hours tick past. Watched the white sheets rise and fall with her labored breaths. The time was shapeless. Endless until it was not. I could have been sweeping floors. I could have been digging trenches in the dirt. I could have carved lines into my skin. 

I could have been searching for my first mother. All this time, I could have been searching. I could have flown to Korea and back a thousand times. Learned the simple, phonetic hangul. Learned to say mother

I could have loved the mother who was in front of me - the living, pulsing, unhappy mother - how much better I could have loved her. 

Being here and not there. Wanting this and not that. Looking one way and missing what the eyes cannot see. Everything we have lost. Everything we cannot get back. This is a moment I will never get back. And look another has passed now. And another. 

We have people over for dinner two nights in a row and after they have gone, my aunt says: You have such nice friends. They are such lovely people. I say yes. This is how we pass the time. This is how we shape the days. Afternoons in the kitchen, the warmth of the oven, the rhythmic slicing and chopping. Bringing out dishes, placing them on the table. Chairs pulled up around the table. The pouring of wine. The raising of glasses. We lean forward, we laugh, we embrace. There are children and they run up and down the stairs. They parade around us in hats. They ask for chocolates and we give them. We take plates back to the kitchen and pile them on the countertops. 

A river of hours flowing past more swiftly than we could ever have possibly imagined.

Let them flow. 

if everything goes according to my plan

I wake ravenous this morning, which is not, typically, a good sign. Too much hunger too early in the day suggests a day of disappointments.

Yesterday, a day of indulgences – late brunch with L. at a restaurant we both love. There is a wait, of course, and we squeeze into a bench by the bar and sip coffees. It’s been a while since we’ve spent time together. She’s walked the three miles from her house and she tells me, “I was on the phone the whole time – fighting with my mother.”

“What are you fighting about?” I ask.

“Oh, everything. What are we not fighting about? My parents – they don’t live in reality,” she says, as she unwinds her scarf from around her neck, stuffs it in her purse. “They don’t follow any sort of logic. They are just completely illogical.”

We laugh. She goes on to explain the house she wants to buy, that they are buying with her, and the negotiations of these shared financial decisions. There are renovations to be done. Walls to knock down. A roof – literally – to be raised.

“The good news is,” she gushes, “ that the contractor is unbelievably hot, and if everything goes according to my plan, he’ll marry me and we’ll have babies together and spend our lives buying houses to renovate.”

I spend the early morning in the garden, raking out last year’s dead leaves and weeds. This early in the season, I am ruthless – pruning back the rose bushes, pulling out big clumps of the irises that will take over the beds by mid-June, thinning the hydrangea. I work for hours, fill dozens of bags with garden debris. Back inside, I observe the familiar blisters that have appeared on my fingers and my forearms now bear the tell-tale signs of my carelessness with the beach roses. I go back outside, survey the yard again. There is visible evidence of my efforts, but there is still so much to be done. I feel suddenly and overwhelmingly weary.

When L. and I are finally seated, we order big dishes and talk loudly. It is hard to hear each other over the din. She’s come back from a trip to New York to visit her man for his birthday. They have a drink together before dinner, but he has plans for dinner with his soon-to-be-ex-wife.

“He had dinner with her for his birthday?” I ask. “But they’re done, right? I mean, it’s over?”

“Oh, yes,” she says. “I think she just felt badly than he didn’t have any other plans. I mean, I don’t think he really understood that I was there to see him. I don’t think he really got that.”

I nod, bite the inside of my cheek hard.

“Anyway, tell me about your trip,” she says, as she flags over the waitress for more coffee. “I haven’t seen you since San Francisco.”

In the afternoon, I am walking through campus, and I notice a man who seems familiar, but it takes me a while to remember how I know him. Finally, it comes to me: A librarian! From my days spent in the carrels on the fourth floor of the university library. His silent figure a frequent presence moving through the aisles. Or downstairs at the reference desk. Or hovering behind circulation. It’s been at least twenty years now and he is showing his age. His hair is pale, thin, gray. It is hard to watch him as he makes his way up the hill. He walks hunched over, slowly, his legs bowed.

Seeing this man, watching him take his uncomfortable steps uphill, this man whose name – if I ever knew, I have long since forgotten – makes me swallow hard, repeatedly, involuntarily. It is not, after all, the people with whom I share my daily life – my family, my friends – who can show me the passage of time. We are aging together, nearly invisibly to each other. It is this librarian, who in my memory has been static, symbolic; it is he who reminds me that the months and years pile up relentlessly on us all, whether or not we are paying close attention.

At night, we go to a dinner party and we spend the early part of the evening introducing ourselves to people we’ve never met, despite all our years of living in this tiny city. When dinner is served, though, we tuck ourselves into a corner, M. and me., and quietly acknowledge the pleasure of being alone together for a few minutes – even as the rest of the party swirls and chatters around us. We lean in close to each other, creating, with our bodies, a little private floating island. “That dress is amazing,” he says. “You look so beautiful,” he says. Before I can respond, a man approaches us, says to M., “I think we’ve met – you look so familiar,” and with that, we rejoin the party, leave the island behind – to revisit, perhaps at another time. 

Today is the anniversary of the date of my adoption. We called it that – an “anniversary” – in my family and when I was a child, I remember the date being commemorated every year with a cake and a small gift. At some point, the celebrations stopped, but I don’t remember when or why. It is not a tradition that I carried into adulthood, and I don’t know that anyone – except perhaps my aunt – notes the date. This year, it seems important to me to mark it, although I don’t know why or how. Perhaps it is enough to acknowledge it here.