What is the most commonly used noun in the English language? I read that it is “time.”
Time is always on our minds. We try our best to control it, but we know that it advances so matter what we do or don’t do.
I can’t really remember what my concept of time was as a child. I know that I wasn’t as concerned about it as I am now in my 60s. Time didn’t move slower or faster but I think I remember thinking I had all the time I would ever need.
As an adult, I have even studied time, from quantum mechanics to time travel fiction. I know that we can’t slow down or speed up time. Well, I guess Einstein would say we can kind of do that if we can travel very, very fast. Albert did not actually say this (but it is often attributed to him) “When you sit with a nice girl for two hours you think it’s only a minute, but when you sit on a hot stove for a minute you think it’s two hours. That’s relativity.” It is true that time seems to slow down when we’re bored. It seems to speed up when we’re enjoying ourselves. And it seems to speed up when as you get older even if you’re not enjoying yourself.
Without getting into anything at a quantum level, I think we all agree that Time is relative.
I wrote about Daylight Saving Time earlier this month when we did our semiannual switching of clocks. I’ve written about it in years past and there is a limit to what I can say about it that is new or original. Well, the U.S. government might give me a reprieve.
As we were pushing our clocks ahead an hour, the Senate was readying to pass (unanimously, a rare thing) to pass the Sunshine Protection Act. That’s an interesting name for this bill which would permanently extend daylight saving time (DST) from eight months of the year to the full 12 months.
This bill be was first introduced in January 2021 but Senator Marco Rubio reintroduced the bill just as people were complaining – again – about the time change.
The bill would make DST permanent across the U.S. in 2023. It seems that it might be a popular change, though polls show support for permanent DST and also support for year-round Standard Time (the way it is for most of November into March).
Note: Arizona does not recognize DST (except for Navajo reservations) and there is no time change observed in Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam, and the Northern Marianas.
Doing some research reading on Virginia Woolf for a post yesterday about her novel To the Lighthouse, I came across an article that made what seemed like a weird connection between Woolf and Albert Einstein.
Imagine this: Virginia has a conversation with poet William Butler Yeats. It is 1934. Yeats wanted to talk about her very experimental novel from 1931, The Waves. Yeats’ interpretation of it was mystical and he had visions of “the Occult.”
She wrote in her diary after the conversation that you “can’t unriddle the universe at tea,” She also noted that Yeats had said that “Neither religion or science explains the world. The occult does explain it.”
Virginia was more interested in science than the occult. She was interested in physics and astronomy. Albert Einstein’s Special and General Theories of Relativity were news in 1905 and 1915 respectively and astronomer Arthur Eddington proved (observationally) relativity in 1919, and it became something heard by (but not really understood by) the general public.
What might a novelist do with Einstein’s theory that events in time are not the same everywhere for everyone? It could certainly change how you used time as a narrative structure. That is what is happening in To the Lighthouse and the article’s author sees the influence in her Orlando, and The Waves, which are two novels I don’t know very well.
Virginia – and others in and out of the literary world – were influenced by Einstein’s view that this is a non-linear, probably godless and probably impossible to fully understand the world and universe.
The article goes into much greater detail but what seems to at least partially have created some of the popularity of his theories in the culture was that they were just so damned counter-intuitive. They turned earlier ideas upside down.
Did Woolf read Einstein’s work? Not clear. She might have just heard it in conversation with friends like philosopher Bertrand Russell who published the ABC of Relativity in 1925. Maybe she read some of the many newspaper accounts.
Did it get her thinking in such a way about narrative that the character Orlando in that same-named novel is a boy in Shakespeare’s time but later wakes up as a woman in the 20th century? Time in the novel is relative and it moves much more slowly for Orlando than for the rest of his/her world. That’s a paradox that Einstein suggests, though not in such an extreme fashion.
Yeats wanted her to consider that there is a world beyond this one we see. Einstein would agree, but he wouldn’t explain any of it as mystical or having to do with religion. Either would Woolf, who would have a character in Mrs. Dalloway say that “there were no Gods; no one was to blame; and so she evolved this atheist’s religion of doing good for the sake of goodness.” It’s a philosophy of simplicity and seeing the marvelous in every day.
And yet, her life ended in suicide. She finished her last novel and fell into another depression as she had before. It was the start of World War II and her London home was destroyed during the Blitz. Her diary was full of thoughts about death. Woolf was overtaken by mental illness throughout her life and was institutionalized several times and attempted suicide at least twice. Her illness may have been bipolar disorder, for which there was no effective intervention during her lifetime. On March 28, 1941, she filled her overcoat pockets with stones, walked into the River Ouse near her home and drowned. She left a suicide note, addressed to her husband:
Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do… I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been. V
“Lighthouses are endlessly suggestive signifiers of both human isolation, and our ultimate connectedness to each other.”
– Virginia Woolf.
I have always found lighthouses to be Romantic places. I’m not alone in that notion. The first lighthouse I visited as a child was at Sandy Hook in my home state of New Jersey. I did not climb to the top. It might not have been open for that back in the day or there might have been a height requirement. (I was a little guy.) The second lighthouse i visited was a bit further south. “Old Barney” is the nickname of Barnegat Light at the tip of Long Beach Island in New Jersey.
As a young man, I imagined that being a lighthouse keeper would be a good job of a writer. Isolation, few distractions, a wide view of the world. (In college, I actually tried to get a job as a fire tower lookout – but that’s a tale for later.)
“Inside my empty bottle, I was constructing a lighthouse while all the others were making ships.” – Charles Simic
When Virginia Woolf was 11, she took a boat trip to Godrevy Lighthouse. Virginia (born Adeline Virginia Stephen) and her family did summer vacations from London in Cornwall and their summer rental looked out at St. Ives Bay.
As an adult writer, she used those summer trips in her 1927 novel To the Lighthouse. She changed the location to the Isle of Skye in the Hebrides, Scotland.
I was assigned that novel in college and found it a challenging read. I liked the idea of a family going on their visits to the Isle of Skye (a great name for an island) and I suppose I tried to connect that with my own family’s childhood visits to the Jersey Shore. But it is a Modernist novel and I wasn’t quite ready for that at 19. In that college course, we also read Marcel Proust and James Joyce. I grew up on plot-driven, linear stories and I still prefer them in novels and in films. I guess I’m old school in my literary tastes. Those novels did not thrill me.
Modernist novels get into philosophical introspection, with little dialogue and (I’m not being insulting here) very little action. Her novel is full of thoughts and observations about both the recollection of childhood memories and adult relationships.
In 1940, Virginia wrote “In retrospect nothing that we had as children made as much difference, was quite so important to us, as our summer in Cornwall,” The family went there for thirteen summers but after Julia, Virginia’s mother, died, they never returned.
I had to look online for a reminder of the novel’s plot and structure. It is an especially hard plot to recall since there is so little plot. One “action” is the inaction of a postponed visit to the lighthouse.
“To the Lighthouse,considered by many to be Virginia Woolf’s finest novel, is a remarkably original work, showing the thoughts and actions of the members of a family and their guests on two separate occasions, ten years apart. The setting is Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay’s house on a Scottish island, where they traditionally take their summer holidays, overlooking a bay with a lighthouse. In 1998, the Modern Library named To the Lighthouse No. 15 on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.”
Reading about the novel, one person noted from a 2020 perspective that it is a good example of “social distancing.” Critics love the book and toss out phrases like “the vagaries of consciousness,” “a titan of modernism,”
I have attempted some of the other novels of Virginia Woolf since college. I tried listening to an audiobook version of Mrs. Dalloway this past summer. I don’t advise the audio format for Woolf. I love audiobooks but I think Modernist literature as audio tends to just wash over me. I get swept away by the stream of consciousness swirling in my head.
When the professor discussed Woolfherself in class, I was fascinated by her – much more than I was interested in her novel. That is still true.
“Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.” – Anne Lamott
I read Michael Cunningham’s novel, The Hours, when it came out and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999. (I also enjoyed the film version of The Hours with its stellar cast including Meryl Streep , Julianne Moore , Nicole Kidman and Ed Harris)
The Hours is also a book that experiments with time, though not in the same way as Woolf. Like Woolf’s novel, it has three parts. Each section is the story of one day in a woman’s life. One is the story of Virgina Woolf (Kidman) as she begins writing Mrs. Dalloway. (Virginia’s working title for her book was The Hours.) A second plot is set in modern-day New York with Clarissa (Streep) at the side of her poet friend dying from AIDS and planning a party in his honor. Plot three is about Laura (Moore) who lives near Los Angeles in 1949 and is questioning her life rather normal suburban life.
Do the stories intertwine and finally come together? Yes. Do I love that kind of plot structure? Not really, but I must be in the minority because it is such a common structure in novels, films, and television today. But in Cunningham’s novel, the plot moves in a linear fashion with the three stories but takes time hops. He follows Woolf’s 3 stories of 3 women who have all been somehow affected by Woolf’s novel.
It’s odd that this playing with time and consciousness annoys me because I am a big fan of time travel and consciousness and read and write about both things often. I also like the odd synchronicities in the background of stories and lives. For example, in The Hours, Clarissa on her way to a man’s apartment thinks she sees Meryl Streep. Meryl Streep ended up playing Clarissa in the movie adaptation. In the book, Clarissa later thinks it actually might have been Vanessa Redgrave that she saw on the street and Redgrave played Clarissa Dalloway in the 1997 film version of Mrs. Dalloway.
Lighthouses have been used in literature and cinema as symbols for a long time. They are built to withstand powerful storms and pounding waves and might to symbolize strength, safety, individuality, and obviously act as a beacon and guide and therefore as hope.
Though Woolf would never use it this way, they often appear as Christian symbols. Ben Franklin also would dismiss that kind of association. He wrote, “Lighthouses are more helpful than churches.”
The weekdays blurred into the weekend as we all are sheltering at home. I’ve been writing a lot, but mostly poetry and email to say in touch with friends. Nothing seemed like the right thing to write about this weekend in Paradelle in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
I spent an entire afternoon drinking tea today and paging through a book of paintings by Vincent van Gogh. It was therapeutic. Maybe I’ll write about that this week.
Posts here appear on weekends but, as I said, weekday, weekend – it’s all the same.
I should be used to this because since I have retired the days have already been blurring, so I should be used to this “new normal.” Except, this time is not chosen retirement from normal life. And retirement doesn’t mean staying in the house and avoiding your family, friends, neighbors and places you have been going to for years.
Here’s one poem that came out of this time inside. It wasn’t written about the pandemic, but maybe it is about that.
Two Hours of Coffee at the Diner
My newly retired friend says every day is a weekend.
A month of Sundays like that Updike novel, he says.
No, no, says his longer-retired wife
Every day is Wednesday. Weekends have no meaning now.
They are saying this to me because I’m nearing retirement
but I don’t want to hear either of those theories of time.
I want my days to continue to be 24 hours,
my weeks to have five weekdays and a weekend.
I tell my friends this and they laugh.
You’ll lose track of the days, she tells me.
If I didn’t have this phone calendar reminding me,
I wouldn’t know what day it is, he says to his iPhone.
None of this is making me feel good about retiring, I say.
You’ll get used to it, my long-retired friend says.
We all lift our coffee cups and drink and I realize
that two hours have passed without me realizing it.
I’m time traveling. So are you. We’re moving at the speed of one hour per hour. We are moving always forward towards the future.
Of course, when we speak of time travel most people think about speeding up or slowing down time or visiting the past or looking at the future.
Einstein wasn’t a believer in the constant, linear construct that most of us operate within. He actually proved that time changes depending on your position in space.
I’m sitting at my laptop at the desk looking out the window and occupying the three dimensions of space – length, width and height – but, though I’m seemingly motionless, I am moving forward in that fourth dimension of time.
Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity proposes that time does not pass at the same rate for everyone. If you are an observer or you’re the one traveling and being observed, time moves at different speeds.
The people in the International Space Station are moving faster in space through time than we are on Earth. But not much faster. If we could travel at 186,282 miles per second. (speed of light) then time slows down. Your clock runs slow relative to people who are still. Travel that way and you could return many years in the future.
If we could go faster than the speed of light (670 million mph), one year on that timecraft would equal 223 years on Earth.
Of course, Einstein is a time travel spoiler because he said that anything with a mass cannot physically reach the speed of light. So much for that time machine.
Sci-Fi folks like to offer the warp drive for time travel. Yes, this is a Star Trek thing but scientists have picked up on it. What warps is the fabric of space-time. Planets, stars, constellations – all of the universe is on that fabric. Our timecraft would push up the fabric of space in front of it causing a bubble of space-time we could travel on and we wouldn’t be traveling faster than light.
I won’t even try to discuss traveling via cosmic strings which would enable our timecraft to attach onto them and fly through space at amazing speeds which might allow time travel.
As intriguing as time travel is to me, I have no hope that we can do it. So, I will continue to move at one hour per hour into the future and think about the past and guess at the future and try to slow down the present.