“Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. THAT'S relativity.”
Whichever way you slice it, time is a funny a thing and our perception of its passing an equal mystery.
William Blake in ‘Auguries of Innocence’ captures the idea with his signature poetic grace:
‘To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.’
Through the wonders of social media, I was recently able to enjoy pictures from the 40th birthday celebrations of a dear old friend. We met while college students in the United States, and went on to form part of a multi-national missions team in Jamaica during the summer of 1996. Eventually we returned to our respective homelands, her to Zimbabwe and me to England. For a few years we stayed in touch, and I was delighted when she married a splendid fellow. He even e-mailed me during the delivery of their first child. Time went on and we gradually lost touch as is the way of things, until the invention of Facebook and her finding me once again.
Now she has four children, all growing up. Her daughter looks increasingly like the young woman I met in the USA all those years ago, and it causes a beautiful yet aching pang in my heart to behold. Whether this is because my own life took a very different turn and I won’t ever have a family of my own, a sense of years and youth lost that I can never have again, or just a reminder of the transient nature of our brief mortality I really couldn’t say. Somehow I suspect it is a combination of all three.
It was lovely to see my friend in a birthday picture with her husband and family, and she has looked after herself as I had no doubt she would. Where do the years go, and what must we do in the day to day moments to look back and reflect that our life has been well lived?
Over the last two weeks I have read a couple of books on the much neglected English poet, John Clare, that I bought some years ago. One book was an anthology of his poems, and the other a collection of letters, journal entries, and other writings from the man himself.
John Clare (1793 – 1864) was probably the greatest rustic poet in our history. A man who captured the golden age of the English countryside in verse, and who was devastated by the Enclosures Act and the arrival of the railways that changed the rural landscape forever. He was born in Helpston, Northamptonshire and lived the majority of his life on the fens, with the exception of visits to London while promoting his work and his four year incarceration at an asylum in High Beach. Escaping in 1841, he walked back to his wife and children in Northamptonshire, an adventure which became known as his ‘Journey out of Essex.’ By this time, he was starting to evidence multiple personas based on other well-known poets. The revelation that despite much effort, his own writing career did not seem to go anywhere added to his frustrations. In many of his works, Clare writes dedications to his first love, Mary Joyce. Her parents had terminated their courtship, but Clare had never been free of it in his heart. Mary had died a spinster while he was in the Essex hospital, and the poet believed by this time that it was Mary, as well as his actual wife Martha (‘Patty’) Turner that he was married and returning to. Refusing to believe reports of Mary’s death, the strain on the family resulted in his admission to Northampton General Lunatic Asylum after Christmas 1841. He remained there until his death in 1864, and his letters to his wife and children are quite heart-breaking. Most noticeably of all is the sense of lost time, as institutionalisation begins to take hold. In a letter to Martha, seven years after his admission, he states:
‘I think it is about two years since I was first sent up in this hell and not allowed to go out of the gates. There never was a more disgraceful deception than this place.’
While I thankfully have never suffered the trauma of life in an asylum, I have met those who have. I also know from bitter personal experience the total devastation and loss of self that occurs during a nervous breakdown, and the long and difficult journey out of that darkest of valleys.
The last years of John Clare’s life are marked by loss. The loss of his true identity, the loss of time, and the loss of connection from present reality. The sensitivity that enabled him to immortalise a vision of the English country landscape long-since extinct, was traumatised most severely by his realisation of what was coming. It was only in the late twentieth century that he was finally accorded the honour he deserved, a plaque being added in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey. I am so very grateful that he was able to capture those moments in time.
Today is the 17th March: St. Patrick’s Day. Another realisation of time passing occurs as the penny drops that ten years ago to the day I was on my last visit to Ireland. Renting a little cottage on the edge of Killarney National Park, I managed to record some footage of the parade in Killarney itself on an old Handycam. I will include it at the end here for your enjoyment.
When I think about the brevity of life, the weirdness of time, and the importance of making my own count; I am reminded of the 5th century Sanskrit dramatist, Kālidāsa. His poem, ‘Look To This Day’ perfectly encapsulates all of those aspects:
Look to this day:
For it is life, the very life of life.
In its brief course
Lie all the verities and realities of your existence.
The bliss of growth,
The glory of action,
The splendour of achievement
Are but experiences of time.
For yesterday is but a dream
And tomorrow is only a vision;
And today well-lived, makes
Yesterday a dream of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well therefore to this day;
Such is the salutation to the ever-new dawn!
I hope that all my readers, young and old, will know the joy of mindfulness in their own lives. May your own yesterday be a dream of happiness, and your own tomorrow a vision of hope. Look well therefore to THIS day.