We enter the world with our arms reaching at anything they can grasp: a mother’s breast, a set of keys dangling from a father’s fingers, the invisible matter that we don’t yet know to call air. We take and we are given and so quickly we grow. One day, another millimeter. Tick marks on a wall tracking height show exponential gains in the matter of months. We keep stretching outward, to the sun and hidden light of other objects, with no sense of time. We fail to grasp that it is always passing, how it slips through our greedy, curious hands.
Structure is imposed into our lives, maybe through pre-school or just kindergarten. We play and learn, we are introduced to the concept of time. We are given pictures of clocks with movable hands push-pinned at the center. We swirl them around in wonder, still not yet grasping what the evenly spaced tick marks indicate.
In elementary school the concept of time begins to crystallize. Slowly it moves from blurry abstraction to sharp-edged reality. We read the clock and it means something. An hour has passed, two, three, four; twenty more and it will be a whole day. Some of us begin to wear plastic watches adorned with Pokemon creatures and Disney princesses. We barely glance at them, but feel somehow cooler with our timepieces. Adults begin to ask us what we will do when we grow up. Gleefully we oblige them. The responses roll off our tongues without a moment of thought, already conditioned by what we see the old people around us doing. Where are you gonna go? College! What are you gonna be? A lawyer! What are you gonna play? Basketball!
High school comes, and around junior year many of us learn to exploit this strange thing called time. Each hour of the day has a purpose: homeroom, biology, calculus, world literature, lunch, American history, and so on. Some of the hours move fast if the subject matter interests us, or if we have a sweetheart to hold hands with during the break between classes. Some of the hours drag and we fight to keep our eyes open. Many of us stay after the final bell for yet another two or three structured hours, conditioning our bodies with weights and endless sprints assigned by a tyrannical coach, or teaching our hands to play notes that appear on a page and issue from the horn of a trumpet. Our efforts are awarded with leather jackets adorned with pins and velvet letters and the school mascot. We are given incentives to keep using our time well.
Then we jump into college and time does something strange. It moves both fast and slow. Each year feels wholly distinct, each semester unique. We are fully immersed in these short-term goals that feel so far off; this honors class I can take next fall if I do well in the spring, that fellowship I can apply for my junior year, this job I am reaching for by end of graduation. Each year a new epiphany on what we envision to be the linear track along which we become somebody. Days so jam-packed they pass in the blink of an eye, and yet the years do not blur in our memory; each one stretches only to the boundaries of the academic calendar.
Adulthood comes as a cliff from which we are pushed. The years begin to lose the fine-tuned definition of university time. No longer do we sense each 365-day cycle to contain the same abundance and potential for complete transformation. We are taught to try and stay put for a year or two or more in our first job. It is scary at first, to do the same thing day in and day out, even if we love that thing, and the eight hours of the work day pass by painfully slow. We are told that we will get used to it, that 730 days can go by so quickly, there is no need to start reaching now for the next thing. At first we don’t believe these words. Within six months we are living them. How did half a year pass? One year? Two? Did I graduate three years ago now?
We wake up and pour our coffee; we dim the lights and softly encourage our bodies to recharge for the next day; we repeat. We cycle through so many tired Monday mornings, so many Friday evenings filled with guilty pleasures. Somewhere down the line we learn that a year or two or five is not so long to tolerate ambiguity, that making radical change from month to month requires so much energy we would rather save for other pursuits. Decisions are stretched over longer periods of time that feel half as short.
The years from 22 to 25 speed by like a train moving at 100 miles per hour. From 26 to 29 we get nervous about birthdays. After our thirtieth cycle around the sun many of us stop counting. We make big choices and live with them. Those choices affect others and we gather dependents. We put ourselves on autopilot to keep the one million plates we have accumulated spinning fast enough that they don’t crash to the earth. Forty comes, then fifty, they start calling us over the hill. We become the big ones asking the little ones what they will be when they grow up. We slow down and yet roll ever faster down that proverbial hill. We wait patiently for whatever comes next and accept its inevitability. We stop reaching and grasping and wanting. We let time take us. We come to understand it was never ours for the taking.