Thoughts about Time: a Hot Mess and a Fluid Thing That May Not Be an Actual Thing…

I’m going to write about ‘Time’. (I am writing about ‘Time’. I have written about ‘Time’.) Time is a hot mess. It is, it always has been and it always will be.

Time perturbs me. It’s always all over the place, running around with knives and scissors screaming “I happened! I am happening! I am going to happen!” Really though? I’m not convinced. Time doesn’t know what is in itself and – for all the havoc it’s causing and attention that it’s trying grab – it may not even actually be a real thing.

I’ve been thinking about Time a lot lately, just as I think a lot about things that possibly aren’t real. Last night the clocks went back and we slipped into Greenwich Mean Time (and oh it is so mean, bringing Winter back again and why they Hell would I want Winter? What am I meant to do with Winter?). I was asleep so didn’t consciously experience the timeslip while my senses were engaged. How do I truly know that it happened then? How can I be completely sure that Europe dialled back an hour while I was in bed?

The clocks tell us that it’s a particular point in Time, but clocks can’t tell the Time themselves. Clocks are mechanical devices that lack sentience, except the clocks that are connected to advanced hyperintelligent supercomputers and that clock over there that has been possessed (the exorcism is scheduled for Wednesday). What if I approached a clock and re-adjusted it so that instead of, say, 08:34 it read 19:22? How about 11:11, 12:51 or 21:12?

I can have some fun playing with clocks (generally un-fun) and change the Time so that it’s a reference to a rock song but the changed Time wouldn’t be the accurate, genuine Time. Then again, what makes the Time right now the accurate, genuine Time? It was decided that last night Time would go back one hour and I still, in my ignorance, don’t have a solid grasp of who decided that or why. (To give people an extra in bed? So cow-farmers can see the udders they are pulling when they wake in the morning? So we have more excuses to jump into a spontaneous rendition of the Time Warp?)

Of course, Greenwich Mean Time is a human-made type of time tied into what is only one of a number of possible artificial calendars (others aside from the Western/Gregorian – like the Chinese, North Korean JucheMayan and Babylonian – are available and probably not fit for your imminent needs). All these calendars and notions of timezones and systems were created by people (or ancient gods). They are artificial installations, and that once again leads me to question the whole dubious notion of Time, however we conceive it or record it.

Seconds. Minutes. Hours. Days. Weeks. Months. Years. So on, so on with all these human-made units designed to mark out the immense thing (non-thing?) that is (is not?) Time. Are these units just there to provide structure and systematic shape to something that is intangible and possibly unreal? Is this just another expression of our collective neurotic need to categorise and label everything? Are we clinging so hard to this possibly-fake notion because we can’t comprehend and stand the mindblowing prospect of complete chaos and absolute freedom from regulated order? Is this just an elaborate means of trying to enforce meaning onto a Universe that may in fact be meaningless?

The truth is, if Time is real then Time is fluid and not solid (figuratively). The idea that Time is a linear progression – a winged chariot speeding ever onward or an arrow shooting from Past through Present and into the Future – is easy to digest but it’s bogus. If we separate Time out into three bits – Past, Present and Future – then we find that they all depend on each other, crossover and merge until we have nothing but a big puddle that sloshes around flowing here and there, everywhere and nowhere.

We are, allegedly, in the Present but the Present is a product of the Past and it’s beholden to the Future. The Past has happened, but the Past is rewritten and redefined by the Present and, I guess, the Future. As for the Future, it’s also dependent on the Past and is being configured by the Future right now in the Present.

Time is indeed fluid: a infinite ocean in which everyone and everything floats (or drowns). I’m picturing Past, Present and Future as colossal cubes of salt drifting upon this ocean and all of us are gripping on to them so that we have something to hold tight to. But what if those cubes crashed into each other or completely dissolved? What if those cubes are the mirages of an insecure mind that fears it’s drowning? Who built those monolithic salt cubes anyway?

Altogether, I’m saying that Time should probably be taken with a punch of salt. (I have taken that pinch of salt and put it in a boiling pan of water. I’m making spaghetti and it’s a tangled hot mess.)

In addition to the clock-turn-back, another reason that Time has been mixed in with trending topics and on people’s minds was the coming and passing of Back to the Future Day. Our conventional calendar made it to a particular day once predicted and picked as a temporal destination for plot purposes in an old movie. That gave people reason for nostalgia trips (living in the Past) and rumination on how our Present is not the Future once imaginatively fabricated in the Past for the entertainment of what was once the contemporary Present.

And in all of this Back to the Future mix fiction and non-fiction are blurring so that we can no longer quite clearly discern which is which (and we’re having ever-increasing difficulty making that distinction and working out our relationship with both in our modern pop-culture saturated world). There was Doc Brown – a character, a persona put on by an actor – on screens with his DeLorean to make the moment feel like ‘reality’. We know that Max Spielberg never grew up to direct Jaws 19 but, lo and behold, here’s a spoof trailer from Universal Studios and a review of this fictional film within a fictional film. And, as reality bends and real history and fake history weave and warp, it’s worth wondering: how can we be completely certain that this nonsense hasn’t all happened and isn’t all happening in an alternate timestream?

The Back to the Future trilogy is enough of a headtrip as it is, so taking it meta and melding it with off-screen ‘reality’ makes it even more confusing. Funnily enough, on Back to the Future Day I was set to go to a university open day to explore the idea of doing a PhD. My idea was to possibly conduct research into time-travel in film but in the end I didn’t make it to the open day. Other events – urgent issues that needed to be dealt with – took over, went on too long and I would have arrived at the university too late.

There’s the Future being affected by the Present again (and the things that kept me occupied could arguably have been fixed a long time ago in the Past). Still, this isn’t a shame or a problem because I got to think about the prospective Future and put myself off that envisioned path. I thought about friends I know and the grief they’ve had working on PhDs so there’s the Past and Present experience of others impacting on my Future. I reflected further and came to a conclusion that I don’t see a Future for myself down that route. I create mental pictures of the Future but those pictures are visualised in the Present and partly crafted in line with knowledge accumulated in the Past.

So, that’s one of several Future pathways discounted and cast off but all these imagined Futures I’m pre-figuring require action (or inaction) in the Present. Here’s where I get personal on this Time talk because if Time is real, it’s subjective as well as fluid. My Time is different to your Time and their Time. Some days move too slow and other occasions just fly by, but yet the measurements of Time are rigid, unchanging and objective. And there’s never enough Time and occasionally we have too much Time on our hands. See what I mean? Time is amorphous and fluid, expanding and contracting, affecting us all differently.

If I went back to the beginning of this sprawling blogpost and picked up the personification of Time as a screaming, knife-brandishing hot mess, I’d be always be scowling at it and stating “Not quite my tempo!“; I feel like Time is always out-of-sync with me, or that I’m offbeat. That personification isn’t really useful, though, so let’s go back to the ocean and the ebb and flow of something that washes over us all and over everything.

I’ve talked about the Future so now I’ll touch the Past – waves and waves of which crash into me (and everyone else) as I move through what’s perceived as the Present. A recent example: last week I walked past a man in the street and as he passed me I got a strong whiff of aftershave. That whiff signified ‘Grandad’, though this man was definitely not my Grandad and the aftershave may not have even been the same one that my Grandad used to wear.

My Grandad died 14 years ago, but there he was again in my Present and I know that my memories of him will keep on coming back to me in the Future. (Where he will inevitably call me a “big girl’s blouse” and, I imagine, criticise me for talking with my hands so much.) My Grandad is long gone, but he’ll never be gone. People die or go away – things and moments too – but they still stay with you as ghosts (in your memory or possibly also as ectoplasmic ghosts). If you don’t want to get spiritual or poignant about it (I mean, ectoplasm is icky and ghosts can be terrifying), you can turn to photographs or other tangible forms that recorded someone’s presence or an actual Past happening.

We’re really good at keeping in touch with the Past in the Present days of this Internet Age. Social media can swiftly sending us on Timehops and Throwback Thursday jaunts and all these online repositories function as audiovisual archives of Past, Present and Future. (Facebook truly is a hot mess of crossing timelines and perhaps the best example of everything I’m attempting to outline here.) Browsing through old stuff rediscovered in cyberspace (a dread-inducing journey I rarely undertake) I always end up thinking both “Whoa! I’m still the same” and “Whoa! That ain’t me anymore! I feel so alienated from this person who’s wearing my name!“.

Weirdness abounds in these places where the Past comes vividly alive. One case study: I ended up looking at an old blog packed with comics I drew five years ago. I learned that I’ve changed a lot (Yay! I’m a better artist!) but that I’m still the same (I still have the same silly sense of humour). Parts of Past Me are Present in Present Me and I’ll take them into Future Me along with all these memories and ghosts. Still, the selves projected onto the internet and into cyberspaces aren’t completely authentic and accurate representations, even though we may try to be as genuine as possible. They’re only hints of a wider story (a whole life and personality) and Past, Present and Future are all mixed up amidst it all.

(While I’m talking cyber-communication, I may as well note one odd thing: I know someone who frequently writes in the future continuous, future perfect and future continuous tenses. I get messages from them containing deductions about me and what I might have been up to in a Future tense but they are describing the Past and the Present. What’s more, many of these things that I “will be”, “will have” and “will have been” haven’t actually occurred or aren’t quite true because my friend is imagining them. How’s that for an absolute omnishambles of both Time and ‘reality’?)

Back to sensory triggers. I listen to certain songs and bands and they take me back to the Past and I have the same sensations I felt when I was somewhere else and when I was younger. Some of those songs were recorded before I was born, so I’m hearing echoes of the Past within my own echoes of the Past. And then I listen to the lyrics of certain songs composed and recorded years ago and feel like said songs perfectly hit upon my present state of mind and emotional condition or, indeed, encapsulate my life. In terms of identity, in that moment I become a song and I’m completely at one with it, but is that Present Me becoming a sonic artefact of the Past or the sonic artefact of the Past becoming Present Me?

Thinking furthermore on culture, I can look at old photographs and paintings and feel an empathetic affinity with figures drawn out the Past: figures I never met in person. Sometimes I cast my gaze around at some of the real, living human beings of the Present (generally the ones with power and influence) and struggle to understand ’em or relate to the world around. Similarly, I have those angsty moments feeling like those around don’t get me and just don’t understand (insert emo-teen pout here).

Then I open up a novel from the 19th century and find a soul-connection with a fictional character from the Past. “Yeah, I feel ya,” I say to a figment of someone’s imagination, created in the Past (once the Present) but put down on the page in ink for Future readers to embrace. Art is Timeless and metaphysically marvellous like that: characters and stories (embodiments of the eternal human condition) travel across time and the lines between Past, Present and Future (and fiction and non-fiction) are blurred all the more.

Chances are that, like me, you might have moments where you feel out-of-sorts with the modern world and think “Guuhh, I feel like I don’t belong here” (like Captain America, a kindred Man-Out-Of-Time). I then have whimsical flights of fancy that put me down as possibly being more at home in the ancient Far East or a pre-Industrial pastoral Europe. Alternatively, I may leap to a fantastical utopian future of my own design, where all my dreams of a better world have been realised. I’m therefore identifying more with the Past or the Future than the Present, finding a moment’s peace in what feels more ‘genuine’ to me than the phony-feeling now.

People say they were born in the wrong age or are/were “ahead of their time“. I can appreciate that, and I simultaneously get the Human-Out-Of-Time sensibility of my beloved Cap when I feel like my values and personality are jarring with the milieu in which I find myself (this modern age is alienating sometimes, y’know?). What’s more – returning back to those clocks that don’t actually know what time it is – when I’m wearing my watch I’m wearing a different timezone on my wrist, because I never change it from Central European Time.

There’s a practical reason for keeping my watch one hour ahead of UK Time; I can synchronise Skype calls with Italian friends and I can tell whether it’s a good idea to send them a message. For the most part though it’s a symbolic act of psychomagical thinking: it keeps me tied to my spiritual second home and connects me to the sweet memories of the Past. I figure I won’t change change the clock back now because it’ll save me the bother of adjusting to a different timezone when I return to Italy in the Future. That’s a tacit promise, and it’s a Future I’m always looking forward to in the Present.

As my external clock is out-of-Time so, indeed, my biological clock is out-of-Time. My birth certificate and passport say that I’m 28-years-old but for medical reasons my ‘real age’ is something younger. What age am I really if puberty was only artificially kickstarted in my body when I was around 19-years-old? Mentally and physically, I’m probably somewhere around 22 or 23 but then there are moments where I feel like I’m 19 and other times where I feel 16 or even younger (in a way, stuck in the Past perpetuated by arrested development). If ‘you’re only as old as you feel’, I guess I’m all those ages at once.

I suppose I’m a hot mess of Time as well, but that’s okay. As a hot mess I melt easily and become one with flowing infinite ocean that is Time (if Time is indeed an actual thing). Everyone and everything that ever was, is and will be is floating here, Timeless…

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