I had just dropped my husband and son off at a show. For a couple hours, I had nothing planned, no pressing chores or errands, no appointments. I thought I might read, play Scrabble on line, or take a walk. Driving home, I passed a local business. You may have seen it if you’re familiar with Midtown Omaha. Instead of advertisements, their signboard usually posts adages or advice. That day it said, “ONLY FOOLS IDLE AWAY THEIR TIME.”
I felt sheepish. The sign had caught me in the act. I was on my way to waste some time. Then my next thoughts were, “What a judgmental sign!” and “Why am I letting myself feel judged by a sign?” I went home and wasted a couple hours and forgot all about it. But that night, I dreamed about the sign. In the dream, I was explaining to someone about seeing the sign and laughing about my reaction to it.
Upon awakening, though, I wondered, why did I dream about it? I’m not particularly slothful. Between work, family, and volunteer commitments, I’m usually moving at an active pace, and I think of myself as the kind of person who can be counted on to get things done. But I’m not a workaholic, either. I recognize that it’s important to have leisure time and take breaks from work in order to recharge and be productive. So why did that message revisit me?
For some reason, more intuitive than logical, I connected my reaction to a conversation I’d had with my good friend Edy earlier in the week. She had been talking about cleaning her garage and finding a box full of notebooks and papers from her college days. “I looked at that box full of papers, and I thought about all the work I had put into them,” she said. “I read some of them over again, but then I threw most of them away. It was a strange feeling. Like seeing years of my life in that box.”
That image stuck with me. How do we measure a life, if not in time? In our collection of belongings? I remembered loved ones who had passed, their lifetime accumulations, now dispersed. Clothes and furniture given to charity, pictures or mementos handed down and scattered among children and grandchildren.
I wondered, if I were to die or disappear today, what would my life look like, based on the things I would leave behind? Would someone looking at my small collection of books and papers and personal belongings get the impression that I had a useful and satisfying life? Would they think I had an interesting or happy life? What would be the sum of my time on earth?
I also thought about the nature of time itself (which is really too complicated to ponder without getting a giant headache, let alone to discuss in a blog). But I wondered, what is time, exactly? Is it a real thing that we are measuring with our clocks and our calendars, or is it just another one of those artificial constructs that humans seem to invent and latch on to and build entire systems around, like, say, money?
Even philosophers and scientists can’t figure it out. Why does time only go in one direction? Why are events irreversible? Edy and I used to have a joke about housework. We didn’t call it “cleaning;” we called it “fighting entropy.” But there really is no fighting entropy, not in any meaningful sense. “The center cannot hold.” The belongings are dispersed. They never come together again.
Still, humans have always wanted some way of reckoning the passage of time, going back to prehistoric days, when it was calculated by the sun, moon, and stars. Later, candles, sundials, and “water clocks” were invented. No one knows for certain why it was decided that a day should be divided into 24 parts.
The first mechanical clocks started appearing in the mid 1300’s, and since then, clocks and watches have gotten more and more sophisticated. Now there’s even a watch with 1,278 parts including 68 springs and 24 hands that can tell the time of sunrise and sunset, keep track of leap years, the temperature, and the moon phases, among other things.
Humans have got keeping track of time down to a science. According to Scientific American, time can be measured down to “attoseconds (10-18 second),” which is an incomprehensibly small unit of time (to me, at least), even after I read the article. Timepieces are everywhere, including on phones and computers, so many people don’t bother to wear watches anymore.
However, a lot of people not only still wear watches, but even collect them. My husband is one of those people. I asked him why, and he said, “They are interesting. A piece of art and a work of technology. A fine watch can be handed down some day when my time is up.” There it is, again. The passage of time. Maybe I don’t always like being reminded of it. Maybe that’s what bothered me about that sign.
I already know the hours and minutes are ticking by, okay? I know they’re irreplaceable, and maybe someday I’ll regret every attosecond I wasted. However, I also know there are a lot of other ways to quantify our time on earth. Like Jonathan Larson said, time can also be measured “in daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, and cups of coffee; in inches, and miles, in laughter and strife; and how about love?”
One of my professors once told me that the Shakespeare quote he wanted on his headstone was, “I wasted time and now time doth waste me.” I like it. Oh, well. Time’s up. Now that I’ve got that out of my system, I guess I’ll go get some coffee and get back to that Scrabble game.