Thursday, August 17, 2023

Earth Etude for Elul 1 - The Perception of Time

by Thea Iberall, Ph.D.  

’m driving home from Marblehead where we commemorated Erev Tisha B’Av. My trip home seems so much faster than the trip there, even though my GPS says travel time is 45 minutes each way. As I stare out the window, watching headlights cut through the darkness, I’m baffled. Why can’t I measure actual time?

We measure distance, size and number without difficulty. I can know if I can fit through a door or whether the leftover spaghetti will fit into a refrigerator container. I know how many fingers I have and I can point to where a sound is coming from. But I can’t judge the real time it takes to travel from point A to point B. Time is like slime. I know how slippery it is. And I know that time, like life, cannot be contained.

We break time up into pieces, like years and days and seconds. We use external things for measurements. We measure days and years by the apparent motion of the sun relative to the Earth. We measure months by the phases of the moon. And hours, minutes, and seconds? We inherited these base 60 divisions from the Sumerians 5500 years ago. Neuroscientists tell me our perception of time is a combination of neural processes that are changed by emotional states, level of attention, memory and diseases. The less attention paid to the task, the faster time passes.

Before our Tisha B’Av ritual, I went swimming in the Atlantic Ocean. The seaweed was thick, a dull red carpet that didn’t protect my feet from the sharp rocks. They say in Florida the ocean is like bath water now. That’s what I was hoping for, even though I knew that would be terrible. For my human comfort, I want warmth and no bugs. But for the health of the planet, I want cold oceans and bugs. I can hold conflicting ideas in my head without a problem. Computers can’t do that. How can I find a balance in the conflict between my creature comforts and behaviors needed for maintaining a sustainable environment?

At sunset, in a small park on a bluff above the ocean, we began reading from the Book of Lamentations. Three Rabbis and a Cantor stood before us, candlelight playing shadows across their faces. The crowd had grown large. Seated on flat rocks and woven beach chairs, people huddled in anticipation. A middle-aged man in a blue shirt and sandals searched on his phone for the text. Two women with short brown hair studied the text on paper. As we read, I could hear the agony of time in play: “But You, O LORD, are enthroned forever, your throne endures through the ages. Why have You forgotten us utterly, forsaken us for all time?” In their misery experiencing the destruction of the Temple, time seemed endless. They had no guarantee God would act in deliverance. The horror of their reality stretched into the future, onward without end. Anyone who has suffered a great loss knows this feeling.

I’m watching a Ford Expedition SUV pass me on the left. It’s got twin tailpipes spewing carbon monoxide into the night air. We are facing our own horror, the specter of what the UN chief calls “global burning.” New England winters are disappearing. The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation stream may collapse by 2025. Will we plead in desperation like the people in the Book of Lamentations spreading out our hands with no one to comfort us? Will we wake in the middle of the night with time dragging on in our fear and deep dread?

Why my brain works this way, I don’t know. It’s a mystery. But it’s also a useful tool. In this time of Elul, before the high holidays, it is a time to slow down and reflect on where we’ve been and where we are going. Let time stretch. It’s time to pay more attention.

Thea Iberall has been called ‘a shimmering bridge between heart and mind.’ An inductee into the International Educators Hall of Fame, Thea's poetry has been published widely in anthologies and journals including in Blood to Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust. Her book of contextual poems, The Sanctuary of Artemis, traces the roots of patriarchal domination. She is the author of the ecofeminist novel The Swallow and the Nightingale. Member: Northeast Storytellers, Jewish Storytellers of New England.

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