Measuring time

During the past week I read this para. ‘For me, a poem is a way of measuring time. Often there is an instant that starts it: a feeling in the gut, an image, a connection, a certain kind of music of language that makes me feel slightly lightheaded. But then time happens: editing, reflecting, asking questions.’ Padraig O’Tuama

The phrase ‘a poem is a way of measuring time’, has stuck with me, along with the idea that ‘time happens’.  Time measurement is standardised in units – days, hours, minutes, seconds, for example – but it is also individual, not at all standardised.   

A poem’s development to being ‘in print’, is not a standardised way of measuring time, but I enjoyed playing with the idea – how do I measure time?  How do other people measure time, beyond the standard units?   

Sometimes I measure time in specific end points.  For example, next week I am re-sitting an exam.  It’s been in my days since early September when I got the ‘fail’ result.   I’ve been measuring time in the amount of revision I’ve made myself do.  In standardised time units of hours/minutes, I don’t think it’s enough.  Measured in time capacity to fit revision in amongst everything else.  I think I’ve achieved a reasonable time balance.  I haven’t dropped other necessary commitments and I have done a certain amount of revision.  

When I’ve left the exam room, I’ll stop measuring time in revision.  Other specific end points will heave into view then.  I’m running a 10k race in July and want to complete in a good-for-age time (I’m aiming for 85% age graded).  With the exam over, I’ll have two simultaneous ways of measuring time to get to good-for-age.   First, in the number of training sessions I am able to do before the race, and second in my running pace per kilometre.  The training sessions and pace/distance measurements will become emmeshed, as the theory is that the more training – without over-training – that I do the more my pace per kilometre will increase.

Specific end points are one way I measure time.   Specific events are another way.  Time is measured for individuals from some life event – a birth, marriage or death.  Or for society from a collective event.  In the UK 23 March 2020 was start of ‘lockdown’.  It’s lodged as time point from which to measure – I now hear people talking of ‘before Covid’ as a distant time, and ‘since Covid’ is also in common communication.   Similarly in the UK ‘Brexit’ vote date, 23 June 2016, people recognise it as the date when things changed and time is measured from the Brexit vote.

I also measure time, rather like light is measured, in waves and particles.  (I found out about this way of measuring light not in a physics lesson, but in the title of a book of short stories by Ellen Gilchrist.)

When I think of measuring time as a wave:  a careers wave, for example, where the wave’s continuous movements follow smoothly from one career to the next – the wave is carrying me now into my fifth career around growing plants.   Or a relationships wave – with the ebbs and flows of interactions with family, friends, colleagues form the waves crests and fall and the tidal incoming and outgoing patterns. 

Measuring time as a particle is a different idea.  I looked today at the marks on the wall indicating the height of my grandchildren at different points in calendar time.  That and the photos of them taken at different points give a record of individual moments that collectively form a story across time.  Other particles that measure time for me are the weekly blogs, the number of gym visits per month.  The particles are a bit like beads threaded onto a necklace, the individual beads contributing to the overall necklace – which then resembles a wave.

During January, at the end of each day I noted down my answer to the question ‘What have I wasted time on today?’  I see, now, that wasted time is another way I measure time.  Mainly I was wasting it on standing at bus stops, displacement activity (instead of revising for the exam), looking for items I’ve lost around the house – I haven’t yet mastered ‘don’t put it down, put it away’ and angsting about stuff I cannot influence and have no control over.  It was an interesting exercise to experiment with.  I’m not sure it changed my use of time though.

What just flashed into my mind as I’ve written this far is a line from a poem  I studied years ago, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,  T.S. Eliot.  In it is the line,  ‘I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;’   which has now taken me off in a T. S. Eliot direction, specifically his Four Quartets – magnificently recited by Ralph Fiennes, that I listened to a bit ago and will now listen to again.  Eliot is a brilliant commentator on time. 

He opens Four Quartets with the lines: 

Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future

And time future contained in time past.

If all time is eternally present

All time is unredeemable.

This theme of time past, present, and future, and how we come to terms with it repeats through all four movements of the poem.  His suggestion, in my interpretation, is that time is not measurable, ‘The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree are of equal duration’, and we exist in ‘timeless moments’. 

It’s an intriguing notion to play with.  Observing my grandchildren, they seem to live in ‘timeless moments’.  Try explaining to a 3-year-old what ‘being late’ (for school) means, and then getting them to act on the information.   As we are socialised we lose the ability to live in timeless moments and are bound by clock time that we start to measure things by.  I laughed today at this exchange between my grandson and me:

Me to child:  Would you like a chicken skewer?

Child to me:  What day is it today? 

Me to child:  It’s Monday. 

Child to me:  I only eat chicken skewers on Sundays.

There I saw the start of concept of days, and that they hold specific related activities.  Is this grandchild going to measure time in terms of days when he eats chicken skewers?  Maybe, maybe not. 

How do other people measure time, beyond clock time and standardised units? When is it useful to measure it, by what units and why?  Do we need to measure time at all or could we live in ‘timeless moments’?  I’ll ask around. 

Image: Jon Foreman

One thought on “Measuring time”

  1. “The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
    Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
    Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
    Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”

    ― Omar Khayyám


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