Invariably, it happens. I'll run into someone at the grocery store, we'll be having a deep conversation over kohlrabi and Gala apples, and she'll say, "If I die, I want you to do my funeral."
I can't help myself. This is when I ease green beans into my cart, interrupt, and say, "When... you mean, when you die."
The person before me does one of the following: continues speaking, as if I've said nothing; makes a brusque escape to the bananas; or says, "Yea, when, that's what I meant..." I have offended my fair share of women and men with comments like this. But ay, there's the rub: time is fleeting, and for all of us on earth, it's not if but when.
Likewise, for years, I've sat on wooden bleachers watching my sons play basketball. My favorite referee gesture is when the ref swings his arm back and forth.
"What does it mean in the game?" I ask one of my sons.
"Continuous play," he replies.
"But you're playing already," I offer, wanting to know nuance, meaning.
"Just means the game's going on," he responds.
"But the ref doesn't do it all the time, and it ends, he doesn't do it for very long."
"Whatever," my son shrugs, which is what he does when I'm slow to catch on. Later I tell him I've asked Ken, one of the dads, to give me an explanation.
The referee counts as he swings his arm, it's to ensure continuous play, or the "five second rule." One, he swings, two, he swings... Once that arm starts swinging, the player with the ball, even though he's closely guarded by the other team, he has to bust a move. If this player doesn't shoot, pass, or dribble within those five seconds, the five second closely guarded violation can be called, and he loses the ball. In other words, in the game, take action as time clicks away, or you lose out. Jeremy Lin on the Knicks is a good example of this. Take action, even though your next move may prove really difficult. Take action or you'll loose what's in your hands, right now. Basketball, like life, is tied to timing.
It was during a poetry writing class with Dr. Lucia Cordell Getsi, as we discussed Tori Dent's collection, HIV, Mon Amour, that someone in the class asked, "Are the poems more poignant because we know she's going to die?"
Lucia corrected us, "People! We are all terminal voices here, all of us. Your poetry should move readers in the same way, you're a terminal voice."
I think of Lucia's insight every Ash Wednesday, when a pastor smudges ashes on my forehead, says the words from Genesis, "You are dust, and to dust you shall return." Those of us who swagger or shuffle, come bowed or in a hurry, we come forward for the imposition of ashes, knowing, among our crew assembled here, not all of us will be doing this next year. Not all of us will survive this next 365 day circle around the sun. The great arm is swinging, counting off time.
Liturgical seasons are the way the church marks off time. Liturgical seasons are nice little containers, with corresponding colors. We are humans, and we like to think we have dominion over much, including time. We mark it off in increments: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Pentecost and Ordinary Time. We revisit the narrative of Jesus' lifetime, from birth to death and resurrection, in a cycle from purple/blue to green, with splashes of white and red. When I washed my white Guatemalan liturgical stole, its embroidery colors ran together. Maybe this is how life really is, a jumble of seasons: in Advent, we may be feeling the weight and the sorrow of Lent; in Lent, we might feel the Holy Spirit is up to something, like at Pentecost.
When I think of the perception of time, I think of the Twin Paradox in physics, in regards to special relativity. In the Twin Paradox, time is subject to the twins' frame of reference, whether at rest or accelerating. In his theory of special relativity, Einstein described it as gravitational time dilation.
"You don't need special relativity for this," my friend Mike says when I ask him about it, he says, "Go Newtonian."
"I don't want Newton," I say.
I'm trying to get at time's passage in the eye of the beholder. Time dilation looks at observers and events, and their vantage points. In gravitational time dilation, a clock appears to be moving more slowly when close to a heavy object, with gravity. Sit through the funeral of someone you love, or do such a funeral, and you'll know time dilation, how the gravity of death slows the clock. In our lives, some years go ploddingly by, while others have rocket propulsion; feel like a race against the clock.
Depending on your level of play, you only have so long to advance the ball across the half court line in basketball; the younger you are, the more time you're allotted. If you're playing for the NBA, well, you've got eight seconds.
As we're talking about this in the car, one of my sons' basketball buddies says, "That's a longggg time."
"No it's not," I say, "it's eight seconds."
"Eight seconds, in the NBA? Do you know what they can do in eight seconds?" he asks.
When you get the ball, you need to quickly advance it down the court, and once you've crossed the half court line, you cannot toss the ball back, or the ref will blow the whistle, make a swinging arm motion, meaning "over and back," and you lose possession.
Ash Wednesday's a reminder, like "over and back," that we can't go back and redo what was, we can't undo any plays, any missed shots. We have to go forward in time and space. We dig deep. We watch for the God of our lives, in, about, and through. Lent reminds us to watch God's calls and plays, to seek what God's about in all of this, as we advance to Easter.
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