The BOOKPRESS June 2000

Time As A River

J. Robert Lennon

If time is a riveróand a lot of people will try to tell you that it isóit certainly isnít the one youíre thinking of. It is not a slow, inexorable river, sweeping everything it touches into the sea; nor is it a fierce, destructive river crashing through an unpeopled wilderness.

This river has no headwaters and it never empties. Its waters are not potable. You would not want to swim in the river of time, nor would you want to fish in it. Not that you wouldnít catch anything: you probably would, but you are likely to want to throw it back. Unfortunately, things fished from the river of time cannot be thrown back.

The banks of the river of time are cluttered with houses, graveyards, parking lots, farms, highways, hospitals, churches, and bars. Sometimes it seems like everyone in the world lives there, and in fact they do: not just everybody alive now, but everyone who ever lived and everyone who will ever live. People from the past live upstream: you can barely make them out, waving to you from the banks. Donít bother waving back, though; they wonít notice you. People in the future live downstream. You may think you can see them, see their cities, their achievements, their failures. You may even think they look a little like you. When you reach the future, however, you will find that your eyes deceived you. Sorry.

Everyone falls in at some point. They float downstream, into the future, where they sink or break into pieces. If you reach in from the present and haul out one of these people, these people from the past, you might be able to learn a thing or two about them, but it will probably be distorted or wrong. Their features will have been washed away by the flow of time. There are people who think that the dead should be left in the river of time, that we shouldnít bother hauling them out, and these people may be right.

The river of time is full of garbage. That said, the river is also full of treasure. Sometimes it is hard to distinguish the two. Something may be thrown into the river as garbage and found on the bank downstream as treasure. Occasionally somethingóan idea, a piece of art, a dead personómight get caught on a branch somewhere and refuse to be carried off. For as long as this thing is snagged, it will seem timeless. You might look at it and think it looks pretty good, and come back a week later and still think it looks good. But eventually the thing detaches and is gone, and you canít imagine what you thought was so interesting about it.

There are people who spend their lives trying to make their way upstream, into the past. You may do this if you wish. If you do, know that your boat is unsteady, it may leak, and you may never find your way back to the present. You may be capsized by some object floating downstream: perhaps a person you loved. If you survive such an encounter, you may try to bring this person onto your boat. This is not recommended. If you do manage to reach the past, you may not be pleased by what you find. People will ignore you, for one thing. A house you once lived in may prove dingy and old. The streets of your hometown will be neither as tidy or friendly as your recollections have indicated. The women will not be as beautiful, the men as handsome, as memory has promised. For this reason, travel upstream is discouraged.

Travel downstream is also discouraged. This does not stop people from trying, however. You can see them on the bank, busying themselves for their trip to the future. They cannot be bothered by the present; their eyes are on the river of time. When they enter the water, they are pleasantly surprised to discover how quickly it carries them into the future. They feel effective, privileged. They suddenly get the idea that existence is a sort of boat race, which they are winning. Eventually these people turn around to see if the present is paying attention, but the present is gone.

If you look long enough at your section of river, you begin to get the idea that it is the most important section of the entire river. You will believe this regardless of how much of the river you have actually seen. You get the idea that your section of river is moving faster than all the others, that its waters are more beautiful, its contents more profound or valuable. You may begin to think that the waters of your section of river are somehow blessed, that they offer great wisdom, or eternal youth, or inexhaustible pleasures that are not available to other people on other banks. It is recommended that you quit kidding yourself.

The river of time does not always look the same. If you are sharing a bench at the riverís edge with a beloved companion, the river may strike you as moving unusually quickly, and you may notice very little floating debris. If your companion then tells you that it isnít working out and that he or she would like to start sharing benches with other people, the river may suddenly seem thick and sluggish and clogged with junk. Do not be alarmed; this is normal.

It is a good idea not to live too close to the river of time, or to situate your business there. The flowing water tends to erode the riverís banks, and things that once seemed inviolable may quickly be undercut. These things may tumble into the river and be carried away by time. Entire religions, systems of thought, races of people, and species of creature have set up shop in what seemed like a safe area, and have later been carried away. Not that there was anything they could do about it. Though controlling the speed and direction of the river of time is a perennial obsession, it is futile.

You may want to ignore the river of time. Most people do. You may go days, even weeks, without even noticing it; you may completely forget it is there. But then one morning you will look in the mirror and catch a glimpse of the glittering river, reflected over your shoulder. Or you will be enjoying the scent of a delicious meal or bouquet of flowers, and suddenly you will detect a faint odor of decay, and you will realize it is coming from the river. At times like this, you may feel inexorably drawn toward the river. You may reflect on its permanence, its overwhelming presence, its hugeness and incomprehensibility, and you will feel powerless in the face of it. It is not recommended that you share these thoughts with others. They donít want to be reminded of the river either. Donít expect to say to someone, "Boy, the river is really flowing today," and get any kind of positive reaction from that person. If you absolutely insist on talking about the river, people will stop listening to you. If this happens, you may become obsessed with the river. You may even wish to end it all and jump in. Thatís your prerogative. Understand, however, that if you are fished out, you will never get the smell of the river of time out of your clothes and hair, and people will turn away when you pass and may refuse to sit near you in restaurants.

In fact, letís forget about the river of time entirely. Time is only time, the river is simply a river. They arenít related at all. This is probably the best way of looking at it. This way, you could go down to the river on a sunny afternoon and gaze at it for awhile, perhaps with a lover or friend, and the two of you might find it pleasant, even romantic. You might even get the idea that time is standing still. Terrific! Hold that thought. Time is standing still. As you turn away and climb back up the bank, tell yourself that life is beautiful and will last forever, and that, as you watched the flowing river, nothing passed by but water.


J. Robert Lennon is the author of two novels, The Light of Falling Star and The Funnies. He lives in Ithaca.

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