I do not believe that time and chronology are mutually inclusive. There are versions of time that have nothing to do with the linear or the ordered. And then there are those versions of time that are only ordered. Concrete time (others call it “clock time”) is the grid laid over days and weeks. It dictates when I set an alarm, when I head to the airport, and when I make a doctor’s appointment. Concrete time sorts and prioritizes. Yet I find it confounding, and, for all its accuracy, clumsy.
We superimpose this mechanical time over an spontaneous, organic thing — human consciousness – and expect that it should fit, but it doesn’t. I do not think chronologically or linearly. When I sit down for breakfast each morning, the past does not come scrolling through my mind in order of first appearance. I catch a fish at age five, break my thumb at 13, rewind back to four where I hide from my grandfather under the living room sofa, and then rocket to 20, where, while visiting Spain with a girlfriend, I realize I am in love. All in the time it took me to have a sip of coffee.
I experience these moments outside of chronology but with a definite sense of time, place, and with palpable emotion. I call that conceptual time. Conceptual time is amorphous and changeable. It occurs beyond the calendar’s grid. In fact, conceptual time only occurs within: it is unique, “lifetime” time.
I have always understood time to be estimative — a way of sorting the larger chunks of life, the ones that don’t conform to logical, linear time. The minutes don’t matter, nor do days. Conceptual time forms soft boundaries around memory and experience much like the lines on early maps tentatively laid out the unknown. Events are organized into masses that have firmer connections to place than to any concrete chronology. The year I spent in Portland, Oregon, is called to mind much more clearly if I can think of the kitchen in the house I rented and the meals I cooked there, rather than the year — 2001 — which is meaningless on its own.
I remember the first snow my first year in Brooklyn. It takes some furrowing of my brow to come up with the exact year – I finally do figure it out by remembering the first rent check I wrote to my landlord, and the date on the check: September 1, 2003. So some months later, probably in November (but really who knows?) I went down to the street in the middle of the night so I could be the first to put my footprints into the white. I was impressed by how quiet and small my chaotic Brooklyn had become.
That moment – the minutes I stood on the street, wondering how a bustling city could fall so silent — is rooted in time and I relate it the story in the past tense. But more so it is rooted in the abstract time that can occur any day or any place, because it is a memory. And that memory of the first snow evokes a instant feeling, a tangible change in my mood and my sensory perception, as if by remembering the moment of fresh snow on the ground I have actually traveled back in time. In that way memory and time – not mechanical time, but the passage of time – are the same thing. Conceptual time is more of a time machine than a measuring device. It opens up a hole in the orderly grid and lets the past bubble up.
Take today for instance: cool, breezy, bright. It is as if New York has suddenly been transported to the yard in front of my little apartment here in Austin. I am almost certain that I could close my eyes, step forward, open them, and find myself on Greenwich Ave in the West Village. I worked at a bookstore in the neighborhood, and every day at noon I walked to the sandwich shop at 48 Greenwich to get an iced coffee. The shop owner and I had the same exchange every time: he’d ask if I wanted iced coffee with milk and no sugar, and I’d say yes, and he’d say “coming right up in no time!” and grin the stupidest and most friendliest grin.
Another man in the cafe would start on my order while Renaldo and I made chitchat about weather and work. We saw each other every week, occasionally multiple times a week, yet our conversations hardly differed. It took two months before Renaldo and I finally got around to learning each other’s names, and once we knew it was still awkward.
I had five minutes to hurry to the sandwich shop for my coffee; once there five minutes stretched into awkward ages while Renaldo smiled at me from across the counter, and I stared at my shoes. How should I quantify that time? Certainly not in hours or minutes or seconds. My concept of time changed even as I stood at the counter, waiting. The memory itself is recalled in but a few seconds. The actual memory is months long. For something as supposedly fixed as time that’s a lot of variation.
I subscribe to this philosophy: memory is real, and time is theory. The two are connected by thin strands, a tenuous web that is flexible and constantly changing, knitted on the fly. That might explain why in one minute I can travel, via memory, from past to future; from west coast to east, but I cannot think of a day, Monday, and immediately recall all previous Mondays. There is the day I met my good friend Mike (that might have been a Monday) and then there is the collective memory of stepping out of the bookstore every week for a year to buy iced coffee from a man named Renaldo. There is the day I broke my toe on a railroad tie, and then the day, weeks later, I found a dead possum at the foot of the stairs. How do I know that I found the possum a few weeks later, and not two months? Because I remember limping lamely down the stairs to check on the poor critter.
Every one of my memories – from the sight of first snow in Brooklyn, to my broken toe – occur concurrently and separately. I can sort these memories with various anchors or bookmarks, should I choose to. But I must still randomly jump the links of the conceptual timeline to get from point to point. There is no direct path between A and B. Memory is ex-temporal, yet possesses a time of it’s own. Culled, collated, laid-out end to end, my memories are probably the most accurate personal clock I’ve ever owned. The problem is, I’m the only one who can read it.