November 5, 2009

Time is the school in which we learn

(Click on the comic panel to see the text and blow your mind.)

Marathon dopamine has been rushing through my brain for days. I haven't slept well all week, and only partly due to the effect of the time change on my infant daughter. My body is pretty much back to normal, but my head is still filled with the race.

Two nights after the NYC Marathon I woke at 3 am and couldn't get back to sleep. My mind was empty, but my metabolism thought it best to be at full speed. To busy my brain I counted off the race miles, one by one, like sheep. And strange to say, for every mile I could vividly remember the course and the sensations in my body. I remembered children's faces and the backs of runners before me. I remembered tiny decisions I made about timing and potholes.

My memory is notoriously poor. But during the race it was as if time passed more calmly, even if with a greater violence. I had a feeling of being not just affected by time but part of time, like a blob of dye flowing in its current. As Meb Keflezighi said in The New Yorker, "Cherish it. It's a beautiful thing, when you can click the miles along. It's a beautiful thing, and you better cherish it."

I have experienced that kind of metronomic intensity on only a few occasions. Counting down the days to my wedding, I remember being carried along on a kind of wave of nervous bliss. I felt confident that the river was carrying me to the right place. As the officiants did their thing I inhabited every part of my body at once, my thoughts were inspired but nearly foreign as I improvised my vows. The grin rarely left my face during the ceremony and the reception.

Three weeks earlier than her due date, my wife started having regular contractions. At first I figured it was a false alarm but it was a good time to rehearse what little we'd had time to learn. As the intervals narrowed the reality seeped in imperceptibly. I can remember each contraction - not, I hasten to add, like my wife must remember them. But I recall my metabolism settling in for a long haul (it turned out to be pretty short), I recall every minute in the car on the way to the hospital, and each deep contraction once we were in the last phase. I can taste the quality of the light as it fell on my daughter's head for the first time. (It glistened on the slime that still covered her.)

These occasions are in a different league from a race. They were permanent changes in my life and the lives of those I keep close. The race is ephemeral. It's just that it got deep into something I can't usually hold in focus.

To be able to carry that sensation of time at all times - that would be remarkable. That would be the curriculum of the race, the reason to keep going back to school until you learn it. And you never fully learn it.

I chose the title of my last post more or less by chance, from a poem by fellow Brooklynite Delmore Schwartz. I had already decided to use the same poem for today's title too, mainly because it rhymed. But now that I'm at the end of the post and I see what it's about, it's clear there was a hidden logic. So to make my point I'll just toss you the last stanza of "Calmly We Walk Through This April's Day":

Each minute bursts in the burning room,
The great globe reels in the solar fire,
Spinning the trivial and unique away.
(How all things flash! How all things flare!)
What am I now that I was then?
May memory restore again and again
The smallest color of the smallest day:
Time is the school in which we learn,
Time is the fire in which we burn.


  1. Love it! So true--especially in a marathon, when all we have is time; time, and miles.

  2. The Meb quote spoke to me in a similar way. My problem is I'm too often obsessed with the passage of time and getting older. But there is a "glass half full" side of that same fixation, i.e., enjoy whatever you can do now (even if you're 80) because in time you will wish you could still do those same things. My future self would want me to enjoy, in other words.

  3. Time and miles - that's it. Meb, who has more of both than me, is so articulate about how precious they are. The thing about a race is, the racer who crosses the finish is different from the one who started. You get to embrace the future quicker! It's a good way to engage with aging. . .

    Meb's becoming my hero, especially how he's weathering the jingoism from the peanut gallery. Here's another good article: