Think back to yesterday—to the first yesterday, and then the yesterday even before that. The beginning of time—of your time, that is. You were young, your eyes were too big for your face, and your heart beat much faster than it does now. Life is frenetic. An amalgam of inputs and outputs—food and poop. Tick and tock are noises, not demands. The cesium electrons whose vibrations, someone decided, amounts to a second—they vibrate in tandem. But to you, this is nothing. Like reptiles basking, you are wrapped in blankets of circadian rhythms.
Time has passed, you are told. Time has passed and you must let everyone know. Hold up three fingers. Three, to represent the times the earth had circumnavigated the sun since your time began. Count. Count up or down from 30 (or down from ten, three times, if you’d prefer) so friends can hide before you seek. Watch the rods—“hands” you are told—they spin around a disk (“face”) bounded by numbers. This tells you “when.” This is our collective heartbeat. You wear this under your sleeve. Listen.
You’re crying. You’re crying on the closed lid of a toilet bowl. It feels big and cold, and you don’t understand the concept of “tomorrow.” “Mom told me it was Tuesday, and then another time she said that it was Sunday.” A tear breaks from the folds between your cheek and your eyelid. “But Ms. Goldstein said tomorrow is Thursday!”
But when it hits you, it hits you. “Tomorrow” is an abstraction. It’s all an abstraction but it hits you like a hand to the face, and its over. It’s like gravity—of course you knew it was there, and kept time ticking, dragging down the sand in an hourglass. It was there, but you didn’t have to mind it. It swirled around you, and left you gently on the other side of chunks of experiences. The other side of a ball pit, a Harry Potter novel, or a 350-piece puzzle.
Middle school. You are handed a schedule. You mother places a parrot-like alarm clock beside you bed. It croaks a synthetic chirping noise at 7 am, and you must slam its head to make it stop. You can hear it tick, if you hold your breath. You are sure you saw it breathing once. You have a recurring nightmare. You are late for a test. You’ve missed it not by minutes, but by years. You run into an elementary school classroom—the kind where the desks have chairs attached to them. You sit down. The seat is large and cold. Everything goes dark. You hear the chirping, and wake up with a cold sweat, and slam the parrot’s head.
Think back to Yesterday—to the first yesterday, and then the yesterday even before that. The beginning of time. The oceans are less salty and the sand is hotter. Everything happens when it happens. Nothing is early or late because no one is there to say it is. Inside a cesium atom, the same electron jumps, but no one is there to measure it. Tick and tock are silent, because no one is there to listen.
Time has passed, and the face has changed. Worn by the wind and wrinkled by the might of its sweltering core, earth spins on. It is soaked, and in rhythmic waves, becomes more soaked when the moon is full. This is rhythm, and rhythm is simple. Astronomically predetermined. Each moment indistinguishable from the next. And then, as it happens, the rhythms harmonize into soon-will-be-beasts. They wiggle, replicate, retreat and repeat. They regenerate, and learn new moves. Some go green. Some sprout legs. And then one, two, three, four, five elongated appendages grace the tips of an arm. They crack open nuts, carve tools, burn dinner. And they can count. They can count up and down—sheep, ribs, fingers, toes. They count in rhythm with the sun and the beat of their hearts.
And then civilization. Soil tilled, books bound, gold sifted, envelopes licked closed and then opened again. Pea pods planted and observed. There is more order to this than they had once thought. They make plans, and sift their time. And then there is a pulse. Measured by sand, shadows, and then gears, springs and pendulums. And an astronomical shift—time leaps forward with the electronic potential of a cesium atom. Founded in gravity, yet synthetic. Seasons, months, weeks. Time is real.
And then the commodification. Saved, stolen, budgeted into moments, traded in for $8.30 an hour. Rounded at the edges and sanded clean. Happenings tailed by zeros and fives. Lunch, 12:00. Dinner, 6:30. Everything is on time.
And then came trains. First one, then two, then tens, slipping across horizons. Contravening the sun’s told times. Two trains, obeying two different times, collide. And in an instant, the time is nothing. And in an instant, time is everything.
Train stations tout their local times. Pulsing at and with their towns. They stand taller than the church, sturdier than the town halls. And miles away, a train touts, exactly one hour behind. Trains leave not at rounded times, but at sharpened times—9:01, 4:28, 11:56.
In 1661, the first time-stamped letter is received—stamped with the day and month. In 1971, the first email is sent, time stamped with the minute. Yesterday, she receives an email from her cousin in South Africa. Time stamped by the second. Google returned her search for “Mielie Pap” in 0.23 seconds.
And as the watch wearers’ faces grow lines, so do their watches. Watches sprout more hands—hours, minutes, and seconds. Their blanks faces hold a line for each minute. “It’s half past 4” doesn’t cut it anymore—“it’s 4:32,” they say. “Well, now it’s 4:33.” Time intervals grow shorter still.
How much longer until watches outgrow their hands? When will their faces leap from their wrists and become an internal sense—another pulse to check. Harshening moments into an unflattering, high-definition haze. An ever-sharpening curve—time is cut into progressively smaller slivers, each under increasing demand.
Our pulses are fast at the beginning. Then they slow down. They say that each animal, no matter the size, has the same amount of heartbeats. I hear we’re living longer these days.