My former mother-in-law, Mary Louise Haskell, bought me a subscription to The New Yorker for my 30th birthday and renewed it faithfully every year afterward. Each week it arrived, like clockwork, through my nursing school education, half a dozen relocations, ups and downs in my marriage to her son, the raising of our two boys, multiple job transitions, our sad divorce after 30 years and my ex-husband’s accidental death in 2011.
Even after I met Douglas, moved in with him and then married him, The New Yorker followed me, a glossy reminder each week of Mary Lou’s steadfast love. She met Douglas several times, claimed him as a surrogate son and joyfully attended our wedding in 2015. She died in 2016, a few days shy of her 95th birthday. This year, Douglas and I will take over the subscription.
Anyone who’s ever subscribed to The New Yorker will understand that it’s impossible to keep up with the rich variety of content it delivers in each issue. There’s so much to look at, so much to learn. I often get no farther than the Goings On About Town section, in which I imagine living close enough to New York City to actually decide, on a whim, to check out a new gallery, an off-Broadway show or a terrific midtown jazz bar. On a good week, I might read through most of The Talk of the Town or at least skim one of the long, intelligent pieces of reporting that are the magazine’s hallmark.
But too often, I never even crack open the current issue. Fortunately, Douglas is better at finding the time to nip away at it and frequently will bring up some interesting piece he has read. We’ll talk about it over dinner, or on a hike or during a long ride in the car. He keeps a stash of back issues, too, and flips through them before consigning them to the recycle bin, in case there’s something he wants to reread or pass my way.
This week, he presented me with “Present Tense: How time became psychological,” a wonderful little essay from the Dec. 19, 2016, issue by staff writer Alan Burdick. In it, Burdick explores some of the earliest writings about the concept of time, from Plato in the 4th century B.C.E., through St. Augustine in the year 397 and the American philosopher William James in 1876, to the 20th century Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget.
“Is [time] finite or infinite?” Burdick writes, teasingly, of the ways in which time has been comprehended over the centuries. “Does it flow like a river or is it granular, proceeding in small bits, like sand trickling through an hourglass? And what is the present? Is now an indivisible instant, a line of vapor between the past and the future? Or is it an instant that can be measured — and if so, how long is it? And what lies between the instants?”
The real strength of Burdick’s essay is its groundedness in the measurable realities of his life, including his young sons’ growing awareness of the world around them and their questions about dreams and death. “Will you die? When will you die? Will I die?” asks 4-year-old Leo, grappling with immense concepts. And, “When I die, who will blow out my birthday candles — and who will eat my cake?”
As Douglas predicted, this short essay moved me on several levels. It was a fine thing to settle into the sofa with a glass of wine and read this well crafted bit of writing. It engaged my brain on a serious topic, inviting me to think at a lofty level using intimate images and familiar concepts as guideposts. It renewed my appreciation of Mary Lou’s faith in my intellectual ideals and of her enduring presence in my life.
But most important, it reminded me to be at least intermittently conscious of the passage of time, which, Burdick notes, “moves in only one direction.” When I was younger, time — whatever it is — seemed to stretch away forever to a distant, unseeable horizon. Now that I’m entering what’s likely to be the final third of my life, that horizon draws closer with every breath.
I’m not obsessed by this idea, and I’m not afraid of the passage of time. I just want to remember to watch with my heart as the world unfolds around me, to be equally aware of everyday benedictions and adversities and to seize each day as the boundless, immeasurable moment it is.