On Time and Cosmic Mistakes and Brave Little Boys

Halen was supposed to be getting himself ready for school. His door was half-closed and I could hear him inside talking low and surreptitiously, surely lollygagging, messing around, wasting time -- all cardinal sins. I moved to the door to hustle him forward. But as I peeked inside, Halen wasn't kneeling with a Hot Wheels car, coaching it through a high-speed spin-out like I thought. Instead, he stood somber-faced in front of his mirror, the edges of his little boy profile soft and fuzzy in the early morning sunlight. He serenely regarded himself in the mirror for a moment, and then, not noticing me watching, he said softly to his reflection, "I wonder what will happen today." He just stared at himself and I watched the scene, and it felt a little like I was intruding on something weirdly transcendent.

Time is relentless and merciless and expressionless. It doesn't smile and it doesn't scowl, and it doesn't regard you as it sweeps past on its way to wherever it goes. You're powerless to stop it, powerless to do much besides stand there and field each new moment like some befuddled shortstop taking bad-hop groundballs to the windpipe, over and over and over again. And sometimes you'd like to just hunker down with your head between your knees, dumbly hoping that the constant, even flows of time and change will stop, just for a little while, so you can inhale and then exhale, and, just once, it won't cause you to die just a little.

We parked my Volkswagen bus on a dead end street on the side of a hill high above Portland one summer night when I was seventeen. We had a few pizzas and some tunes, and we slid the side door open and we ate and talked and I guess somewhere up above the light pollution the moon and the stars were skating routinely across the sky, leaving trails of stardust behind them that only long-exposure cameras can see. And I remember the night like a blur, but I remember one moment in perfect focus. I was absently gazing out over the city, half-listening to my friends, when absolute contentment suddenly struck me, and it jarred me and I blinked and it was like a bizarre supernatural snapshot that captured the impossible beauty of a perfect split second. The sickly orange lights below resolved themselves in an instant, in my mind, into my city, and it twinkled like a campfire, and it murmured like a mother. And I was oddly and keenly aware of the instant, almost like I was somewhere outside myself beholding the freeze frame.

I was seventeen, it was summertime. The breeze wove through my hair and breathed against my scalp. My friends' faces were smooth and careless, young and easy. And I comprehended then that this instant would die, and time would flow again from the gaping hole in its heart, and it would pull me away from here to less perfect places. I sensed that now would never happen again, and I remember hoping that maybe the night would loop back around on itself in a wonderful cosmic mistake, so that right now wouldn't end, so that we didn't have to get tired and go home and grow up and scatter like little shards of this one, perfect instant.

Many years later I watched my son bravely ask the question that my seventeen year old self desperately wanted to avoid -- what's going to happen? I guess I hoped I could hide from all the things that the flow of time flings as it passes, all the gremlins and grief. Halen is braver and brighter at age seven than I was at more than twice that age; he's not afraid to charge excitedly into the unfeeling onslaught of time to find the answers to the big question: what's going to happen? Because it's not always gremlins and grief. It's also sunlight and satisfaction. Or, maybe I misspoke -- maybe Halen is not so much finding the answers to the big question, as he is creating them. Maybe that's the difference between waiting for time to break over your head and fearlessly running out to meet it.