The Not Very Mathematical Mathematics of Time

I had one of those moments in time this week. Brief, and yet somehow the little cycle of events just felt, well, somehow poignant, and had me musing their meaning for an entire day, distracting me from actual tasks in hand. Like those moments when you wake up from a completely vivid dream, and for those minutes proceeding it you have to assemble fact from fiction, whether to your disappointment or delight. Or perhaps a mixture of both.

I have mentioned her blog here before, but after reading a post entitled ‘A Voice from the Past’ at orangethisway.blogspot.com, I was thinking about how her words had moved me- to talk to yourself in the future, to imagine where you might be next year or in the next five years. And not in some bucket list kind of way, or some self righteous list of ambitions, but to deal with the present tense. To hope you might be ok, things might be better than they feel at the moment, or worse. But you won’t have to look back with nostalgia, and all that does to change your version of time. Because putting it to print, as I have started doing by writing this blog, will mean I have cold, hard feelings to read. I haven’t kept a diary before, and yet here I am cathartically spilling my emotional outpourings to friends, family and strangers.

In the midst of my own poncy ponderings, I had radio 4 on (what did I say in my original posts about being unashamedly middle class? Yikes). It was Book of the Week time, and they were reading extracts from Daniel Tammet’s collection of essays in Thinking In Numbers, specifically ‘The Cataract of Time’. As the title of this post suggests, I have never been what you would term ‘a numbers person’. Maths GCSE twice anyone? I can turn my hand to use numbers when they are useful, which my employers will be happy to read. I am a dab hand with a calculator. I say dab hand, I can use all the big, obvious keys. And I have some grasp of spreadsheets (once I’ve made them look pretty by altering the font and adding colours), and I’m a mean killer sudoku player. See, all very useful uses of maths. But this isn’t a book I would have picked off a shelf, I would have probably snorted derision towards my Dad reading it (he loves a bit of maths) and taking over a year to complete it (he likes to take time over his maths), had it not come on the radio at that precise moment. I also had little else to distract me, being that I was driving. I’m a good driver too, right?!

“If, as is often said, lifetimes flow like a river, they begin with a trickle and culminate in a cataract. Heraclitus, the ancient Greek philosopher, put it well when he said, ‘Time is a game played beautifully by children.’ Perhaps this is the root cause of nostalgia: less the desire to return to our early years, than to the more capacious experience of time that we inhabited as children.

Time. You know how it goes. After the age of thirty, I found, the days begin to run away from us. We struggle to keep up.”

There has also been another blog post, by the lovely littlemammasaid.blogspot.co.uk called ‘Do they know those days are Golden?’, citing the lyrics of an Elbow song that I think as a parent of a child with an uncertain future, has cemented itself in a space of my heart, and along with the above events made me stop in my tracks. I wanted time to slow down just at that moment. I wanted to be with my family- the family that I have created and that created me. Here I was rushing to an appointment, lateness now being a permanent fixture in my routine, and yet was this the future me I’d imagined as a child?

The truth is I’ve been waiting to know when I’ll feel grown up, when I’ll know that I’m no longer a child. It is true, I am over thirty, and I feel the pace of life ramping up a few notches, when seasons feel too short, when your child’s second birthday is hurtling towards you. And when you know that it’s coming with mixed emotions, raw and painful as well as pride and joy. But fuck it if I don’t smile like a silly sod all day, because my boy’s days are golden.

But I don’t want to jump there yet, and skip some time, I need to go back to the question above, was this the future I’d imagined as a child? I’m not really sure what I’d imagined in those halcyon days, when six weeks school holiday lasted foooorrrreeevvveeerrr. I probably didn’t truth be told, it was so far off in the distance, and if my best friend and I were no longer best friends I would be GUT.TED. There were the thoughts of getting married and having babies, of changing my name to Lisa… Then at school, choosing what subjects I’d study. Maybe I could be a doctor? Does that involve working hard in science? Right, scratch that off. But still, the world was my oyster and I had plenty of time to decide, and change my mind, and study one thing and then decide to change and go off on a completely different tangent. And end up at art school. Things rolled slowly along, picking up a bit of speed once I started working in my current career, travelling through different time zones, having to learn quickly and as I went along.

Then I was married, and we were thinking about children, and then it wasn’t a thought anymore. It was real, and maybe time slowed for a little while, daydreaming about that future, of the future for my child. What hopes and aspirations did I want for it? I was cruising along, navel gazing as my navel got closer to my eyes. Then someone pulled the rug, took him out too early. Who knows what happened to time then? It sort of didn’t exist, having no concretes or absolutes, just guesses and hopes. Hopes not for what his future would entail, but just simply for a future. A future at home with us. Time was marked by expressing milk. Ward rounds. When he could come out of the incubator. His due date past, did it go by quickly or slowly? I don’t know, it just went. With hindsight, and possibly nostalgia, it went quickly. But living those minutes and hours, how did they feel? I can’t really remember, or my mind chooses not to remember.

Rufus came home, he was getting better, he got better. And this is when my experience of time switched back. Sure there were days of non stop screaming/vomiting/screaming/medicines to contend with, but he was doing so well. He resembled a healthy child, albeit tiny and susceptible. I could cuddle him and get exasperated with him on my own schedule, one that eventually Rufus and I worked out with much trial and error. I didn’t read baby books or development guides. I didn’t care, but then somewhere down the line those milestones were being passed and were way overdue. My time may have been speeding quickly, but things for Rufus were and are a little more glacial. Not only is his experience of time far slower and longer than mine, it was becoming apparent that his development was taking a similar attitude. And why for me his second birthday is approaching at break neck speed, and yet I don’t have time to help him catch up. At two, I have to accept that despite the tiny, and may I say monumental, strides in his development for a child that had such a poor outlook, they will not make him a toddler be. He won’t be blowing out candles on his birthday cake, he’ll most likely be attempting to smash it with some toy or other.

There has been no time to navel gaze with miniest D. In fact my navel quite often is now in Rufus’s gaze, my bump being somewhat cumbersome this time round. Brief discussions of names, merest chats about its amazing ability to feel more like an octopus than a four limbed human. Is that because I’m busy? Well, yes, stupidly so. But really it’s more life in a protective bubble, one that’s realistic enough not to be burst too spectacularly.

So what do I want for my future self? For myself this time next year, or the year after? To be grown up to deal with life as an adult please. And what do I want for Rufus? That he’s still as happy as he is, and that his third birthday is hurtling towards me again, because he’ll turn three. That’s some numbers I’d like.

NB: Daniel Tammet the author is well documented as having high functioning autism, and being classed as a mathematical savant. He also suffered childhood epilepsy. Makes me wonder what his parents experience of his childhood was.

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10 thoughts on “The Not Very Mathematical Mathematics of Time

  1. Loved your blog! I have to admitt I use to look at teenagers in almost disgust…now I look at them with a hint of jealousy…that carefree, self centered world they live in seems glorious. I really don’t want to be an adult either but seems like we have no choice….now i’m trying to find a way so that i can actually enjoy adulthood and not look at my future as something totaly daunting. Francis has really helped mellow out that agnst I’ve had for little mr man…i’m thinking your beautiful bump will do the same for your household…the family dynamics of four does wonderful things and its beautiful to watch how little Francis motivates Alistair…you have wonderful times ahead!

  2. I wonder if I would have had the courage of you and your husband if we had faced even half of the challenges with our children as you do with Rufus. I use to think that Sheonaidh having glasses at 5 was difficult, I can now say, “I didn’t know anything”.

    1. Thanks Sherry, I don’t really tend to think of myself as courageous, more reactionary, and I promise you already as a mother, and any woman would have coped because the love for a child is remarkable. And one that needs extra care, as daunting and terrifying as an unclear future is, you never let go of the future, whatever that may be! You’ve certainly done a fantastic job with your children, I feel blessed to have someone as understanding as Sheonaidh in our lives now x

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