“What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the winter time. It is the little shadow which runs cross the grass and loses itself in the sunset.”
-Crowfoot, Blackfoot Confederacy’s orator. 1890 (McLuhan, 12).’¨
Today, Crowfoot, just like the short life he described, is dead. He only remains as a name in history textbooks, if that. Today, his Blackfoot nation is merely a national reminder of how the American continent was like before a time of European mercantilism and imperialism. Today, the buffalo Crowfoot revered are nothing but skeletal bones buried deep inside the earth, invisible and extinct. What’s more, come tomorrow, and the tomorrow after that, Crowfoot will still be dead, his tribe a cherished memory, the buffalo herds only existing as paintings in a cave. Time, by passing, erodes everything, and eventually everything becomes lost in the sunset. Crowfoot’s joys, his pains, his tears — they’re all gone. The flight of time has taken all that away. As sad as it may seem, all that’s left are his words of how short of a thing life truly is.
It was only yesterday that Crowfoot died with his wise words. It was only yesterday that Crowfoot ceded his territory of 50,000 square miles to the Canadian government. It was only yesterday that the Blackfoot territory became to be called Alberta, Canada. And similarly, it was only yesterday that I was 30,000 feet above the ground, crying silently.
Or was I silent? I don’t really remember because my ears were deafened by the sound of the airplane engines. Surrounded by the darkness of the night, and the darkness of the high skies, I kept crying. Every time a tear fell from my eyes, I felt more scared than the last time. Each tear that fell was a sign that time was moving and it wasn’t letting me move backward. No matter how much I wanted to reverse the flow of time, to go back to my home, time didn’t listen. It didn’t even freeze. My dad just sat there next to me watching and my tears kept falling. I didn’t want to believe it but Korea was no longer my home. Time, like the plane, just kept flying, forcing me to come to this foreign land called America.
Crying there in that hard, blue leather seat among the black clouds, I first understood the cruelty and the indifference of time. I muttered loudly that I wished desperately to go back home but nothing happened. The seconds continued to tick; the flight attendant walked down the aisle just as quickly as a moment ago and the engine continued droning the way it did. Just a few moments ago, just a short second ago, I had told my best friend Yu-In-Ho not to worry, that I would run away from home so I wouldn’t ever leave him, not to America, not ever. But yet, those minutes were gone forever and I was here in this plane, tears never failing to fall. I wiped the tears away from my eyes, and then closed my eyes, but I could not picture Yu-In-Ho’s face in my head. Every time I tried to imagine his face, his wild expression when he talked about dinosaurs, the loud droning sound of the plane engines only made me cry harder. At times, a little turbulence shook the plane. My heart shook along with it as more and more I began to realize that the past was over. All that was nothing but a memory. I wished to go back in time and pause it. This was unfair. This wasn’t right. But as it always has and always will, time didn’t heed to any of my pleas. I’m now a freshman in NYU, who will, in the blink of an eye, fade away as a simple memory, no matter how passionately I ‘” or anyone else for that matter ‘” oppose time’s constancy nor how fervently I try to control the pace of time’s flight.
While, as E.B. White states in his essay “The Ring of Time” that people have a tendency to view time as “running in circles,” in which “the beginning was where the end was, and the two were the same, and one thing ran into the next and time went round and around and got nowhere” (White, 730), I realized during that plane ride, for the first time in my life that “time does not really move in a circle at all” (White, 730). Before that crucial moment, every day was a repetition of the previous day. I had school from Monday to Saturday, and after school I had a routine of playing with Yu-In-Ho, homework, dinner, then waiting for my parents to come home to sleep. On Sundays, I went to church, played with a few friends, walked my dog, ate dinner, and slept with my parents. Every day was the same except the dates. Everyday was a repetition of the previous day. I thought this true until my dad led me inside that plane, where I realized the harsh truth about time. It was a short-lived moment, those fourteen hours in the plane, but every time I began to perceive time as a cycle, like the circus girl described in “Ring of Time,” I reminded myself of my fallen tears 30,000 above sea level; time was not a cycle.
We humans all tend to make the grave mistake of seeing time as a cycle, expecting their favorite moments to repeat themselves. White, in his essay, describes a little girl performing on a horse before the beginning of the circus. This girl, who looked to be about sixteen or seventeen to White then achieved a ten-minute ride “that is sought by performers everywhere, on whatever stage, whether struggling in the tidal currents of Shakespeare or bucking the difficult motion of a horse” (White, 729). This moment was so beautiful and so monumental to White, that upon seeing this, he began to see time as a ring, “perfectly formed, changeless, predictable, without beginning or end” (White, 730) and as for the girl, she was under the delusion that she “could ride clear around the ring of day, guarded by wind and sun and sea and sand, and be not a moment older” (White, 733). She believed that her second time going around the stage was just as beautiful as the previous time. Riding the horse in that circus ring, she came to believe that time itself was a ring, until those ten minutes came to an end.
In another part of the essay, White expounds another group of people who viewed time as like “the Southern sun, laggard in its early stages, biding its time” (White, 733): segregationists of the mid-1950s. These white supremacists, just like how I passionately resisted change among the clouds, wanted the institution of slavery to last forever, and when it didn’t, saw the state-sponsored system of apartheid as a generous gift of the cyclic time and tried their best to keep time frozen or at least, repeating the same patterns. This view was a mistake, however. As the days and months on the calendar came to be filled with red x’s, Brown v. Board of Education destroyed the U.S. system of segregation, the circus girl, due to old age, has lost her beauty and her talent, and even White has lost to time by ending up in the grave. Human beings may view time as a ring, but really, “time has not stood still for anybody but the dead, and even the dead must be able to hear the acceleration of little sports cars and know that things have changed” (White, 733). The fact is, time is cruel to the dead as well, turning their skin into sand, and then slowly hiding their bones deep inside the earth until they eventually become nothing, and time flies, no matter the strength of the human passion to view time as a ring, circular and repeating.
Perhaps Scott Russell Sanders was trying to validate the circular nature of time when he wrote of his return to his childhood town in his essay “Wayland.” Searching for the answers to “the mysteries of death, life, beasts, food, mind, sex and God” (Sanders, 523), Sanders revisits Wayland, a place where he grew up. As he drives around Wayland, Sanders remembers how he was troubled by his church pastor’s death, as it was his first experience with death. He revisits the places where he bred horses, where he enjoyed apple cider during the summer, where he had an intimate moment with a girl named Violet, and where he had prayed to God, in an attempt to explore those mysteries and to remember his lost past. Maybe I could do the same thing Sanders has done to try and retrace my lost moments of the past. Maybe I could ride a plane out of New York City, walk back to what was my hometown in Korea and try to make time equal out to be a ring. The only problem is that the cycle would only occur within my head. Even if I do return, I cannot deny the fact that more than a decade has gone by since that fateful plane ride. I cannot deny the fact that my hometown as well as my childhood friend Yu-In-Ho have all changed due to time.
We humans miss our past too much. We want time to agree to our rules, to prolong the moments we cherish and love. This characteristic of human beings prods White to contrast human beings with the fiddler crab at the last part of his essay. Unlike humans, White mentions, the fiddler crab does not view time as a ring; instead the crab is part of time’s cycle. The fiddler crab, “even when they are removed from their natural environment and held in confinement, the rhythm of their bodily change continues uninterrupted, and they mark the passage of time in their laboratory prison, faithful to the tides in their fashion” (White, 733-734). The fiddler crab does not grieve against the forces of time but it simply accepts it since even its bodily functions are perfectly attuned to the rhythms of time. In this sense, it seems that the crab has perfected the art of the advice, “Don’t take time for granted.” So the life of the fiddler crab becomes a cycle, where generations after generation, the crab repeats the cycle over and over, time after time. But even so, it is the fiddler crab that becomes the cycle, not time and even with the fiddler crab, White is right when he says, “Time does not really move in a circle at all” (White, 733).
What is time then? Is it just an uncontrollable line, without any patterns, without any sort of control? Does it only move forward so that I will never be able to revisit that plane ride when my entire world of childhood fell apart?
Those experts on time, while agreeing that time is not a cycle, feel very uncomfortable at the notion that time may just be a line, a single path with no other alternatives. Michael Crichton is one of these enlightened peoples since in his science fiction novel Timeline, he ponders at the possibility of time being a continuum of infinitely many space-times. In other words, right now, as I’m typing this essay, in another universe or in another timeline, I have already finished this essay, while in another timeline, I am just barely turning on the computer to start writing it, or in another fourth dimension, I’ve just decided not to write it at all, and as confusing as this may sound, all these moments are happening simultaneously, as time is stationary, but the moments around it are not.
Sick and trapped in her room, Gretel Ehrlich seems to concur when she states in her essay “Spring” that “Einsteinian time is too big for even Julius Caesar to have touched. It stretches and shrinks and dilates. Indecipherable from space, time is not one thing but an infinity of space-times, overlapping and interfering. There is no future that is not now, no past that is not now. Time includes every moment” (Ehrlich, 245). According to these thinkers, time, rather than being a single line, is something that’s all-encompassing and completely immobile, being everywhere and every time at the same time. We measure time in its intervals and the things we do moves us away from time but time stays in its place, being today, tomorrow, yesterday all at the same time.
Crichton’s theory of infinite space-times, however, doesn’t explain why Crowfoot viewed life as such an ephemeral “shadow” and it certainly doesn’t explain why I cannot go back to my childhood before that scary plane ride. Sure time may just be juxtaposition of infinitely many universes, but that scientific definition doesn’t change the fact that ten years has passed since I last saw my Korean home. Science fiction and time theories aside, time being just a line makes sense. With me, what’s happened in that plane is what’s happened. I cannot experience the same tears again, nor can I ever feel the same fear ever again.
To Rwandans today, time definitely is a line, only taking people and things away and never giving them the chance to have or even see them ever again. Today, Rwandans wake up everyday to realize that their beloved family members and friends have been lost to the forces of time. The state-sponsored genocide that began on March 15, 1994 is today nothing more than history. The linear passage of time eliminated the experience of that day, and in the course of less than just a hundred days, time passed by and with it, took away over 800,000 Rwandan souls (Gourevich). Time doesn’t stop, doesn’t slow down, never letting anyone, not even the parentless, friendless Rwandans revisit the past. The UN council only urges Rwandans to forget the past and move on while those that killed their families live just a block away, living better than before with 800,000 less people to compete with.
So what then though? So what if time is a cycle, a ring, infinitely many time universes placed next to each other, or an indifferent line? Can those different perceptions bring back the dead to Rwanda victims? Can they rewind time so I can see Yu-In-Ho’s face again? Can any of this control time? How do we win against the force of time?
We humans are not like the fiddler crab. We cannot simply become so thoughtless that we become a cycle based on the intervals of time. Our body is not perfectly in tune with the rhythms of time, but beyond that, we simply don’t want it to. No, if White has shown anything through his essay, it’s that human beings are resistant to the passing of time and want to make every good moment last, and last forever. White did not want that moment of the circus girl to ever end and similarly, the segregationists savored the times that blacks were banned from interacting with them. Humans want to control time, to pause it, and to cherish certain important moments. But if time is a single story with an unchangeable future, or just a circular pattern, how can time be changed? How can any moment be paused?
The Rwandans may not know it but when they told their stories to the New York Times journalist Philiph Gourevich, they allowed human beings to pause important moments in Rwandan history. These Rwandans can never touch their parents’ faces again, will never be able to hear the laughter of their cousins, and would never be able to hug their butchered friends. They won’t ever be able to live a life they had prior to March 1994 — unless they were literate. By telling their stories to Gourevich and allowing him to publish his journalistic book We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will be Killed with Our Families, their important memories were paused in defiance to time. In this detailed book, Gourevich records the interviews he had with the survivors of the genocide, the political and religious leaders during the time, and the revolutionary soldiers who fought against it, allowing literate people to teleport back in time to when Rwanda had 800,000 more vital lives living in it. Gourevich tells of stories in which people escaped genocide by intoxicating perpetrators with liquor, of stories in which a 7th Adventist pastor directed the massacre of his church. These stories are all real, and they all happened, and by recording it, Gourevich has defied the passage of time for just those moments, pausing the time, and letting those images sink into our brains. Ultimately, Gourevich has achieved what all human beings desire to achieve: the ability to pause certain moments in time. And not only Gourevich, but all the previously mentioned writers ‘” Crowfoot, White, Sanders, Crichton, and Ehrlich ‘” and myself as well, by writing, have left a legacy that is invulnerable to the flow of time.
This method of pausing time is not alien to us. White, when he realizes that time will affect the circus girl to grow older and lose her beauty, he records this event in hope of treasuring the moment forever. He writes in his essay, “as a writing man, or secretary, I have always felt charged with the safekeeping of all unexpected items of worldly or unworldly enchantment” (White, 729) and as such, he has decided to pause time through this method of “safekeeping.” I myself, by writing this essay, have frozen my tears that fell among the dark clouds. While our lives and our moments are easily lost in the progression of time, when our experiences are recorded, no matter how imperfectly, time cannot touch it. Maybe manuscripts will grow old and printed words smudged, but the general idea and the general moment protected in those words and images cannot lose to time. Only if the entire planet was destroyed can time totally eliminate the cherished memories and experiences.
Meanwhile, we writers, musicians, and film makers have weapons that enable us to win against time. Crowfoot himself may have lost in a war against time by ending up as a collection of skeletons somewhere underground in Canada but through his dying words, he left for all of us his pained and saddening experiences. Likewise, White, however imperfectly, has fulfilled his role as a secretary when he safeguarded the moments of the circus girl’s performance against the passage of time. Beyond great essayists like White and Ehrlich, even popular figures have used this method to battle against time. For example, Tupac had done no less when he left a legacy of his poverty and his adoration of his mother via his rap CDs; Bruce Lee has similarly forbidden time to abrade his high-pitched scream through the use of the film industries. If we human beings so desire to be, we can all be secretaries and whether time is a line, a pattern, a space-time continuum, we can all leave legacies that in the end will oppose time’s efforts to completely wipe us out; we can leave our last marks by freezing the memories that we cherish the most.
After all, even though E.B. White died of Alzheimer’s on October 1, 1985 (Wikipedia), an illness that produces forgetfulness and impairment, his essay “Ring of Time” has lived past the wear of time to remind all of us what White’s memories, experiences, and feelings were. White may have forgotten about his life and his experiences when he got older, but by writing essays, we, who’ve never even seen White’s face, can know of his treasured memories and his cherished feelings. Reflecting White’s impact, though in the end we may fade away as memories, those memories are exactly what will enable us to be the winners in the battle against time. In the end, through our legacies we can ultimately prove that indeed, time doesn’t always win.
Works Cited Page
Crichton, Michael. Timeline. London: Century, 1999.
Ehrlich, Gretel. “Spring.” Encounters: Essays for Exploration and Inquiry. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000. pgs. 243-249.
Gourevich, Philiph. We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families. New York: Farran, Strauss, and Giroux, 1998.
This was a book about Rwanda and the genocide that occurred there on 1961 and on 1994. It takes the readers to the hopes and the crises of Rwandans through interviews of survivors and people who played an important part in the genocide and those who fought to stop it and those who are fighting now to prevent it from ever happening again.
McLuhan, T.C. Touch the Earth: A Self-Portrait of Indian Existence. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1971. pg 12.
The Native American quote in the beginning of my essay comes from this book. This book is a compilation of different Native American voices regarding their way of life and the Europeans’ impacts to it.
Sanders, Scott Russell. “Wayland.” Encounters: Essays for Exploration and Inquiry. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000. pgs. 523-533.
White, E.B. “Ring of Time.” Encounters: Essays for Exploration and Inquiry. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000. pgs.728-734.
This was my chosen text that I reckoned with in my essay.