I have almost finished The Time-Traveler’s Wife. It won’t have been my favorite book, rising up to The Art of Racing in the Rain(up for my all-time favorite). The theme of time-traveling, linked to transience and death, is mostly what has hooked me.
Reading and thinking about this theme has coincided with the darker part of the year for me: Sarah’s birthday on July 29, mine on August 5, her death on August 11, our anniversary on August 15—this year would have been our 49th. Two Sundays ago, I listened to a talk at our Unitarian Universalist service on grief, largely focused on ways of coping with it (missing, I thought, what one learns through grief); and last Sunday, I listened at the UU service to Sue William’s description of her extraordinary life with her husband, his death some years ago, and how she has learned to live alone—she spends half of her year in a remote area of West Virginia (a twenty-minute drive to get to her mailbox) and the other half living with her adopted son in Patagonia.
I haven’t finished TTWyet, but I know that Henry will soon die, five years after his daughter, a time-traveler herself, has been born. The book is structured around the counter-intuitive concept of time-traveling. If I half-understand Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, time-travel is conceptually possible, time being a mutable fourth dimension. Time is a function of speed of an observer toward or away from an event. In a certain sense, any event is infinitely present, dependent on the space-time position of the observer. We are still trying to see the beginning of the Universe as the light from that event travels toward us while we are moving away from it; I suppose, conversely, an event now in our space-time position can travel into the future; it cannot, however, bend backwards to when or before it occurred. Theoretically, however, an observer, traveling toward events, could foreshorten time.
I’m not particularly interested in the cosmology of time-travel—at least not for this post. Instead, I want to consider it through pictures, memories, and words and how they help me understand death.
In TTW, Henry frequently slips through time and lands elsewhere, generally in the past and less frequently in the future. In a sense, Henry’s self has been infinitely stretched through time-space into a cosmic string, chopped up a bit so that he slips for inexplicable reasons in and out of different moments on that string. I get this.
I think of our lives as an arc. How we see in the beginning is vastly different from how we see toward the end. In the beginning, we focus on learning how to be with others; we become socialized to the point where we ironically need to be with others in order to be ourselves. We use words to bring ourselves into being, words that must be heard by others to have meaning. However, if no one hears us, we lose ourselves. One of a symbol-bearing animal’s (Burke’s description) worst punishments is to be put into a padded cell within which he or she is solitary.
The apogee of our social development is when we fall in love, a love that is deep and lasts through time. Two people become one, a union that spreads outward, not as perfectly as with each other, but it spreads to others. By being deeply in love, people learn how to be quiet in themselves and participate in the world, seeing it as it is rather than how they want it to be. I imagine this as the middle part of the arc. At least, that’s how I thought of it when Sarah was alive.
On the downward slope, some of us will die, leaving our partners to learn how to live alone. This is not an easy lesson but one which many of us face our will face. For those of us who are left, like the speaker last Sunday, I suspect that the depth of the love we experienced in the middle part of the arc helps us navigate the last part of our journeys. There are of course other ways of finding inner peace, but having a deep, lasting love relationship is a good way to go.
You might see why I have been enjoying The Time Traveler’s Wife. In a sense, I am the time-traveler, traveling back to the memorable times I had with Sarah. When I look at photographs—something I have only lately allowed myself to do—, I slip through time. My mind takes me beyond the picture and into the time surrounding it. Looking at these photographs help me to more easily remember those times when I am walking down the street or driving through new country alone. I can also slip back through reading my diaries, which I have kept religiously since my mid-twenties. Words help me break through time. I can flip this picture and imagine myself as the resident and Sarah as the traveler, like Henry, when she comes back to me through pictures, memories, and words. These shifts in time are almost as real for me as they are for Claire in TTW. Claire is able to move forward because she knows that here and there, Henry will suddenly appear. The richness of their time together, which began when he first traveled back to six-year-old Claire, breaks through the wormhole of time. The past is always with us, lending meaning to where we are and what we see. If we are lucky, we have been deeply in love