Telling Time

Rembrandt, Two Women Teaching a Child to Walk, c. 1635–1637


The moment our first child was born, by surgical section after thirty hours of my wife’s labor, she was examined and swaddled, and passed to me where I sat by her mother’s head. I was unprepared for what I saw. An old, dear friend had lately been telling me how I would feel looking upon this infant: filled with new strengths of affection and the careful need to protect the small, helpless creature from all harm. But I didn’t feel those things, not then. I looked at Emma’s wrinkled but serene face, urged her eyes to open, and saw with stark and astonishing clarity a being already formed in its own definition, separate from me and her mother no matter the potency of the love that joined our trinity. My heart ached with joy and awe. In that moment, I think, I grew up.

I had passed part of the previous night — while my wife slumbered fitfully and my daughter dawdled toward delivery — navigating the surreal hospital hours with a pocket edition of the poetry of William Wordsworth, paying particular attention, I remember now, to the poem “Resolution and Independence.” Fit themes indeed, as I didn’t know then, for my approaching fatherhood, and for the new being I was about to meet in its first breath of life, its first step in the long leave-taking which is a child’s destiny, a parent’s fate. Much of the weight she would carry on her trip, of course, would be handed down to her through the two pairs of hands that were so eager to hold her, hands that reached back to other hands, those of her parents’ parents, from which they grew less distinguishable with each passing year.


A month to the day after my daughter’s birth, one of my grandmothers — in the company of her eight surviving children, her nineteen grandchildren, thirty-two great-grandchildren, and one great-great-grandchild — celebrated her one hundredth birthday. The century of time that connected my daughter to my grandmother was an extraordinary expanse, certainly, one I found then, and still find, difficult to grasp, filled as it is with such an enormity of experience, of yearning and of circumstance, yet limned with lifetimes of delicacies, spider threads of memory and emotion. I tried to grasp it, for three or four years, in a poem of one hundred and one lines (a century and one to grow on), written in an intricate verse pattern. It’s a fairly good poem, I think, not completed until after my grandmother’s death in her 104th year, but it’s never made it out of my notebook, where it sits not far from the poem on Emma’s birth — cast in the stanzas of “Resolution and Independence” — which I struggled with for years before abandoning. The verses just didn’t seem enough, somehow, for all their poetical handiwork and literary exertion; the secrets of inheritance, coming or going, do not pass easily to the page.

I was reminded of my expressive failures recently as I reread William Gibson’s luminous memoir, A Mass for the Dead. I had come to a scene in which the author, trying mightily to make a final accounting with his father as the older man lay on his death bed, composes a poem:

I was three weeks over it; he was bedridden still, or again, the morning I took the typed page in, said I had written something for him, and left it in his hands. Back now on the job, I could not linger but in any case was embarrassed to, the forty lines were too frank an avowal of how much of him I hoped was in me, named his goodness as the bonework of my knowledge of man, and, muted by what I could not mention except as the fate all must share, said neither of us was to enter the silence with my debt unspoken. Home at five-thirty, I went upstairs to his room to say hello, as always, and saw my page on the night table between the twin beds; his eyes following mine, my father said, ‘Bill, it’s beautiful,’ and I said I was glad, there was a pause, and he said, ‘What does it mean?’ So, in some despair at the isolateness even of my art, I sat upon the other bed, and with the poem in hand explained it word by word in prose.

My grandmother, I’m sure, would have reacted in much the same way if I had ever shared my poem with her. Perhaps poets are always talking to themselves (I treasure Gibson’s witty measure of the moment he left the languors of poetry: “when life huffed at me hard I was content to wrap myself in the streetwear of prose”); certainly the one hundred years my one hundred and one lines were meant to scale spoke another language entirely than the one I so assiduously rhymed.

And yet I have always fancied myself a writer, and know myself today as — at least — a determined reader with a ready pen. So I must make my way through the web of memory and promise a family weaves with the only instruments I am adept with: words. Yet words can fail us desperately, as all readers and writers learn; the everyday exigencies and extraordinary exhilarations of experience are wont to slip easily through the tightest knots of figure and style; the need and the nourishment the round of inheritance encircles seems to elude, again and again, every attempt to capture it. The search for a common language — one strong enough to carry time, versatile enough to pass secrets between generations, sure enough to save from silence even the smallest souvenir of the seasons a family weathers — is a life sentence indeed. And so, still, we raise our voice, take pen to paper, as if the breath that words imprison can somehow set us free.


William Gibson’s poignant account of his failure to communicate his love to his father in verse is embedded in a book in which that failure is turned on its head a hundred times: I’ve read no more noble, moving family remembrance than A Mass for the Dead. In its pages, the self-described “maker of pieces of paper” succeeds in his attempt to redeem from the welter of love, regret, confession, and communion engendered by his parents’ death “something of use, shapeliness, joy.” The author’s summoning of spirits begins with a meditation on a missal he finds among his late mother’s effects; inspired by that volume’s lore and language, Gibson orders his chronicle to reflect the progress of a mass, from Introit to Confiteor, Kyrie to Gloria, interspersing his continuous narrative with bursts of knotty poetry and, most powerfully, with passages of evocative, prayerful contemplation that are part and parcel of his reminiscence. These last are written in a manner that elegantly echoes the cadences of liturgical devotions, elaborating, with exceptional invention and sympathy, a style lofty enough to honor the generosity of life’s generations, yet pliant enough to capture all the commonplaces — of parents and children, affection and argument, money and memory, birth and death — that those generations inhabit. By blessing the elements of ordinary lives with the reach and richness inherent in the language of ritual, Gibson illuminates familiar circumstance in a way that speaks both easily and eloquently of its emotional and venerable underpinnings. The resulting book is, for this reader, a singular achievement.

Gibson’s description of his parents’ marriage, performed in a New York City office by a justice of the peace, is emblematic, in both style and substance, of the author’s approach, carefully infusing a particular event with the resonance of ritual enactment:

What both of them lived by literally was the language of the contract, whose majesty even in that office translated the event beyond local time and place into a wedding of everyman and everywoman: each took the other, to have and to hold from that day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, forsaking all others, till death did them part. Having pledged this to each other, they went to dinner and a show and home to their virginal flat, where on a new bed they clove together, in the twenty-fifth year of their flesh.

My father’s life was exactly half over.

Lifted by language, can our spirits soar? So our ceremonies seem to promise: the rite of marriage, through the warmth of vows, renders from our hopes and fears the essence of our best intentions. Birth and death — every milestone of life, no doubt — have their own attendant oaths and prayers, whittled by wisdom to a homely strength. The missal Gibson dwells upon is a compendium of such verbal charms, each validated by constant, common use, each composing an air of comfort from the personal yet patterned notes of human experience. The feast days and festivals marked in a missal, the transit of the year measured in a prayer book’s perpetual calendar of lessons and services, offer an image of order that seeks to rescue Time from the comings and goings of the daily round, to convey the lives Time carries into a sphere of timeless significance. The means of conveyance, nonetheless, is an often incredible trust of words.

We’ve lost faith, by and large, and not without some reason, with the language of the missal, with the very notion that births and weddings and deaths belong to some sacramental grammar that underlies our lives. The words that waited on such occasions have become so formulaic to our ears, our understanding of their impulse so attenuated, that neither speaker nor audience may really be listening as the words are spoken. As a consequence, we struggle to shape our own vows, relevant to the absolute matter of our moment, unconcerned with the unchanging relativities of Time. Confronted with compelling evidence — the arrival of a child, the final departure of a friend — of the import of our existence, we find ourselves at a loss for words: we shrug our shoulders, smile or frown, retreat into a confusion of silent emotion. Or else we fight to forge an intimate expression of our joy or grief, and end up too often — like the young poet Gibson at his father’s bedside, or myself in versed contemplation of my grandmother’s century — talking only to ourselves.

At my grandmother’s centennial party — an affair that evoked for me the gala family weddings I attended as a child, when the outlines of adulthood seemed all aswirl with dancing, lit with exuberant laughter, so many years before the same figures, whom I had now joined, filled in before my very eyes with the weight of age and the shadows of experience — we had no words to express our wonder. Just a toast, the conventional Italian toast of luck and cheer, which my grandmother’s eldest living child offered: “Cent’ anni,” my aunt announced as she raised a glass — “May you live a hundred years”. And we all heard the words precisely for the first time in our lives, and recognized how inadequate, on this one day, they were.


More adequate words proved hard to come by. I spent the last few years of my grandmother’s life trying to find some form of expression that might suggest the extent and influence of her one generation, but how to account for a century of days? After all, in my first memories of her she was already an old woman, and whenever I quizzed her about her youth I was quickly caught up in the round of stories — a spirited few — which, through hundreds of tellings, had hardened into her dedicated version of the past. They were good tales indeed, and she told them with vigor and animation: in her oldest age, her voice hoarded the vitality that her limbs no longer had the strength to hold. I listened harder, but she too, finally, as she sat by her bedroom window surveying the weather left to her, was talking — I slowly, sadly realized — to herself.

She had lived as good a life as can be lived, and a family of families thrived about her, engendered by the energies of her love. How could the Time that love is lost in ever be tellingly told? I struggle now to recall her voice, and someday that sound too will fade. I keep faith in the prayers that she murmurs in my blood.


“Every day gets to be a long time ago,” my daughter told me. “Even this one.” She was three-and-and-half years old, and she had been reminiscing about when she was “little”. Somewhat stunned, I stopped the car to savor the surprise and seriousness of her nostalgia. Already she seemed to grasp, instinctively, the melancholy that haunts our days, what Alice Thomas Ellis, in the last line of A Welsh Childhood, recognizes as “a lifelong yearning for what is gone or out of reach.” Each day rushes past, leaving its residue of recollection; consciousness is the mere herald of its doppelgänger, memory, our awareness an acolyte attending Time.

Time’s services, of course, are swift and endless. “It is perhaps easier to be sedated,” writes Ellis,

to be bored, for at each moment of joyful consciousness comes the knowledge that it will pass; and as time passes, you realise it will never come again. It is more than that. It is an awareness that some of this world is so beautiful that it cannot be described; and, greedy and grasping as we are, we want not only to enjoy it but to tell it — so that it listens, and in listening becomes fixed — how unknowingly lovely it is. We look for a response from that which is unresponsive — for it takes no account of us.

We spend our lives learning to tell time: to divide up and count its hours, record its days, mark its months, collect its years — first with numbers, then with notations less specific: memories and photographs, possessions and relationships, the weathering of landscapes, homes, and faces; slowly but surely, and soon enough constantly, with deaths; ultimately with the certain, surprising measure of our own mortality. All the while we struggle with another sense of telling, of which Time too is the object, albeit indirect: we long to tell Time — so that it listens, and in listening becomes fixed — the tenor of our lives, how lovely and sad and filled with longing is the song our heartbeats pace. But Time takes no account of us; we raise our voices for a moment between two eternities of silence, then disappear. The medium and message of our existence marches on. Life is death and words are dross; still we set those words to work, and hope at least our children listen.


I spend a lot of time — a lot of slow and lovely time — reading Wordsworth to my elder daughter, Emma, who is now six. This is not as cruel as it may sound. After the short bedtime story which she reads to me or to my wife, and the longer one which we read to her, she does her best to coax more time, more story from us. She nearly always succeeds, at least with me, but I assert my parental authority by insisting upon being the one to choose the additional reading material. If I opt most often for Wordsworth, it is for both a symbolic and a practical reason: on the one hand, as I describe above, he has been whispering in my ear since Emma’s arrival, and the older I get, the more loyal I am to the coincidences of my experience; on the other, the vast tracts of his emotion recollected in tranquility are discursive enough to lull, eventually, even the most determinedly antic youngster into slumber. My poem of choice (not surprisingly, I suppose, given the circumstance) is the great ode of 1807, “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” The poet’s lyrical meditation on Time’s taming of the wild wonder of childhood invariably renders father more tender and sentimental than the too-late hour might otherwise find him, and quickly enough puts child to sleep on pillows of happy company, rhythmed words, unfathomed meanings.

And what a rich poem it is: Wordsworth — in this poem especially but also in several other lyrics, as well as throughout the early books of The Prelude — is for me the great teller of Time. While his evocative affection for the woods and waters of the Lake District clothes him in the costume of a nature poet (and the disguise often fits quite well), Wordsworth himself claimed “the mind of man” as “the main region of my song.” In fact, as M. H. Abrams has aptly observed, Wordsworth’s extended lyrics set in the natural world “advert to the outward scene in order to evoke a meditation on the human significance of time.”

Returning to a natural scene after an interval of years, as Wordsworth does in his “Ode” (and as he also does, to similar effect, in the “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” and in the “Elegaic Stanzas Suggested by a Picture of Peele Castle, in a Storm”), it is human nature he discovers, a nature given definition by what Time takes away. The poet looks through a pensive lens that telescopes the elapsed seasons into a single longing, a distance the senses cannot traverse and only the heart can survey. Is it the same longing I feel when I look up from the page to consider my daughter, now blessedly asleep, “a six years’ Darling of a pigmy size” who has taught my love the only thing it knows with any certainty? When this day gets to be a long time ago, I know I’ll open the same book to read these same lines.

I watch my daughter and wonder where the child of last year has gone, and the tot who toddled before her, and the infant who so startled me in the hour of her arrival. I think of my parents and glimpse the shadow of my own small self taking shape within their light. I think of my paternal grandmother’s one hundred years stretching back beyond us all, and far beyond my description. I turn off the lamp and linger in the melancholy dark, thankful for children and poetry, in thrall to time and its telling.

Now: Author, 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die. Then: publisher and chief bookseller, A Common Reader.

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