On Time: One Year’s Diary of Small Truths
by Jasmina Tesanovic
Pressing on a moment of space and time, like a doorbell to the memory warehouse. A small, precise bell, fixed to a huge entrepot.
Like one pinging musical note within a revolving music box, a secret code of pins on a metal cylinder, a whole soundtrack there, awaiting: sound, sight, sound, smell, words, situations, meaning an aftermath.
On a seaside trail there were some mildly hazardous rocks. To reach a favorite beach, my little daughter and I had to cross them. Of course, being a small kid, she had to tackle these slippery stones with her little feet in treacherous plastic flip flops, her little hands busy with an ice cream cone, which she dreaded to drop.
I used to asked her to be brave and just get it over with, and she did. But she would ask me to sing her something to make her endeavour easier, and I did.
Nowadays, that tourist-crowded beach path has a stout metal safety rail, and my daughter hikes mountains, skis and loves motorcycles. I am not near her to sing her to safety, but I send her comical voice messages on a smartphone, and she sends me travel photographs.
Still, every time I visit those seaside rocks, now tamed by European safety regulations, I think of that scene with tenderness. A child bravely managing that minor hazard, learning from the challenge, though she never came to harm. The bittersweetness of a mother allowing her that risk, it’s there waiting for me.
What about the serious risks that threatened both of us, in other paces far from a seaside trail, the grand hazards of geopolitics, wars, sanctions, sickness, disasters? They don’t ring that doorbell at the memory store.
Why is that memory stored in the first place, why does it take up its gigabytes in my cloudy head? Is that stony trail a milestone of my life, or does my life create its own milestones? Sometimes I go to grand and glorious historic places stuffed with official heritage, and, feeling bored or stifled, I promptly flee from them.
A close encounter with real-time witnesses of my mythical past. They were there when I was born.
Once, when I was a three-month-old baby, I choked on a piece of paper and my cousin pulled it out of my mouth. She may have saved my life, though I can’t recall a thing about that. Still, she remembers it, so for me to sit in front of her now makes the episode surreal.
My cousin was older than me, and mother, in front of her, used to call me just a girl-baby. I loathed being demeaned in this way. But now I do it spontaneously; yes, I was the weak little baby with her mouth full of paper. Yes, my baby-toothed mouth was fatally stuffed full of words, ink on paper… Choking senselessly in this life of survival, where babies commonly perish for no good reason, though there is so much love, so much beauty.
My reminiscing friend also took me back back back: forty years ago, when I was singing on a stage, facing the public with a stony face as solemn as Buster Keaton, she claims.
I can see now that I did have that too-solemn face, though I didn’t know it then. I don’t have much use for mirrors, I never studied my face, I just used my imagination, with my astigmatism to fill in.
But other people saw my face and my friend remembers it, vividly. Hyper-realism, like a painter laying down a million tiny strokes.
These two close encounters with my past as seen by others, they struck a forgotten note in my own body, and some jammed parts of my own memory were jarred loose. My recollection cleared and I got a new sense of the scene, like the foreshadowing in a thriller novel.
Order from chaos. I never stopped trying to make sense and order emerge from my jumbled memories. Every morning I put household objects in their designated places, so as to feel calmly organized, so as to start the day. Yet each day I end asleep in the dark, with chaos lurking. Then I fall into slumber and the sleep of reason produces monsters, although our dreams, they say, are part of the work of putting our minds in order.
My dreams are chaotically fluid, the genre of these dream-stories changes easily from hardboiled realism to fantasy thrillers, nightmare or a loving bliss. The chaos takes over the order repeatedly, until I wake and rise, and put my affairs in that small domestic order I have designed for myself, my little patch-up existence: from my cup of tea to my love affairs.
Stop it stop, please don’t flow away…I am still in one piece and I just realized that I slept for two hours… I thought it was later, I wished it was later because of the heat… I want to lie down but I am also dying with the summer glare, the lazy heat, the waste of time. My time, my heat, my body.
Exactly twelve years ago I was in this exact place, which is “the same” nowadays, but of course different. I was wrong about what I saw here then, I assure myself today.
Everything that I perceived and felt about this strange place twelve years ago was too strong, perverted and discoloured by my lack of true information.
I was bewildered and bedazzled by sheer novelty, I was delusional, I was high on culture shock. But twelve years ago it felt good, I was pouring out my secret dreams and successfully pretending they had come true.
Now I am a tedious realist about this place, back to square one, my delusional illusion is long over, things here are not strange and glamorous, they are down to earth… Actually this scene is still very pretty, even prettier than I remembered, but I am realistic even about the prettiness.
Where has she gone, that excited and impressed Jasmina, stranger in the strange land? I still have her dreams and images, but once they became true, she disappeared. I conquered my dreams, and they did not survive being conquered.
Am I dreamless now, dream free? Am I poorer without dreams? The poor rich girl? I possess cynical doubts that I couldn’t afford when I was flying forward, high as a kite.
So tempting to revive those times when I, the Balkan dreamer, sat with the solemn hobos of Los Angeles under their blazing sun… Now like Walter Benjamin’s hapless angel I look backward into the past, how I braved the psychedelic ordeal of living among Californians, and got away with it — it was even fun. Why break with the past, why break anything, why must everything change?
Why this harsh movement of matter in time, it moves any way and in all ways, time is like a motor, driving more relentlessly than the ceaseless traffic of Los Angeles. I didn’t have to leave Los Angeles, I could have just waited it out, out-waited any circumstance that might have taken me elsewhere, but the tide of time washed me elsewhere in the world. As a poet told me, you always think and act in terms of waterfalls, with no thought for the drops of water!
It doesn’t rain much in Southern California. I will move into the shade with the homeless derelicts, who are still here twelve years later, in their droves.
Remember, when you can, the brief happiness, the elation of a mere cluster seconds, the time-capsule when you felt delight…. When life was good, and you were yourself fulfilled.
When you that little pill of a past moment, you have a medicine for the pangs of the present. It works, and it is worth a lot. But you can’t buy it with the counterfeit coin of superstition and cynicism.
Dreaming of life renewed, imagining doing fresh new things, instead of dragging myself through this heat. We made our sweaty bed with global warming, and now we have to lie in it.
Just an old tune, but it makes me feel better, reminds me when I often felt a childish sense of joy for no good reason. That are plenty of reasons for a child to feel pleased if she is secure and loved, but they’re not the kind of reasons that a child can understand.
I just knew that there were melodies around me, as if music wasn’t composed and played by skilled adults, but just came from some magic dimension, so as to please me. Music gave me a cozy feeling of being accompanied in the world. I didn’t know that music had genres and categories; even a cluster of notes could make my day.
I will thrive on music today, too, but I also understand what music I love and why I love it. We become choosy, we form a taste for music by knitting together a chain of good feelings, of musical sensations. Like a melody, favorite songs follow each other in a row, maybe almost randomly at first, but impressing themselves in some archive of musical memory, making a space for themselves. They grow and bloom and leave a sign, an artwork impressed in our bodies, art that we can express through our bodies, remembering experiencing and retelling through dance.
I know that some songs are better than others, more artistic in a world in which a human is an artist by definition. That is the world I inhabit, which I cannot leave, in which my lifelong love for hearing, playing, dancing, performing, composing music was not even a choice of mine, but a destiny of my human condition, maybe even a curse.
Nothing much to it, nothing much left to learn, my lifelong effort to understand music was like digging the Suez Canal, making something natural become entirely different with enormous effort and thought. And then, while listening to sad music, all of a sudden, a tender thought of tucking my old father into bed, and how I will never do that for him again. If I am lucky maybe somebody will do it to me. That is all I know about the music of time.
I dream of a utopia inside my own head, an island of absolute safety. What if that place really existed and my parents hid it from me, never told me the secret? They had to fight a world war, they hoarded secrets and survival rations, they knew things about survival that they didn’t want a little girl to know. I didn’t know what their secret burden was, but I knew it was suffocating, like a kind of original sin. There were times when I wailed like a newborn.
Now my fingers, dusty with the sand of the hourglass, stroke the keys of a mute piano. Is there is a secret way out of the human condition, a parallel space-time, a magic closet no one told me about, maybe marked with mystical magical signs? If some great wizard knows, they won’t tell a deaf and blind creature like me.
What if I could really stop time, make time run forward or backward at my own will, if if if… If I had such incredible power, could I make responsible decisions… Well, no no no…
Even as goddess of time, how could I cope with all the low and slow things, low life, the myriad details of disgusting little events, the dirty habits, real yet hidden, of everybody, everyday, in all humanity, the drives, obsessions, compulsions, the biologies, the philosophies…. I couldn’t abide that, the spin of the earth, the ticking of normality.
Those actors and actresses from the black and white movies, all dead and gone, they are mere fictions, every shot is directed and edited and composed by masters of film-time. And yet those people on film, they make things with their hands, then they eat them, they sleep over them, they even discreetly visit the bathroom to shit, although the movies, of course, would never show udias such a dreadful thing.
Now imagine being the almighty film editor of a billion material bodies and things, and even souls, thoughts… Imagine the obsessions. Thank goodness we don’t have to do that even for ourselves, we just obey the urgings of time, fulfil our appetites, and ride on.
Before clocks existed there were healthy strong human animals, voyagers who never heard a factory whistle or had to feed coins to a parking meter. They knew nothing of my doubts or troubles… Time didn’t persecute them with punctuality, they didn’t have to sneak looks at the classroom clock while they gazed out the window… They didn’t have my education, they didn’t have to pretend.
Postponing my decisions, my actions, even my discoveries. When I dither and procrastinate, is it a matter of time really?
It is our inability to cope with life, not with time. When I dither I don’t do nothing, lazily; no, I pack too much knowledge into the decision, learned speculations, emotional consequences. At those moments of frozen indecision I dread the flow of time. First I hide from the truth that I’m running out of time, but that’s not possible. So I get anxious and try to outrun events. Then I burn out and give up.
When I give up from lacking time, what is it that I give up? I don’t quite know, I just don’t participate; I float as if I were invisible, a nonexistent particle of some other universe that lacks clocks and knows better…
Why all this running and planning ahead, when I know that I will procrastinate? Is it an attempt of control, a pretense of self-control that I subconsciously sabotage? Is my impossible schedule a vain attempt, a presumptuous attempt, or is it just habit because I can’t baldly admit that it’s sweet to do nothing?
More than obeying speed limits, I have the feeling I dodge my way through live with good impromptu driving skills. But maybe my speedometer, that sister of a clock, has its own way of driving me. How can we tell who or what is in charge?
The older I get, the more I am pressured by the road signs, milestones that feel like scars, like vulgar tattoos, that demand attention and make bold public claims. It is a mental burden, I feel myself getting weaker, that Other, that mazy labyrinth of signage is covering the free earth, soft but heavy, everywhere, ubiquitous. Just five minutes of peaceful wilderness is all I ask, but no one is in the business of giving that to me.
This is a complete dissonance, I am coming to hate the harassment, like being torn limb from limb by four horses. Too many prompts and directions, too little time, it hurts and is senseless, offensive. It’s like the day bursts and explodes, an information overload of commands and messages flitting by my like bullets. It is vast and monstrous yet it wants to be invisible, and it wants me to take it for granted, and to become one with it.
Where do people find this incredible blind strength to go on with their lives without stopping? To go on metabolically, living, eating, breathing, without questioning the future, the past?
The past throngs with terrible situations, centuries full of them, for women especially. I look at the faces of the women of the past, I read their stories, study the laws and material culture, what a woman had to do to get by: I cannot imagine myself surviving.
If those women knew what awful luck they had, dealt out a handful of bad years to play at the casino, surely they would despair. Given that we can’t choose to be born, we have no way out… Suicide would seem the rational choice and yet, throughout history, women struggle, risk themselves, given themselves, endure pain and shame, get hurt and hurt others, talk, write, compose, act, run, hide…that’s what call living. Until we don’t live any more.