On Time: One Year’s Diary of Small Truths
by Jasmina Tesanovic
I was in Pompeii yesterday, getting my purse stolen. Getting a bag snatched by lazzaroni seemed like a proper, timelessly Pompeiian thing to do, that town with its all too obvious tourist-robberies, slave-markets, public combat-pits, stoney little brothels. Thieves can be impressively skilled, and dangerous only when they want to be…
Pompeii, a city full of the doomed, luckless wretches whose sybaritic seaside town was transformed into a stone museum of itself. Lacking geological records, they had no idea that the local mountain, Vesuvius, could do such an awesome thing…. Some suffocated almost instantly in a vast cloud of red-hot ashy darkness, likely never knowing what had hit them…
It’s easy to know how they would have reacted: like any living Neapolitan. Naples and its crooked little streets, full of petty commerce, tasty snacks, street-wise characters with a thousand ways to get by, some of them even honest.
Pompeii is like a proof-of-concept for a woman determined to grapple with time.
Because the town was standing there, rather glamorously, with fashionable stores, fast-food joints, mansions alive with mosaics and frescoes, house-plants, whorehouses, hot baths, places to pee…An eclectic variety of temples, cults from all over the Mediterranean, but not a Christian church in sight.
The weight of the ash fall knocked most of the roofs in, so it’s a bit skeletal. But it still features greedy, self-indulgent tourist gobbling bad Pompeii fast-food pizzas… The public square with a valiant warrior on horseback has quite the feeling of the martial horse in downtown Belgrade… Different warriors, but a militant society always ready for a scrap…. They don’t even copy one another, they simply arise from the same attitude…
Then there’s the famously dead mummified stony bodies, real people, seized in hot-packed ash and turned, millennia later, into plaster lampoons of themselves… And the gloomy stadium, a public death-pit bigger than a town square, where the locals could enjoy the edifying spectacle of slaves and criminals — like the guy who stole my purse — ripped publicly to shreds by starving imported lions… To walk into that arena today, with its impregnable walls, is to sense how eagerly the general public likes to see people dead.
They were very up-front about the public slaughter entertainments, unlike the whorehouses, which have a furtive, ashamed, downmarket look, small claustrophobic rooms with mere stone shelves rather than beds. The prostitutes didn’t sell sex, they had already been sold entirely as slaves and were having their bodies rented out. Nothing more, nothing less, the world as it is, the time as it is. It was far less scary than I imagined, because it was so up-to-date.
I realized, the prospect of being dead doesn’t bother me. What gives me my angst is the fear of not being in time, of not participating any more, of running out of time. Once I realize that the condition of death doesn’t scare me, I feel good about myself, I feel brave, but to run out of time, to have no more time to live, I circle that concept anxiously, like a moth around a flame. Unlike mayflies, which have their one sunlit day, moths are like memories, dusty, furtive. They eat your best clothes, moths; they turn them to rags, which have to be thrown away.
My grandma used to look at these black and white photographs, of people I know scarcely at all. I remember her saying, staring at them and squinting her wrinkled eyes: that must be me, the girl on the far left.
Now I can look at these old photos and I feel a calm interest. I don’t know them all, but I don’t mind them; I feel a camaraderie with them. I feel a solidarity with them; one for all and all for one. This morning, I feel like we are all blessed by time, rather than afflicted by it. A year ago, when I began this diary, the sight of these photographs hurt me. Maybe I am cured.
A sharp feeling that this whole episode will be over some time, maybe even quite soon. Maybe it is foolish to relax…. I might have a relapse…but still it is true. My giddy time-sickness can’t last forever, any more than a sea-sickness does.
I still have polaroid photos of my daughter’s childhood. When I created those instant photos, now oddly discolored, with an obsolete chemical camera, did I ever think of how soon those days would end? My family, my vocation as a young mother? Did I realize that the struggle to raise a child, really, the bliss of it, was a passing episode?
No, I didn’t know that. As I captured the instants of time with the Polaroid, I didn’t even know that the condition I was in was a bliss. Some other young mother has the bliss and what I have are these bad polaroids, which popped out like bread from a toaster and have now gone impressively rotten with chemical decomposition.
My father also made polaroids, God bless him… although I didn’t think much of them as he took them, in fact I disdained his efforts, because I had been to film school and knew what real photographs were. Now I cling to a chemical scrap of memory.
I can stop these pangs of nostalgia, if I want to. I can take a plane, disembark in some place new to me, drink the strange local liquor, get weather-beaten. I can jump in a chilly sea until my feelings freeze… I won’t forget, but I can expand my capacity to endure more. I am a Cassandra of the airports, jetlagged to hell and gone, mistress of my own clock. Truly yours, incurable.
I had some dazzlingly brilliant thought at dawn, while half asleep, about time and how one should write about it… Of course I don’t remember a thing.
Instead, I got up and started to house-clean. Collecting rubbish, little crumbs, dirt, pollen even, microscopic, health-damaging particles of smog have become a specialty…
My dreamy clairvoyance had something to do with that, writing tiny statements about the smallest crumbs of time, like a lunatic on a park bench who rants to some curious child… writing, in minute detail, about minutes. Maybe there’s something to that.
In any case, I think I know how my diary of one year concludes. I began it in the mountains, so I must end it on the beach. Like the flow of time, which is entropic, downhill.
My family were mountain people of sorts, mountains are a native Balkan heritage, a place of cracks and valleys, limited, cosy warm-hearted, and cruel like sharp peaks and landslides.
The ocean before me is fluid, mutable, unknowable. I am not myself a shadowy mountainous landscape where crooked valleys carry water downhill to a vast, sunlit sea, but maybe everybody is. So may it be!
Entropy is my thought for the day. I think I finally understand this mysterious jargon term from physics, a trendy buzzword that that has annoyed me for my whole life. Entropy: of course everything goes downhill, and the rule of the casino is the second law of thermodynamics; you can never win, you can’t even break even.
However, entropy is how patches of order emerge from the chaos, through time. And at the edge where the order meets chaos, between the dullness of randomness and the dullness of a too-rigid, crystalline order, that is life. The human adventure takes place in that interregnum, between the stony order of the mountains and the flat stolid churning of the sea. I don’t have to fear entropy, or ignore it as something alien to me. It’s not at all alien; it is the human condition.
I have strange dreams here in Ibiza, this hilly little island in the sea. They are simple dreams, yet realistic, even hyper-real.
A man knocked on my door, a man with the burden of time on his wrinkled face, but he didn’t belong in my present. He was a man from my past, and also a man from my future. He was an Intruder.
I didn’t open the door to him, and he walked away, backwards. I am still shivering.
The smell of the nineteen-seventies. I still remember it, something like pot, or patchouli. Ibiza smells like that, actually. I remember the seventies by that smell.
In the 70s I was an adult, for I escaped my golden cage. It was golden, but it smelled like the rust on barbed-wire.
Then, many different places in the world, with different smells. When I felt them constraining me, I left. For years I wandered, reinventing myself, until at length, I became anxious.
I wanted a cage, but on my own terms. It didn’t have to be golden but it had to shelter me. But it had no smell. I had no idea what it should smell like.
I understand the smell of freedom: can I describe it, should I? Sharp and sweet, strong and short. Like freshly baked morning bread. Like the smell of the skin of my new born daughter. Freedom, as if nothing could hold or constrain me, and yet, my past was always there. Looming over me, full of warnings, full of lessons.
It is dawning in Ibiza. Tomorrow is the shortest day of the year 2018. I am observing the sunrise and the sunset most every day on this island. I am not from around here; an island for dancers, off the southern coast of Spain, was never any legacy of mine.
It is an ancient and beautiful island, it will stay beautiful, without me, some day. My life, with and without me. Me, without my life, belonging to the ages. Me, just a flow of words, like a lingering aroma. Thoughts, and emotions, don’t grow old, and they can be put into words. Forever, forever.
The shortest day in this year seems like a nice day. It doesn’t have much sunlight to offer, but I am out to absorb it. I had to fight off some dreams in the night’s extensive darkness, but they didn’t cling me. It felt good to be in what people comically call a “foreign land;” if only I lived in a spacecraft, where I could see the whole earth at once, I would devote a long diary to putting all that straight.
This year of brooding contemplation was troublesome. I am glad to be rid of it; my head feels lighter now, like shedding a pair of antlers.
If you are a young time traveller, and burdened by the thought of all the time ahead, let me tell you: I have few regrets. I generally did the right thing rather than wallowing in what I knew was the evil thing, and if I had those same choices to make, I would likely do much the same. My life was difficult, I was beset by persistent troubles, but I found ways out, if only by episodes.
The trouble of the human condition didn’t go away, on the contrary, I am still human. But I am free of the smaller, particular troubles, the haunting traumas, a bad set of experiences, that still hurt me, though my body was fine. They were like phantom limbs for someone who still rejoiced in all her toes and fingers. Now I am better off, not because I have forgotten them, but because I find I can live without them. I outgrew them, spiritually. Now they are childish dreams or adult nightmares, just memories.
I still hurry too much, I still overthink trouble and anticipate it before it hits, I still plan too much and act too little. I am presumptuous about time; I imagine that I am ahead of it and I tend to think I can store it in cans. My efforts are useless, mostly, except for riding a turbulent, twisting river from the stormy mountains to the sea. There, I do well.